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 [email protected]

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.