Breakdown of Brutalism

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Nicole White/Staff

In light of the closure of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, or BAM/PFA, at its old location, I wondered about the fate of UC Berkeley’s other aesthetically displeasing structures on campus, such as Wurster or Evans halls. Most of these buildings are stylistically Brutalist — an architectural trend that was popularized in the 1950s and 1960s for its use of cheap concrete building materials. With their massively foreboding style, these buildings often conjure images of violence, force and stark utility. Some students claim Evans and Wurster Hall are the campus’s ugliest buildings.

“Evans is ugly, depressing,” said Rhea Misra, a sophomore majoring in molecular and cellular biology. “When I look at the view from Foothill, Evans is always blocking it. And it doesn’t even look nice! The buildings in that area are really nice except for Evans. I just don’t understand it.”

Brutalist architecture is the product of a handful of frustrated mid-20th century architects. Hoping to find relief from the constraints of post-modern industrial aesthetics, designers experimented with austere structures, although the resultant severe exteriors of these buildings can make them appear rather unimaginative and bland.

Raymond Lifchez teaches architecture and urban planning in the campus’s College of Environmental Design. He has studied the personal histories of each building to better understand the nuances of their complex and seemingly random structures. Lifchez considers the Brutalist architectural style a direct rebellion against the common style of functionalist architecture that was popular in the 1920s and 1930s.

“By the 1950s, people (became) concerned about buildings made of concrete and with concrete’s ability to do new things,” Lifchez said.

He said this aesthetic is best reflected on UC Berkeley’s campus in Wurster Hall. Completed in 1959, Wurster is reflective of the inflexible state and university power structures that students so vehemently rebelled against during the Free Speech Movement in 1964. Yet, as a result of its segmented interior and austere exterior, Wurster “still seems like it is under construction,” according to Saeed Nassef, a freshman engineering student. This unfinished look is ironic, given that it houses the architecture department. But there is a subtle beauty to Wurster that Lifchez attributes to the fact that it “looks like (the building) should be there.”

The building, indeed, reflects its Northern Californian location, with jutting, shelf-like sun shades that, according to Nassef, “admit an optimal amount of sunlight.” (Lifchez, however, testified that he frequently closes his office’s blinds to dim the glaring sun.) Additionally, Wurster is critically rendered to merge three distinct sections together at the building’s center. Lifchez said this union is a metaphor for the union of multiple disciplines, because the building hosts three separate academic departments that reconcile, literally, under one roof. In this way, Wurster ought to be considered less as a monstrosity and more as an architectural feat.

Yet Wurster is but one of a series of Brutalist structures. Arguably more hulking than other structures of similar aesthetic, BAM/PFA is a concrete, staircase-shaped building that typically elicits more criticism than Wurster, as a result of its central location near campus. In contrast to its rigid, angular exterior, the inside of the museum is a complicated maze of spiraling cantilevers that leads to the museum’s center.Lifchez said BAM/PFA, conceived as a midpoint between campus and the dorms,  was intended to expose UC Berkeley students to art galleries, incorporating art into traditional modes of education. The massive central space and spiraling balconies were meant to represent the ideal of sharing ideas through art. BAM/PFA strove to embody the notion that regardless of how absorbed people were in a piece of artwork or in themselves, they could always return to a shared main space.

As UC Berkeley’s campus evolves, some buildings will necessarily be removed in order to make way for new constructions, each of which will have its own story, style and inherent genius. Perhaps we ought to recognize the hidden beauty in our ugliest buildings to gain a renewed appreciation for them. After all, these buildings, despite their subjective designation as eyesores, are lenses into the past. Wurster, BAM/PFA and Evans will hopefully inspire future generations of students to experiment with their own creativity.

Ryen Bani-Hashemi is a staff writer for The Weekender. Contact him at ryenbani@dailycal.org.

Correction(s):
A previous version of this article stated that the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive will be demolished. In fact, it will not.

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  • Nuclear Vogue

    While it must be unanimous that Evans Hall is the ugliest building on campus (and beyond), I hardly believe that Wurster Hall falls anywhere near this category.

