For decades, the University of California, Berkeley had a well-deserved reputation as a place for radical ideas and progressive culture. But these days, its wooded campus—nestled along the rolling eastern shore of San Francisco Bay—is less a hotbed of political activism than a bucolic backdrop for nurturing some of the country’s brightest students. And when it comes to campus architecture, the university’s all-powerful Board of Regents has become increasingly conservative. For the C.V. Starr East Asian Library, located at the campus’s Classical core, Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects faced an unyielding set of design constraints, imposed on the project well into the more than decade-long effort to get it realized.
Like much of the work of Williams, FAIA, and Tsien, AIA, the rigid geometry and weighty mass of the library’s exterior is mediated by a thoughtful interplay of materials. But unlike the contemporary compositions of their earlier buildings, this new one, by mandate, recalls another era. The four-story structure subtly unites Asian influences with an overriding Neoclassicism that defines much of the Berkeley campus.
The New York–based architects frequently found themselves in California during the early 1990s as construction progressed on their acclaimed Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla. It was then that they were initially hired to design the first freestanding building for East Asian studies at Berkeley, considered one of the country’s premier East Asian teaching and research institutions. After several years, and changes to the program and site, the project seemed permanently stalled. The death in 2002 of Berkeley’s beloved former chancellor, Chang-Lin Tien, sparked renewed interest in the project and spurred fund-raising efforts to at long last build such a facility.
During the intervening years, the university would adopt what it calls The New Century Plan, a highly prescriptive set of guidelines for new campus construction. The library’s location on Memorial Glade—the campus’s main quadrangle—made its design subject to heightened scrutiny. Initial schemes were scrapped to conform to the new plan, which dictated the building’s rectangular form; its white granite cladding; its pitched, Mission clay tile roof; and its coplanar siting with respect to the adjacent McLaughlin Hall, among other things. “We followed the rules,” Tsien, recalls. “But we broke the rules also.”
The large bronze screens that adorn the library’s main facades, for instance, adhere to a symmetrical ideal consistent with the building’s prominent neighbors, including the imposing, Beaux-Arts Doe Library and the symbolic campanile of Sather Tower (scene of many Vietnam-era protests), both built nearly a century ago on the opposite side of the quad. What they conceal, however, is an irregular arrangement of windows, which only become visible at night when the metal panels turn into a golden veil. The screen—an important component of Asian architecture—represents the building’s Asian mission. Its overall design further alludes to traditional Asian elements: A cracked-ice motif on the 15-foot-tall lower grille is topped by a vertical bamboo pattern on the 17-foot-tall upper grille along the library’s southern elevation, which faces those early-20th-century campus icons.
Cast in Hangzhou, China, at an installed cost of $1 million, the fate of the screens—another 32-foot-tall screen graces the narrower west facade, while a smaller, 21-foot-tall version featuring only the bamboo motif marks the building’s entrance at the east facade—was not always a sure thing. “We had to step outside the procurement box to get them approved,” says Rob Gayle, AIA, U.C. Berkeley’s associate vice chancellor of capital projects. “We’ve never incorporated such a large, custom-made, international building component like this on a campus building before.”
For Tsien, the challenge was creating a building that was heavy enough to balance the weight of Doe Library, the centerpiece of architect John Galen Howard’s Classical campus ensemble. On a more practical level, the poured-in-place concrete structure—which lies perilously close to the Hayward Fault—needed to resist seismic activity. “We built a very heavy building that sits in a very deep hole,” Williams sums up.
Carved into the base of Observatory Hill, the 68,000-square-foot building had to negotiate the steep incline leading down from North Gate, a key campus access point along Hearst Avenue. As a result, visitors enter the library via a bridge on the third level. There, a lengthy glass canopy caps thick bronze doors—one set that swings open to the circulation desk inside and another that slides open to an elevator, an alternate entry option for wheelchair-bound visitors. Continuing past those doors, a stone-clad lookout hovers. Below it, a series of stepped concrete walls marks narrow staircases, while a grander stair leads up from Memorial Glade, from which access is also possible by means of a winding ramp along the south facade.
