Source from SFGate
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He doesn't have the name recognition of a Frank Gehry or a Daniel Libeskind, but Toyo Ito is one of Japan's most acclaimed and adventurous architects. Looking at the design for a downtown Berkeley museum that would be his first building in the United States, it's easy to see why.
The white steel walls part and fold like ribbons or drapes. Inside, spaces flow one into the next: a gallery here, a screening room there, a terrace scooped into the facade. It's a refined honeycomb, enlarged to human scale.
If reality measures up to Ito's vision, this home for art could be a sinuous work of art itself when it opens in 2013.
"We want the feeling that nature has - merging and melting," Ito said last week by phone, via an interpreter, from his office in Tokyo. "The spaces will shrink and enlarge, shifting as you move through."
The project involves a new home for UC Berkeley's Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, twins now housed on Bancroft Street in a concrete redoubt from 1970, designed by Mario Ciampi.
Ciampi's building is an architectural tour de force, with the interior spaces fanning out like a stack of heavy cards - but the wide-open form and stone-hard structure limits its adaptability to new forms of art, such as video installations.
Ito takes a different approach to the project he's been working on since the fall of 2006, when the university selected him to design a facility that would blend the functions of the two closely affiliated institutions.
The new site is at Center and Oxford streets, filling half a block that faces the grass and trees of the western edge of the UC Berkeley campus. It also sits within a stone's throw of BART and downtown Berkeley's tallest buildings.
Inside the box
The architectural response by Ito bears no resemblance to the sharp-edged bravado of Libeskind's new Contemporary Jewish Museum, or the Thom Mayne-designed San Francisco Federal Building that opened last year. Instead, Ito has conceived a simple three-story box with each level divided into 16 roughly equal squares.
Then the fun begins.
Instead of a formal procession of rooms, corridor leading to gallery, the spaces bleed one into the next. One gallery might have a fairly traditional form; the next beckons like a calm eddy off a stream. The walls might peel back like curtains at one entrance, or lift up as though an unseen hand is offering you a glimpse behind a veil.
The ground floor of the 139,000-square-foot structure will be the most porous of all. From Center Street, patrons could amble through on a loose diagonal, never paying admission, to another doorway at the corner of Oxford and Addison streets.
The organic swirl is partly a response to the nature of the institutions, which blend traditional artwork with film screenings and experimental installations. But Ito said he also is drawn by the location, which blurs town and gown, green landscape and gray streets.
"We're not on the campus. We're not in the middle of the city, either," said Ito, whose firm is being assisted by San Francisco's EHDD. "The grid erodes, creating a fluid form."
That fluidity is accented by a structural approach never attempted in the United States at this scale.
The walls that snake through the grid will be engineered to bear the weight of the building, so there'll be no need for freestanding columns. But the walls also will be just 5 inches thick.
Because of the cellular layout - picture an easygoing egg-carton - the weight will be distributed so evenly that the walls will consist of little more than a 3-inch-thick layer of concrete compressed between two inch-thick plates of steel.
Unorthodox as this sounds, it's a natural progression for Ito: His buildings in Japan often start with grids and then whittle away as much structure as possible in pursuit of elegant settings that encourage exploration.
"This is not a place where you only see art," Ito said. "It is various experiences, various media, but all related." As for the engineering, "We have done similar structures in Japan ... this one has curves - but creating a curved surface by weaving steel panels has been done many times in shipbuilding."
The schedule calls for demolition of the existing buildings next year, followed by construction in 2010 and an opening in 2013. The anticipated budget - privately funded, university officials hasten to say - is estimated to be roughly $120 million for construction alone.
As for Ciampi's arts center, it will get a seismic retrofit and be put to new use.
Beyond the architectural details, Ito's building is fascinating for how it might alter the map of central Berkeley.
Like many university cities, Berkeley pretends there's a solid line between town and gown. Downtown, however, the two increasingly overlap. New apartments often are rented to students; older office space is snapped up for campus spillover.
By placing its new museum on Center Street, UC would make the link visible at the same time it enlivens an area it has tended to treat as a glorified service yard. Indeed, the two buildings now on the site are a parking garage and a printing plant (the United Nations charter was printed there in 1945, causing some Berkeleyans to call for its preservation).
Other projects are simmering. The adjacent block of Center Street - a well-trod path from BART to the campus - may become a plaza. Next door to Ito's site, the university has selected a developer to build a conference center topped by a hotel, though that project is moving slowly.
It's a site charged by the sensitive relationship between the university and the surrounding community. Ito's design offers the chance for a symbol that shows town and gown can gain strength from each other - and that the definition of an art museum is as fluid as the definition of art itself.
Toyo Ito has conceived a simple three-story box with each level divided into 16 roughly equal squares. Illustration courtesy of Toyo Ito & Associates
The new site is at Center and Oxford streets, filling half a block that faces the grass and trees of the western edge of the UC Berkeley campus. It also sits within a stone's throw of BART and downtown Berkeley's tallest buildings. Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley
A rendering of the proposed museum on the western edge of the UC Berkeley campus. The design calls for a structural approach never attempted on this scale in the United States. Illustration courtesy of Toyo Ito & Associates
Construction of the museum, which will showcase traditional art with installations and film screenings, is expected to begin in 2010. Illustration courtesy of Toyo Ito & Associates
Chronicle graphic by Todd Trumbull