Friday, December 24, 2010

Berkeley Drivers

People here shop like they drive, I noted, while braving the Christmas Eve crush at Andronico's on Shattuck. If I drive to the North Berkeley BART station on weekday mornings anytime past 7:30, I invariably encounter people either not signaling at all or signaling just as the light changes, so there's no possibility of maneuvering around them. Another bad habit is to remain waiting in place in a crowded intersection (like Cedar and Sacramento) rather than moving forward, so the cars behind have no chance to make the light. Slowing down while approaching a green light only to speed through as it changes is also prevalent, along with maintaining a consistent 15-mph pace, usually after pulling out right in front of another car.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Carpet with a Past

Today, I took delivery of this carpet from Oakland architect Christopher Robin Andrews, a former student of Christopher Alexander at U.C. Berkeley (a collector of classical carpets and the famed author of the Pattern Language and Nature of Order series). Andrews became interested in the 17th-century Turkish carpets preserved in Saxon (German Protestant) churches in Romania, hung on the walls to provide decoration after the Catholic frescoes were whitewashed over. Working in Photoshop with high-definition photos of the originals, he painstakingly sets out the design in a manner that allows its faithful reproduction by a modern carpet weaver. He then orders them bespoke from Turkey. The carpet is beautiful - the blue is especially striking. Andrews has a website with this and other designs, many of them much bigger than this one. (Update: the website is down as of 5 February 2011.) Prospective buyers in the vicinity of North Oakland can see the carpets, but he tells me that he now has a national following via the web. Little wonder - this is admirable work!

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Baby Bullet


On Wednesday, I took the Baby Bullet from the CalTrain station in SF to the Diridon station in downtown San Jose. It took about an hour. Millbrae, an interminable trip on BART, took about 10 minutes. There are only five stops, so this is the way to go if San Jose is the destination. I read the London Review of Books, which you can't do while battling traffic.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Stremska's Fables

Biliana Stremska: "Paradise," 2007

This morning, I went to Sweet Adeline, a Paris-style cafe on Adeline south of Alcatraz, to meet the artist and designer Biliana Stremska. I first encountered her work at the ACCI Gallery on Shattuck south of Cedar. At that time, she painted from life, but her latest series, Fables, draws metaphorically on two strands - stories from the Bible and nonviolent communication. The latter, she told me, is based on empathy. Many of these paintings depict how men, women, and children wall each other off or, conversely, reach out or open up to each other. The Bible stories, like one from Isaiah shown below, are also influenced by the Quaker painter Edward Hicks' Peaceable Kingdom series - hence a child's hand unharmed in a vipers' nest. The persimmons in the painting above reflect their Bulgarian name, "apples of paradise." Really hearing each other is paradise, her painting tells us. Stremska has made a small book on the series, available from blurb.com (as her website explains).

Biliana Stremska, "Snakes/Isaiah 11:8," 2007

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Trader Joe's

 The New Californian, viewed from the southeast.

A comment below mentions the building at the southeast corner of MLK and University known informally as Trader Joe's*. Looking for a photo, I found a critique by Christopher Adams, who I believe used to be a planner with the University of California (if it's the same Chris Adams). He calls the building "a hippopotamus in a tutu," but I think it's much worse than that. (The photos in Adams' article don't fully capture the horror.) During the summer, I drove past it every morning on my way from the clinic. Perhaps it was the radiation, but the color of the building is especially off-putting. The juxtaposition of the monster at the corner and a sort of fake Swiss pseudo-addition to its north, apparently meant to reduce the gargantuan scale along MLK, counts as a true oddity. (This knock-off Swiss thing is also visible - even more risible - at the northeast corner of University and Sacramento. Is there a Swiss connection in Berkeley that I somehow missed?) The real crime of Trader Joe's is its bulk. I imagine it was justified as "urban," bringing it out the sidewalk. True enough - in 20 years, this will provide a modicum of grit: deteriorating plastic, as we used to call the sprayed-stucco wonders south of campus. Isn't this a city with design review? 

* Formally known as the New Californian, designed by Kirk Peterson, who's done better. (So far, this is his worst.)

The New Californian's "Swiss" mock-addition

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Measure R

I was opposed to Measure R, given the political nature of redevelopment in downtown Berkeley and along the University Avenue corridor. Right now, there's little likelihood of anything happening - both the city and the developers are strapped. That picture will change in time, and Measure R sets up a density that may surprise those who voted for it. Moreover, the city has a history of going beyond what zoning permits - the Gaia Building is a prime example. Downtown Berkeley is a logical place for higher density. Better there, for example, than at the Ashby and North Berkeley stations - and, for that matter, along the Shattuck corridor north of University Avenue. Downtown is also a good location for joint development with the University, something that's already happening. While it's getting all the attention, Telegraph Avenue between Bancroft and Dwight Way is a disaster, neglected equally by the city and the University. What's the plan for that?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Downtown Plan

The ballot includes an up-or-down vote on the city's retort to the community's reaction to its disregard for the Downtown Plan process. Months of work, and the result displeased the Mayor and most of the Council. The argument in favor cites the proximity to transit and the need for higher density in the region. The argument against cites the often-thwarted will of the people. The illustration to the right is the city-sponsored Oxford Housing and Brower Center project, designed by Solomon ETC, an architecture firm in San Francisco that I admire. I like it, but its development was expensive. Note that it's considerably lower than what's proposed for downtown's future redevelopment. That proposal is lower than the Mayor wanted initially, but not by much. The community's take on Downtown sought a more modest density. It wasn't like Measure P, which went too far in the other direction. Just to say it, there's a divide these days between cities like Berkeley and San Francisco and their communities. The officials want to develop at an "urban scale," which means a quantum leap in height. People react by trying to stop it, but there's a middle ground. I believe that's what the original Downtown Plan committee found - a density that acknowledges the existing fabric, but increases the height selectively. Nuance doesn't seem to carry much weight with the city, but it's the heart of urbanity.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Simon Karlinsky

On Saturday, I went to a symposium at Durant Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, organized in honor of the late Simon Karlinsky, whose translation and notes on the letters of Chekhov I read several years ago. I met his surviving partner Peter Carleton at a Friends of University Press Books event last May, and he told me about the symposium. I left shortly after a speaker told a joke in Russian and everybody else laughed, but the introductory tribute to Professor Karlinsky and a talk on Nabokov were both excellent. I wish I'd had the time to stay for all of it. Born in Harbin in 1938, Karlinsky was celebrated as the scholar of Russian literature who drew attention to its gay subtext and authors. His notes on Chekhov (the only book of his I've read, but there are many more) bring the man alive with evident sympathy. Chekhov wasn't gay, but he was definitely an outsider. Karlinsky makes clear the challenges he faced as a writer, dealing with critics who were often looking for something else - and with theatrical producers and directors who failed to understand his intent. The symposium was yet another reminder of the cultural riches in our backyard. Peter Carleton, the family of Simon Karlinsky, and the department in which he taught funded it. Musical Offering provided dinner, which I had to miss. I'm sure it was every bit as good as the rest.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Marvelous Museum

A highlight of the Oakland Museum is Mark Dion's "Marvelous Museum," an exhibit that's dispersed across the art galleries, and that draws on artifacts that the museum had warehoused. There's also a curators' area that juxtaposes the artist's hypothesized office with those of two plausible predecessors. The oldest is based on Henry Snow, whose natural history museum was one of three combined to form the current museum. As our guide Marina McDougall explained, he was a big-game hunter who favored dioramas. The two-year old elephant calf pictured here once had a place in one. Ms. McDougall is a co-author of a book on the exhibit published by Chronicle Books and The Believer. As museum folks will tell you, what's stored is often as remarkable as the exhibits. Turning things inside out was brilliant.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Blum Hall

Passing through a police cordon, I attended the opening of Richard C. Blum Hall, which houses the Blum Center, part of Berkeley's College of Engineering. Blum, a venture capitalist and husband of Senator Diane Feinstein (who also spoke), said he had the idea for it in Nepal, talking with Tibetan refugee children. The Blum Center uses technical innovation to solve problems like the need to make small amounts of water safe to drink. Despite the worthy cause, Blum attracted demonstrators from the campus workers' union, AFSCME. (He's a regent.) They backed off once he'd finished speaking, letting former U.S. Secretary of State George Schultz give his talk unmolested. The building, designed by Gensler (where I work), looked good (and won praise from several of the speakers). I took this photo later, returning from a lecture by David Harvey, author of The Enigma of Capital and other books. Ananda Roy, much mentioned at the Blum Center opening, was present and mentioned at the lecture, too.

Oakland Museum

94708 just toured the newly renovated Oakland Museum. The guide was the renovation architect, Mark Cavagnero, who explained that he's worked on the project (still ongoing) for 11 years. (A short article on the project with more photos and a link to his website is here.) His modest interventions have rescued this wonderful building, designed in the 1960s by Kevin Roche, so it finally works as he intended. Cavagnero has restored internal vistas from gallery to gallery and to the terrace gardens outside. He's also made several new galleries out of little-used courtyards. His additions use lighter materials to contrast with the concrete of the original building. They fit very well. I only toured the art galleries, but they're really good - well worth a visit. The building now makes sense. The revamped exhibit spaces free up the collections, exposing their breadth and quality. (There's also an exhibit-within-an-exhibit, "The Marvelous Museum," that's quite remarkable. More about that in a separate post.) The original building was iconic, but regulations and curator preferences walled off its best features. Cavagnero has restored them. Perhaps it takes another architect to understand what a predecessor was trying to do. Getting to the museum is easy, too - hop on the Fremont train, get off at Lake Merritt, walk a block down Oak Street (noting the Serbian orthodox church at the corner), and there it is. The entry is off Oak, not 10th, as I remembered. The koi pond is still there.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Mr. Fisher's Journey

The papers reported the death of Eddie Fisher, a singer I remember from my New Jersey youth. His appeal may have been greater to my sister's cohort (born 1942) than mine (born 1947), but I definitely recall the hornet's nest he kicked when he took up with Liz Taylor. He ended up in Berkeley, like countless others from the east coast (including me). What is it about Berkeley that attracts them? The anonymity, maybe. Whatever one might say about the politics, this place is fairly cosmopolitan about private life. You have to go out of your way to draw unwanted attention, and mostly it's to point out just how hypocritical you are. (Fred Dodsworth's exposure of his older son's bureaucrat harasser is one example, and that rent-board guy who went to jail is another.) Others, who might be gossip-fodder elsewhere, walk these streets unmolested, only death drawing attention to their presence.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Elephant redux

I walked by the former Elephant pharmacy on Saturday (18 September) and found a post with plans announcing that it will soon be a Walgreen's. This conforms to location theory, a general rule of which is that like uses clump together. I miss Elephant. Walgreen's is more like what used to be Long's (and Bill's before that, and long ago a Lucky's, whose sign was inexplicably declared a landmark), but is now CVS. The two chains are fairly bitter national rivals, so here we are, witnessing that fight on the ground. I'd hoped the owners might subdivide the space and find more interesting tenants. Undivided, Walgreen's is what works. Given the continuing saga of the mountain lion memorial, perhaps Elephant's parking lot will follow the Lucky's sign as part of local history (big-cat division).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Cull the deer!

The big 94708 event this week was the bagging of a mountain lion that was spotted in the parking lot of the former Elephant Pharmacy on Shattuck near Cedar. Experts quoted in the Chronicle speculated the beast was addled, but my theory is that where there are abundant deer - and there are deer galore in the lower hills in the summer - mountain lions are bound to follow. It's like how seals attract sharks. Like bears in peopled habitats, this one may have been supplementing venison with garbage - a lion has to eat. But I'm sure deer were on the menu, and only sorry that it didn't make a little more headway on the predator front before being spotted. The BPD are understandably a bit defensive about killing it, but hey, we're predators, too. A hundred pounds of alarmed (if not addled) cat heading my way would be sufficient inducement to shoot. So, here's my point: if the City doesn't cull the summer deer population, expect more mountain lions. You read it here.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Two Cafes

Northside - Euclid and Hearst - appears to be in flux. The cafe above opened a few months ago, newly renovated. It holds the corner, a prime location in terms of foot traffic. Up the street on the same side, tucked into a single storefront, is a cafe that spills out into the street. That's probably not possible at the corner, but - as the photo below shows - it makes a difference. When La Farine opened on Solano, there was a big fuss about the sidewalk seating. I never understood why. It's one reason that cafes give life to a town or a city. (In terms of Northside's viability as a retail corridor, it seems totally wrong of the University to let Peet's to put a cafe on the ground floor of Dal Hall.)