The dynamic entry procession is a clue that the experience of the building inside is dramatically different from the staid impression one might get from its boxy exterior. Once past the threshold, no traces of Classicism linger. A multilevel atrium animates the building’s core, where a dramatic stairwell is cantilevered from a central, concrete structural spine wall. Rising more than 20 feet above the fourth floor, an 88-foot-long aperture bathes the library in soft, north light. Taking advantage of the gently sloping hipped roof—composed of steel trusses—the origamilike folds of this light well, and a smaller one at the northeast corner, create a sculptural element within an interior that exploits its natural surroundings to produce artful moments. In another instance, a large picture window reveals the thick, wooded terrain just outside—its flattened image reminiscent of a Chinese landscape painting. Even mundane building components get special treatment: A rock garden conceals a mechanical bulkhead, ensuring that all occupants have pleasant views. On the upper floors, a 70-foot-long span of windows along the north facade provides an uninterrupted vista of Observatory Hill from the main reading areas.
Stacks containing the 700,000-volume collection of character language texts encircle the atrium on all levels. Interspersed are offices and study carrels. The Coleman Fung Media Center is located on the third, or main, level. There, the custom-designed circulation desk—a slab of Claro walnut wood from Sacramento—greets visitors.
Williams and Tsien used local materials extensively, including a locally sourced concrete aggregate. The tactile walls it produced infuse the interiors with warmth. The architects avoid the daunting feeling such heavy walls typically create by fashioning large openings in the concrete, within which tall cherry-wood slats are lined up perpendicular to the wall.
The architects sneaked in surprising little gems throughout the library—small benches at staircase landings, a writing ledge along a railing, built-in cases for future art displays, a reading podium within the reference stacks, a fourth-floor lookout. Most impressive are a series of custom-designed tapestries hidden within the compact stacks of the lower level, an area Tsien otherwise calls “deadly.” “We tried to provide a glimmer of color and texture to contrast the severity of the box,” she says. “The mystery of the building is revealed slowly. It’s a very Asian way of being.” It’s also a lesson for the university board that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
Tod Williams FAIA, Billie Tsien AIA: Principals
Jonathan Reo, RA: Project Architect/ Project Manager
Project Team: Martina Bendel, Peter DePasquale, Andy Kim, John Skillern, Jennifer Turner
Architect of record:
Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects
Tom Eliot Fisch
Principal in Charge:
Amy Eliot AIA Associate
Principal/ Project Architect:
Alyosha Verzhbinsky, AIA
Lara Kaufman, Louise Louie, Ellen Nystrom, Vera Tse
WSP Flack + Kurtz
Rutherford & Chekene
Conger Moss Guillard
Office for Visual Interaction/ HLB Lighting
Propp & Guerin
Curtainwall/ Waterproofing/ Grille Procurement:
Axis Group Limited
C.M. Salter Inc.
Security/ Telecom Engineer:
Construction Specifications, Inc.
Hanscomb Faithful Gould
McCarthy Building Companies Inc.
CAD system, project management, or other software used:
2.25” thick granite stone cladding: Carrara Marble Co. of America
McClone Construction Company
Mid Canada Millwork
Van Mulder Sheet Metal Inc.
Gladding McBean Cordova clay tile roof – Presidio Blend.
Hangzhou Goldstar Bronze Engineering Co, Ltd
Fire-control doors, security grilles:
McKeon Horizontal Fire Shutters, Total Doors
Special doors (sound control, X-ray, etc.):
Concrete doors - Custom by Wade Metal Products Inc.
Custom bronze pulls by California Castings
HID, Bosch, GE, Panasonic
Sugatsune, Hafele, Doug Mockett
Cabinetwork and custom woodwork:
Mid Canada Millwork
Paints and stains:
Custom printed wall carpets by Milliken. Design by TWBTA
Batten Wall Acoustic Fabric Wrapped Wall Panels:
Mid Canada Millwork
Floor and wall tile:
Heath (toilet room walls)
Custom Furniture (library tables, carrel tables, carrels) Agati Furniture designed by TWBTA
Interior ambient lighting:
Kurt Versen, Modernica
Alkco, Bartco, Deltalight, Zumtobel
io Lighting, Hess, Lumiere, Bega
Toilet, urinal & sinks fixtures: