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11.23.2009
Ito's Dream Deferred
UC Berkeley nixes plans for new museum, the Japanese designer's first U.S. project
The curvaceous design for Toyo Ito's Berkeley museum called for sinuous, steel-and-concrete walls painted white.
Courtesy BAM&PFA

One of the most anticipated projects in the Bay Area, the new home for the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, has become the latest victim of the economic downturn. The new structure would have been the U.S. debut of Toyo Ito, the Japanese architect known for his highly conceptual work. But citing shortfalls in fundraising—with only $81 million of the estimated $200 million dollars needed—UC Berkeley’s administration, which owns the museum, announced last week that it was going back to square one.

“I want to emphasize that our primary goal has not changed, we are going to have a museum on the new site,” said museum director Lawrence Rinder. “Moving forward, I’m optimistic that we will have an aesthetically remarkable structure, something that the architectural community will be happy with.”

Museum officials are considering repurposing the old printing plant on whose site Ito's museum was to have risen.
Courtesy Google Maps

The Ito design, which promised to be a technical and aesthetic breakthrough, is no longer an option, though the museum has not ruled out working with the architect on an alternative. The honeycomb-like structure was projected to have gossamer-thin walls made of steel thinly layered with concrete, eliminating the need for separate structural framing. Located near the campus’ West Gate, a main entrance, the building would have been a highly visible addition.

The museum is now looking at what sum it can foreseeably raise beyond the $81 million, which includes a $20 million commitment from the university, and what it can afford to build for that. “The tragic twist to the story is that we were able to raise $25 million over the past year, in the worst economic climate,” Rinder said. “But we looked at the gap and where we were going, and it was just too much.”

The museum's current 1970 home must be replaced because it is seismically unsound. IT has been braced up in recent years to prevent collapse.
by Lorena/Flickr

In 2006, the museum chose Ito from a shortlist, but did not hold a design competition. While Ito is still in the running, another option is to rehabilitate the old printing plant on the site, a 20,000-square-foot warehouse whose spacious interior, illuminated by three immense skylights, holds promise as a gallery. With an addition, it could get closer to the original plan of 140,000 square feet. The museum expects to announce its new direction by the end of the year.

The museum’s current home, a 1970 Brutalist concrete building designed by Mario Ciampi, has seismic problems that make it prohibitively expensive to retrofit for long-term use.

Lydia Lee