Monday, August 16, 2010

Fisher Collection

94708 went to SFMOMA this evening to see the Fisher Collection, a trove of modern art put together by the founders of The Gap. The highlight for me was a remarkable "animated diorama" (I'm not sure how else to describe it) on the fourth floor. It's set up in one of two darkened, theater-like spaces along the east wall of the promenade as you walk out from the elevators. The artist is William Kentridge and the subject is Mozart's Magic Flute, which he riffs on in a memorable way. Worth the trip for that alone, but there's much else to see. (My writer friend Kenneth Caldwell reviewed the exhibit recently on his blog, Design Faith.)

Sunday, August 15, 2010

1431 Arch

This is one of the older houses in Berkeley. I used to imagine it was proof that the houses near it would survive the next big Hayward fault quake, but the last big one predates it. There's an apartment building on Berryman with a witch's hat. It's an usual motif for 19th-century houses here. Is it a pattern house? It looks too eclectic, like the original owner went to town, marrying a more conventional Victorian facade (right) with something more flamboyant (left). (Note the turret dormers and fretwork above the front porch.) The house is on a steep site, with a lot of stairs to reach the first floor. Nearby houses open to the side or set their front steps sideways so the path to the front door takes most of uphill rise; 1431 opts for a grander approach.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Garage Sale


Two blocks of Arch Street, 1400 and 1500, joined forces this Sunday to hold a marathon garage sale, dotting both sides of both blocks. The motive, beside shedding stuff, was to help neighbors meet neighbors. It worked - I met several new people. Doing it all at once seemed to attract more foot traffic, too. There's an archeological quality to garage sales, exposing layers of the past. They're also anthropologically interesting, as slices of material life come into view. The act of shedding reflects different impulses - from paring back to moving on. In the New Jersey town where I grew up, an annual church sale was the prompt. This two-block event had something of that spirit.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Haviland Hall


One thing I like about the neoclassical buildings on campus, like Haviland Hall, is the attention paid to details like this medallion above the main entry. In addition to photography, 94708 is a prompt to reviving watercolors, which I haven't done since childhood. A highly speculative rendering of the same entry is shown below.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Elbow Lake

Last weekend, 94708 ventured to Battle Lake, Minnesota (via Fargo) for a family reunion. The last day of the visit featured a stay on Elbow Lake, in a 1920-era summer house built by a J.P. Morgan heiress from St. Louis. Now a B&B called Xanadu Island, it's owned by a former architect, originally from Florida, who ran (and sold) a small but successful restaurant chain. He winters in Jackson Hole. Both the house and the lake are gorgeous, but the mosquitoes, which appear at night, are industrial strength. They ignored repellent and clothing. Good screens worked, though, thank goodness. More local posts will soon follow, but wanted to share this. Wish I had a recording of the cry of the loons, a waterbird that frequents the lake. Quite spooky!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Wesley House

Normally, I'm not a huge fan of so-called genre buildings, but this one - designed by Kirk Peterson - is well done. Peterson is better known for the projects he did for Patrick Kennedy and the Kennedy offshoot that developed the monster with a Trader Joe's on its ground floor at the northwest corner of MLK. That project makes the Gaia Building look like a model of sensitivity. Unlike both of them, this one is in scale with surrounding buildings and harmonious in appearance. Kudos to the church next door that presumably sponsored it. (It's located across from Haas Pavilion at Bancroft and Dana.)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Arch St. Friary

Another example of the presence of organized religion in North Berkeley is the recently renovated home of the Capuchin Franciscans on the west side of Arch Street north of Cedar. The friars, if that's what they're called, are noticeable for their long robes with rope ties. Are they affiliated with the Franciscan School of Theology on Euclid, nearer to campus? I'm not sure. Something wonderful, though, about having friars in your midst, like the Buddhist monks I sometimes see on BART, dressed in traditional clothing. Other than the sign, the Capuchin Franciscans' dwelling place looks like a two-story apartment building, which indeed it is.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Porosity, e.g.

Tolman Hall, which I believe was designed by the office of the late John Carl Warnecke, is not one of UCB's most distinguished buildings, but it is a model of how to provide porosity (that word again) at an important point of access between the campus and community: raising the building up on pilotis (as architects call free-standing columns that support the occupied building above - a favorite motif of the Swiss-French early modernist, Le Corbusier). I often walk under this portal when I cross the campus, as it faces Arch Street, my usual route. In another post, I'll show how the south wall of the main quad at the UCSF Research Campus at Mission Bay fails to provide any porosity at all - something I believe will be regretted later when a new hospital is in place across 16th Street to the south. It's an uncivil gesture to wall a campus off. Traditional academic quadrangles provided numerous ways in, with their buildings forming courtyards or walks that are part of what makes them memorable. The Haas School of Business, one of the last works of Charles Moore (with an L.A. offshoot that went on to design the new Temple Beth-El), maintains this impulse, one saving grace in a building that feels about 20 percent too large and about 20 percent too dumbed down from Moore's doubtlessly more interesting initial vision. (Moore is better known locally for the Sea Ranch Condominiums, designed with another incarnation, MLTW.)

Monday, July 12, 2010

Warren Obverse

Here's the south half of Warren Hall viewed from the east. It's not quite as massive on this side, making use of the slope. It has what architects call a layered facade, meant to create some visual interest across a long expanse of unbroken mass. I didn't look closely enough to see if the ground floor has a two-sided entry. It probably does. That gives the building a bit of porosity, as architects also say - meaning that you can pass through the building rather than having to walk around it. Of course, that passage will probably be reserved for the occupants much of the time. There's another building nearby, which I'll show in a separate post, that handles this in a more public-spirited way. Given the antipathy toward science of some activists, the ability to walk under a building, let alone through it, may now be regarded as out of bounds.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Sweet Heart

While walking across campus today, I saw this heart in the midst of the eucalyptus grove to the north of the path that runs along the south fork of Strawberry Creek (toward Center Street). It looks like someone's (or some team's) art project, but it's quite striking (and worth a look). Although I thought initially it was all Tibetan ghost-catcher flags, it includes photos and snippets of text. The best place to spot it is the path that runs along the west side of the microbiology building that's attached to the old (but now renovated) Life Science Building. Walking south on that path, you'll see it about halfway.

Palace of Culture

Well worth a walk across campus, this building, roughly across from lower Sproul Plaza and Zellerbach Hall at 2430 Bancroft, west of the Telegraph intersection, houses two cultural landmarks, Musical Offering and University Press Books. The former includes that increasingly rare commodity, a classical music CD shop, and a cafe. The latter is a superb bookstore. Both are owned by two overlapping partnerships, representing the worlds of academe, literature, music (the making and the playing), and publishing. The cafe of late has turned out some great dishes. When I stopped in this afternoon, a string quartet was performing in the corner table (the leftmost window facing the street). Musical Offering's current newsletter has an interview with the new Cal Performances director that's well worth reading. One can become a "Friend of UPB" for an absurdly modest cost. This Palace of Culture deserves support, as few businesses are under greater threat now than independent bookstores, which are pressured by Amazon, e-books, and horrific terms of trade. Yet, unlike its digital competitors, one can peruse the books and make informed decisions. One can also hear talks by writers and even join in UPB's Slow Dinners, which invite guests to read their own work. Highly, highly recommended.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Warren Hall


Warren Hall's replacement may have a different name - I didn't get close enough to the sign to see. I believe that the architect is SmithGroup, a mega-firm from Detroit that bought the local firm Stone, Marraccini & Patterson (later SMP - the spelling of the full name is from memory). In its new guise, it's continued to focus on hospitals and labs. The design quality of its work is better than it was. Back in the day, SMP was responsible for the USPS Building near the Oakland West BART Station, and other monsters. That era is mercifully over, although of course the buildings linger. The State Health Building's demise may be a sign of the times: they're also tearing down 1960s and 1970s relics in England. They have their defenders, but there's no getting around their ugliness. It's still too early to say if the Warren Hall replacement is a success. The old Warren Hall was a modest affair. This is much bigger, with a look that says "SCIENCE" (all those filters on the roof). As mentioned below, university lab buildings tend toward bland. Will this one? As an aside, I visited the SMP office on Bay St. in SF in 1971. It was in a former Safeway - rows of desks organized in two halves, with a traffic cop at the front. It reminded me of a slave galley. In those days, big firms were made up of acres of draftsmen. At SOM, where I worked briefly, there was a movement to unionize. I'm sure it was going on at SMP, too. It scared the hell out of the firms, and working conditions improved significantly shortly thereafter. The nascent union ("Organization of Architecture Employees") didn't make it, but it made a difference. (The new building is on the east side of Oxford between University and Berkeley Way.)

Opus Dei

Presumably because of Holy Hill*, buildings with religious affiliation dot the area north of the Berkeley campus. This one (the parking lot included) is Opus Dei. I met one of its members and had dinner with him and others several years ago. They would like to expand to the south, taking over what was once a Texaco station, if memory serves - the scene of an extended environmental cleanup that some regarded as a waste of time and Texaco's money. (I have no opinion on this. I'm just reporting what I heard.) Despite the cleanup, the land lay fallow before Opus Dei bought it, even with a university across the street. It got some economic benefit from the construction boom at the northwest corner of the campus - and still does, judging from the pickup trucks. 

*: Holy Hill includes the Graduate Theological Union and the Pacific School of Religion, which are centered around the Le Conte, Scenic and Ridge Road intersection. Opus Dei is near the northeast corner of Hearst and Oxford.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Bits & Pieces

The old State Health Building is now just a pile of rubble, I discovered. On the south side of the block, there was a lot of activity clearing away the remnants. This view is from Oscar's (northwest corner of Hearst and Shattuck), looking southeast. University Hall is in the disance. Wonder when that will come down? Not in my lifetime, I'd wager, unless an earthquake tests that X-bracing to the breaking point. So Helios, a UCB-BP joint venture, will soon rise from the rubble. As previously mentioned, the rendering suggests it will resemble the Warren Hall replacement across the street. That's not unlike the UCSF Research Campus at Mission Bay in San Francisco. University science facilities tend to look alike - sort of suburban, to my eye. Wrapped around a lot of technical stuff, even the ones designed by top architects seem to get dumbed down ("value engineered" is the euphemism). The bloom is a little off the BP rose, too, but that's another story.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

The Former Beth-El

From this view, the former Temple Beth-El at Vine and Arch looks more Italianate than from the outside. This is the main entry from the garden, formerly the playground and occasional campground of Camp Kietov, where my kids absorbed the songbook before graduating to Camp Unalayee. The temple's renovation is pretty clever, stuffing a lot of program (it's now the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology) into the original envelope. To its credit, the school kept the large, west-facing windows and the overall feel of a building that owes a debt to the early modern architect Erich Mendelsohn, who lived and practiced in San Francisco during and after World War II. Best known for the expressionist Einstein Tower in Potsdam, he was also a sought-after designer of department stores until the Nazis arrived. Despite his fame, he struggled to get work here. Since Beth-El moved to Spruce Street, my sense of the Jewish liturgical year has slipped away. I miss the kids, but the temple's new site is a better place for them.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Bakery Mural

Someone mentioned this mural, and then I saw it while out walking. It's on the south wall of the building that houses Virginia Bakery. The impulse to do murals is not one I've ever shared, but they have a long and sometimes distinguished history. This one appears apolitical, although it's probably too early to be sure. The Virginia Bakery is also an acquired taste - again, not mine, but it has a devoted following, from what I can tell. My kids were once devotees, steering me in its direction. I can't eat Big Macs now, either. (Update: the mural is coming along, but there's an ad seeking donations.)

Small Moves

This used to be a dog and cat clinic. Designed by Berkeley architect-builder Fred Hyer, it's a good use of a really narrow site. My impression is that it's a remodel of that building, although a radical one, but I didn't look at it closely enough while it was underway to say for sure. I'm glad the designer opted to make a strong visual contrast from Cafe Gratitude to the south. I didn't notice until I looked at the photo that it riffs on the 1960s "box" apartment building behind it. A translucent scrim on the glazing that faces the street now gives it privacy, while it's open to the courtyard-like driveway. It's being used as an office by the owner, Scott Robinson of Robinson Real Estate.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Barry Elbasani, 1941-2010

Barry Elbasani, FAIA, a founder of ELS, the Berkeley-based architecture firm that designed the Recreational Sports Facility at UC Berkeley and renovated a building on Berkeley Way below Oxford to house UC Press, died of brain cancer on 29 June. A North Berkeley resident, he was first hospitalized over the Christmas holidays. ELS employed a number of my friends. (One of them, Kenneth Caldwell, just published an interview he did with Elbasani in 2009.) The RSF has held up well, and the UC Press renovation is a model for how to do a lot with not much of a budget at all. Alan Oshima, a wonderful designer, did the color work on both buildings. The poster here is by David Goines, a wonderful designer himself. Goines, whose studio is on MLK, has long been in demand to capture and commemorate local prominence.(Update: attended Elbasani's memorial on Sunday, 18 July 2010, and learned much more about this remarkable man, best known locally for the Berkeley Repertory Theater, where the memorial was held.)

Peet's Update

My neighbor, Sally Woodbridge, tells me that Mr. Peet's original store was on Polk Street in San Francisco - she used to buy coffee beans from him there in the 1950s. So the "Original Peet's" on Vine St. was not actually the first. Sally has her own interesting blog (sponsored by our mutual SF friend, Robin Chiang), continuing the work that she began as the West Coast correspondent of Progressive Architecture. A recent blog post describes the incredible landfill operation that she and I discussed earlier today, apropos the State Health Building's demolition. Sally is probably best known locally for the guides to Bay Area architecture that she's coauthored since the 1960s.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Oxford Tract

Farms in Berkeley? (Sorry, a little obvious.) The Oxford Tract is an agricultural testing ground. Judging from what's been planted in the past, performance in dry weather is the issue. There's a mix of crops this year, rather than the rows upon rows of corn I used to see. It's remarkable to me that the tract has survived, given the university's appetite for building sites. A few years ago, a three-story surge building was added at the south end, along Hearst. Separated by greenhouses and other plant biology buildings (if that's what they are), it isn't really noticeable until you near the Oxford/Hearst corner. On the north end, EBMUD put in a pumping station. To EBMUD's credit, the student garden on that end was mostly preserved. It provides a visual buffer and an amenity for the apartment houses that face it. The pumping station is more sensitively designed than the surge building in terms of fitting in. Although it's fenced off along the street, it's good to have this agricultural remnant as part of the local terrain. It feels vulnerable, even more so now that Helios is going up on the south side of Hearst. I hope it survives as it is.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

War Zone

Before Helios can come into existence, the old State Health Lab has to come down. The site looks like a bomb hit it, especially now when there's only a bay left (amid a sea of rubble). There's a lesson here about sustainability - the Lab was built for the ages, but not designed for them. Its inflexibility pretty much ruled out its reuse. This is often the case for concrete-frame buildings of the 1950s and '60s. What's replacing them isn't just higher-tech: one underlying assumption is that much will change; another is that it will all come down, too, at some point, and be easier to take apart and recycle or reuse. The old lab has clearly been a bear to demolish.

Blum Center

Blum Center restores and expands the shingle-style Naval Architecture Building, designed by John Galen Howard, UC Berkeley's first campus architect. The renovation puts a new ground floor, open to the south, under the building, connecting it to the addition, designed by Gensler (note: I work for the firm.) Scheduled to open in August, Blum Center brings together engineers, scientists, and others to develop new, affordable technologies to deal with chronic third-world problems. The complex will house these collaborative teams. It's an example of my alma mater's contributions to the planet. (Blum Center is uphill from the Journalism School, along Hearst above Euclid.)

Monday, June 28, 2010

Analog Books

With the demise of Black Oak Books as a North Berkeley fixture, Analog Books on Euclid between Hearst and Ridge has become one of my alternatives. The big selling point of Analog is the selection. There's always a find (and often more than one), and enough turnover that it's fun to browse. The people at the cash register take an unobtrusive stance, but are pleasant and helpful. The music they play is consistently lively, and sometimes includes old 33 rpm classics. University Press Books and Moe's are two reasons to cross campus, but Analog is a good stopping point on another route. An endangered species, bookstores need everyone's support. Think globally, buy locally. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Organic Architecture

I've watched this building on Virginia Street, uphill from Arch Street, evolve over time as a trumpetvine has steadily and now completely taken over the front facade. There are balconies above the garages, now hidden from sight. As I walked by, one of the residents came out and opened his garage door, which seems more like the entrance to a cave or tunnel.

French Hotel

Sited on the west side of Shattuck between Cedar and Vine, the French Hotel* was renovated in the 1980s. Its cafe, often spilling onto the sidewalk, is reliably open on holidays, and that's typically when I go there. The hotel's south-facing balconies overlook the huge parking lot of Andronico's (a supermarket). For the parking lot of Kahn's Salk Institute in La Jolla, Dan Kiley used the kind of gravel you find in the paths of Parisian parks, with beautiful eucalyptus trees for shade. (I think it all went away with Anshen & Allen's addition.) It's too bad Andronico's couldn't do something similar. As it is, they pack the cars in, then fight a perpetual losing battle with "customers" who run off to do their errands elsewhere. I'm told that locals sometimes park visiting relatives at the French Hotel instead of putting them up at home. I've never been clear who else stays there, but it's definitely well-located. With Chez Panisse across the street, it's not the worst place you could pick to camp out.