    I always imagined Evans to have been designed with a socialist realism intent under the constraints of a limited budget and the necessity for increased space. Its poorly lit, claustrophobic interior is anticipated in irony by the exteriors unforgiving scale, which casts a lingering shadow in opposition of the morning sun on Memorial Glade and walls the elegance of the Hearst mining circle from sunsets over the Golden Gate. It’s current disdain nearly matches the struggle to repurpose the Palace of Culture of Science in Poland (which of course as a gift that had to be paid for, is not quite lacking in ornamention as Evans does)

    Wurster Hall on the other hand, at least to me, brings together the aforementioned constraints that plagued the design of Evans in a much more masterful way. While it may be denied the brutalist distinction by its architect, Joseph Esherick, Wurster is certainly hailed as such by any who gaze upon its formidable posture of concrete and glass. I believe Esherick can be quoted as having been inspired by Yale’s school of architecture, Paul Randolph Hall wherein it was quoted that one could “not go to the bathroom without having a spatial experience.” Even under the constraints (budget and space), wandering the halls of Wurster does well it imagining a similar experience. Finally, one needs only to admire Wurster on a moonlit night to more respectively appreciate its fit in Berkeleys architectural “ensemble.”

    While Evans not only should go, it must. Wurster Hall, however, is a staple that deserves to be viewed critically but favorably.

  • Snead Hearn

    I eagerly await the wrecking ball.

  • Vera

    I would encourage the author to obtain a far greater knowledge, and understanding, of both the history of architecture, modernist and otherwise, as well as the design process itself. The article, along with being extremely shallow, is irresponsible in its ignorance and simplistic assessment. The editors of the Daily Cal should have done a better job weeding this out.

    • Monkey_pants

      This comment is kind of useless, since you don’t actually have any specific points, and only offer vague criticism based on “knowledge of history.”

  • Ryan Young

    a must watch for anyone curious about Brutalist architecture… whether they were lucky enough to have lived four years in Wurster Hall or not.

    • Monkey_pants

      The arrogant, entitled elitism on display in this video makes me a little nauseous. “Don’t you get it, you ignorant unwashed masses? That building is supposed to be ugly – it’s art. ART! AAARRRRTTT!!! We the elite are going to “challenge” you!” The difference between art and architecture is that art that is visually offensive is very easy to avoid. Giant buildings in prominent areas of public spaces are much harder to avoid if you live or work near them. Making a building ugly, massive, unpleasant and cold just to satisfy your own preening ego is a form of violence against the general public – a spit in the face. Screw every architect who was more concerned with impressing elitist art critics than making something that doesn’t depress most of the people who have to look at it.

  • s randall

    Evans Hall opened fall quarter of 1971, my first quarter at Berkeley. I didn’t realize it was new, until a year or two later. It was said that Evans is as big and square as it is because administrators thought that with the budget situation back then, that it was going to be the last building built for a while. If it was going to be the last for a while, they went for size over everything else.

    Evans and Wurster were hated back in the 70s too, but the Art Museum wasn’t. The Art Museum was a much different building before all the external supports were added. The wings that used to hover have a much different look now when they’re supported by rusting brackets and poles.

    You are right about buildings being a lens into the past. Unfortunately, a lot of history gets lost over the years. For instance, when Soda Hall was built, it was supposed to remind people of the green alphanumeric computer terminals of the day. Unfortunately, those green computer terminals were supplanted by newer graphical displays almost as soon as Soda was built.

  • cshaff

    The building that has been the home of the Berkeley Art Museum is not slated for demolition! For more about the new building for the BAM/PFA and a little about the old one please see

    http://bampfa.berkeley.edu/about/faqs#NewBuildingFAQ

    • 1kenthomas

      Is what will be demoed, the mid-90s “temporary” annex?

      • cshaff

        No part of the building is scheduled for demolition.

        • 1kenthomas

          The “temp” buildings are the sheet metal things across Bancroft. As I remember, they were added in the early 90s as expansion classroom space during some renovations. PFA started using them for films a few years later…
          Of course, I can think of any number of campuses with “temporary” buildings from the 1950s and 1960s, still around…