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.