*: The French Hotel is actually in 94709. This "error" will be repeated

2511 Hearst

This was my point of entry into the district. I moved here in 1971, after staying with my cousins on 6th Street (they'd bought and restored a Victorian south of Channing, a lovely house). I rented a room with a tiny bathroom and no kitchen for $60 per month. I was working in the city at this point - long days, so I mostly ate out. Later, I moved to the apartment at the front (middle floor, left side). It had a bay view, a separate kitchen, and a bigger bathroom with an outlook to the north. The street noise was horrific - a lot of traffic on Hearst. I met my wife at the 3Cs Cafe, where she and her sister worked while they were at Cal. I also met Yoshi, who went on to start the eponymous jazz club with her first husband Kaz. (Their first restaurant was downstairs.) At Top Dog, one of the guys behind the counter started giving me free food when he learned that I'd studied with Norris Kelly Smith, author of a book on Frank Lloyd Wright that he admired. When I wrote to Professor Smith, whose survey of architectural history I'd taken at Washington University, he replied immediately, saying that I was the only student he knew who'd received a tangible benefit from his classes. When I lived there, 2511 Hearst was owned by the same guy, Richard Sikora, who developed Walnut Square (home of the original Peet's). I'd heard that he was a former economics professor at Berkeley who'd moved to Vancouver. The little mall where Top Dog still is was built around the same time by Dave Ruegg - in a similar style as the "boardwalk" areas behind the older building that Sikora renovated at Walnut Square.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Original Peet's

The very first Peet's sits at the southwest corner of Walnut and Vine. Not long ago, it was finally remodeled - they installed a small museum behind the counter. (I still haven't seen it). They also added tables and chairs, inside and out, so you see the usual hangers-on, banging on their laptops with plugs in their ears. There used to be a Starbucks in the Dead Center at the southwest corner of Shattuck and Cedar (so named because it was formerly a funeral home). One reason it closed was the inordinate number of people sitting around nursing cold cups of coffee. The Peet's remodel is pretty good - much of the feel of the old place is intact. Peet's is a scene that starts early and stays late. I've never tried to parse who goes when. Like other public establishments in Berkeley, it has its street musician (a woman in overalls who plays the banjo and sings) and a tall man who now arrives on crutches. (See photo.) There used to be a slightly crazy but harmless man who stood across the street, but I haven't seen him lately. (A long time ago, there was a man who stood silently out front. I saw him later, back to normal. I think he might have been on a spiritual quest, but this is just a guess.) There's a chess-, radio-, and guitar-playing contingent who use the front steps of the Friends meeting house and a concrete indent along the west side of the Mormon church. (Both face Peet's.) The service at the original Peet's is more efficient than Peet's in San Francisco, perhaps as a reaction to the customers (to judge from the drinks line). Mr. Peet died a year or two ago. He taught the people who started Starbucks (although they must have skipped a few lessons), which suggests a generous spirit. RIP.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Arch Street


I moved to this block in 1975, when my oldest son was a baby. My wife arrived in 1968, while she was a student at Berkeley. We lived on the uphill side of the street until 1984, when we moved to the other side. We raised four kids on this block, which is slowly regaining a younger population. My oldest son used to race down the sidewalk on his big wheel. Did they ban those things? He really got some speed going, I recall. It's a miracle he didn't crash and no one ran him over. In the summer, I can look out the back deck and feel that I'm in a sea of green. To the southwest, there's an undeveloped piece of land that's been home to deer off and on for years. The downhill neighbors have a pair of dogs, so the deer have kept their distance. They're incredibly brazen, and a huge nuisance if you have a garden. I keep expecting to see a mountain lion, but so far, no luck.

About 94708


I've lived here almost 40 years, so I thought I should write about it. Extending north from the Berkeley campus, and east up into the hills, this is where Charles Keeler wrote about "simple houses" and Bernard Maybeck designed them. (Keeler's simple was like Joseph Esherick's ordinary two generations later.) In 1923, a fire burned a lot of those houses to the ground. The architect-artist Lars Lerup, a sometime resident, once described Berkeley to me as a suburb of New York City, and that's especially true for 94708, which may be the epicenter of this phenomenon. As one-time mayoral candidate Fred Weeks noted, the New York Times is the daily paper in these parts (now along with the FT and WSJ). It's both cosmopolitan and its own sometimes very small world. Welcome to it!