Thursday, February 04, 2016

BAMPFA: MEDIA WALKTHROUGH—Introductory Remarks by Lawrence Rinder and Charles Renfro

Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro and EHDD.
On Thursday, January 28, 2016, I attended a media walkthrough of the new Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) at its new location at 2155 Center Street, between Oxford Street and Shattuck Avenue, in downtown Berkeley. Participants gathered in the museum's new multipurpose performance space for introductory remarks from BAMPFA Director Lawrence ("Larry") Rinder and architect Charles Renfro. After acknowledging the generous and strategic sponsors who made possible the opening week celebration of the new facility, Rinder expressed that—crucial to their celebration—was surpassing the $105,000,000 capital campaign goal that supported construction of the new building. The opening night gala itself raised over $1,000,000 to support BAMPFA's engagement programs for youth.

"The selection criteria for this particular project," Rinder detailed, "commenced in 2009. We were looking for a firm that had prior experience designing an art museum. We felt that was important—that they had gotten the kinks out—and were ready to do a second or third museum. We also wanted a firm that had prior experience designing a theater. As I'm sure you're aware, we are perhaps unique in the museum community for being half art and half film. That's the case for both our collection, which is half art half film; our curatorial staff, which is equally comprised of film and art curators; and, historically, our audience has been half people coming for the gallery programs and half for the films. So it was very important for us that the new building reflect that unique duality and we wanted, therefore, a firm that had prior experience with that kind of design and construction.

"We knew from the beginning that we wanted to take the existing UC Press Building, the 1939 printing plant, and repurpose it. Another criteria was a firm that had prior experience repurposing historical buildings. Diller Scofidio + Renfro certainly had that in spades with their incredible work at the The High Line and the Lincoln Center. At the time we were in the selection process, they were wrapping up their fantastic work on the Lincoln Center redesign, which proved their core passion for connecting cultural institutions with their surrounding civic environment. We wanted some of that magic to happen for us. We also wanted a firm that had designed an iconic freestanding building. Of course, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston was the model. We visited it, explored it, and felt that the attention to both civic engagement and the clear, serene design of the galleries was, again, something we felt was appropriate for our programs.

"Unsurprisingly, especially in that particular year, it was important to have a firm that had a proven history of budget restraint. We talked assiduously to their previous clients and established that, indeed, they had come in at or near budget. Finally, we wanted a firm that displayed ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity. I don't think that there's a more ingenious, resourceful and creative firm out there today.

"For this particular building, we asked them to deliver us a building that was accessible and welcoming. The site itself almost guarantees accessibility, but it could have turned out unwelcoming. It did not. This is an incredibly transparent and engaging building, which—as you can see—opens to the street on every side. There's a lot of glass to see in and the programs project onto the street. You can see the art walking by on Center Street. You can see film from Addison and Oxford. This was important for us. We wanted to project our particular identity as a museum of art and film, both on the inside and the outside. Again, as you walk around the perimeter, if you look in you can see the art and see the LED screen on Addison Street. Even the theater itself expresses a sculptural shape. Once you get inside, this dual identity of art and film is expressed in multiple ways. Wonderfully, the film program has been spread throughout the building with multiple theaters and multiple sites for projection that punctuate the gallery.

"We wanted respectful and versatile spaces for art and film. We wanted, on one hand, to have a building that was lively, exciting and imaginative; but, we also firmly believed that it is the artists and filmmakers who should have the last word on what their works look like when presented. It was important that a certain kind of neutrality be present in the presentation phases. We wanted many areas for community engagement. It goes without saying that a museum these days that asks people to come in and look alone is not as exciting as it could be, so we created a number of opportunities, everything from what you're sitting on now in this space for collective relaxation and gathering—also seating for a performance space—to our art lab, which is a drop-in hallway as artmaking space, to our reading room. We've created multiple locations throughout the building where people can gather together and engage with art and ideas in fun and productive ways.

"I want to mention also that what you're sitting on, this fantastic seating sculpture that we call 'Frameform' was designed by Paul Discoe and his team. Paul is a treasure for the Bay Area; a Japanese joinery designer and architect. The majority of the materials for the seating are from the Canary Island pine trees that were growing on the site of the new Barbro Osher Theater. We had to cut them down; but, we were able to repurpose that wood. Paul and his team did an amazing job. The craftsmanship is at a remarkable level.

"We also wanted a flow throughout the building that fostered a wandering experience, and not a precisely linear flow to the building, because we really wanted the building to evoke a sense of surprise that we all cherish in art itself.

"Another wonderful feature of the building—and we're all experiencing that, I think it's safe to say, visually, physically and gastronomically is Café Babette, which is providing our treats. I encourage you to go upstairs to see the café in its notch. It's the same café that we had in the other building. They've been with us for years, we really love them, and we're delighted that Joan Ellis and Patrick Hooker have come to the new building with us.

" 'Architecture of Life' is the opening exhibition. It's a show that's meant to celebrate the occasion of new architecture by exploring the ideas, practices and metaphors of architecture as a lens through which to understand the various nuances of life experience. It's a show that brings together art, architecture and scientific illustration from the past 2000 years all over the world. The show is composed of works from our collection—about roughly 15% are from our collection—plus works of art from the Hearst Museum of Anthropology on campus, as well as from private individuals and museums around the world. It's an enormous show. It takes up all the galleries in the museum. There are over 250 works in all different media. I've tried to create didactic labels for nearly every work so there are explanations and evocative words attached to the pieces themselves so you'll know what you're looking at. We're grateful to all the lenders and to the artists.

"I want to introduce one of the artists who's here today, Qiu Zhijie, who is responsible for 'The World Garden', which is both part of the exhibition 'Architecture of Life' and also the inaugural piece in an ongoing series of projects called 'Art Wall', where every six months we'll have a new artist come in and create a new work on this wall. Qiu Zhijie came from China and made this piece on a scaffold in five days. We're all amazed by this. It's an imaginary map of the world as a Chinese literati garden."

Rinder wrapped up his introductory remarks by introducing Charles Renfro of Diller Scofidio + Renfro.

Photo: Iwan Baan. Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro and EHDD.
"Our ambitions," Renfro began, "both for our firm and for this institution dovetailed closely with Larry and his organization's. We could finish each other's sentences and finish each other's drawings, etc.

"From the start the project challenged many aspects of conventional thinking about museum making, starting with the BAMPFA organization itself, which is a museum whose collections and exhibitions span centuries, medias and scales. These programs appeal to the university community and the general public. They welcome visitors of all ages and backgrounds. Basically, this museum is a 21st Century museum. It's the epitome of a new kind of museum, which are the antithesis of efficiency. They're places to get lost, in space and in thought. They must be flexible and work at every scale, every sound level, every microphone level. You'll see, as you walk through today, the variety of spaces that we've created. You'll notice a variety of natural and artificial lighting levels that we've achieved. They have to be equally adept at accommodating film, video and installation, as well as painting, photography and sculpture. These 21st Century museums must be small, medium, large, black, white, grey, quiet and loud in equal measure. In addition, this museum must be academic, educational, protected, welcoming, entertaining, social; it has to do everything for everyone. It's not a one-size-fits-all design solution but a multi-faceted approach to making a piece of architecture. But, that piece of architecture still needs to inspire, to be bold, and to have something new to offer, and to be of civic pride to the neighborhood and a new icon to the museum.

"This new home is positioned at the nexus of city, campus, commercial and cultural districts. Its new position basically parallels BAMPFA's mission as an active participant in civic life, advancing the highest standards of academic discourse while sharing its knowledge with a broad cross-section of society. As the opening exhibition, 'Architecture of Life' tries to connect the dots between media, ideas and people, which is one of the things we were interested in doing with this building: connecting the dots.

"The new position takes as a starting point the historic infrastructure of the Berkeley printing press, where the United Nations Charter was printed in 1945. As a machine age shed with open floors, long expanse steel structure, high ceilings and natural lighting, the press building was the perfect space for art: flexible, accommodating and full of character and life. We're thrilled to have it anchor the new museum. However, it wasn't large or varied enough to accommodate the entire program needed by BAMPFA. The building needed dark and intimate spaces to show its small scale and historic collection. It needed a state-of-the-art theater. It needed to provide space for events and informal gatherings, such as this one right now.

"We were also very keen to draw up some of the character of the old building, the informality of the atrium space, into the new building. We addressed the issue of the existing building by first preserving the press building with all its attributes, including its high ceilings. We excavated under the press building to double the floor area of the museum and to accommodate smaller, lower and more carefully controlled exhibition spaces. Lastly, we added a few elements to accommodate the film theater and support program. The space we're sitting in and the adjacent space is all 'found' space, which was an interesting process by which we secured the existing structure around and undercut the earth from underneath the building. That speaks to how much we treasured the building that we're sitting in right now.

"The design keeps and magnifies the building's street wall. Newly-expanded windows along Center Street and strategically-designed glazing around the rest of the museum offer visual and physical access to the galleries and public spaces within. These collections and events are shared with passers-by and museum-goers alike. It's a building that merges itself with the life of the city and—in contrast to its predecessor—the new building encourages the penetrations of strangers.

"The new theater and café stretches from Addison Street to Center Street. Its outstretched arm containing PFA form the new canopy to the new entrance. It slices through the press building roof creating voyeuristic vertical views that unite medias, styles and people into a three-dimensional matrix. Its sculptural form is a direct reflection of the spaces housed within. The dramatic undercut mirrored the slope of the theater seating. It's projection screen is at an enlarged end and its immersive light-sensitive environment forbids windows, although the high-resolution LED display laminated to the rear indoor screen provides a 'window' into the film program for the general public. We were trying to think of how to share all of the work that happens in this building with the public outside. That LED display was how we imagined the film program could bring its work to the public.

"As different as they seem, the old building and the new building are merged into one. The new building provides lateral support for the existing building, subtly referencing its qualities—streamlined, industrial—a shimmering update to the material humbleness of the press building. Our design seeks to make a both/and solution: iconic and humble, exuberant and accessible, known and unknown. It seeks to embody all the requirements of a 21st Century museum."

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