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03.04.2014
Bowl Mending
HNTB upgrades UC Berkeley's landmark Memorial Stadium.
HNTB's modern changes to the historic bones of Memorial Stadium.
Jim Simmons

California Memorial Stadium, largest and best loved of the monumental buildings that dot the UC Berkeley campus, has been transformed. For HNTB, project architect Fernando Vasquez, and associate architects Studios Architecture, this was a fourfold challenge. The stadium straddles the Hayward Fault, which geologists consider the second most dangerous in the state. As a Beaux-Arts landmark, built in 1923 by campus architect John Galen Howard, the stadium had to be modernized without compromising its integrity. The athletic facilities and offices that were cluttering the stadium had to be relocated. And last, the site needed to be linked, physically and programmatically, with a campus that had expanded greatly over the previous 90 years.

As Bob Milano, Associate Director of Capital Programs, explains, the two years of construction capped nearly a decade of research and planning. “We explored all the options and considered all the implications for the seismic upgrade, creating new facilities and preserving the university brand,” he said. “The best compliment came from fans who asked, ‘so what did you do?’”

   
 

The answer to that question is, plenty. The stadium is nestled into one side of a ravine, emerging as an oval of concrete arches that were clearly inspired by the Colosseum in Rome. That historic facade was braced with steel, while the stadium was partially gutted and the playing area was lowered 4½ feet to improve sightlines. The bleachers were reconfigured, to meet ADA requirements, improve access, and add premium spots, reducing seating from above 70,000 to 63,000. Piecemeal additions were eliminated to open up sweeping views of the campus and the bay. A two-level training center was constructed below the two-acre plaza that extends from the base of the stadium. Stairs and skylights pull natural light into this multi-purpose facility.

 
 

The most dramatic addition is the two-story glass skybox that is elevated on two slender concrete service cores, making it structurally independent of the bowl. The steel frame was pre-assembled in six sections and lowered into place by a huge crane. In contrast to an earlier box that was deemed unsafe and had to be removed, it appears to hover gracefully above the lip of the stadium, echoing the curve of the bleachers. There are 300 VIP seats at the upper-level and a glass-enclosed press area. John Crumpacker, who arrived at Berkeley as a student in 1973, now returns as a sportswriter for the San Francisco Chronicle. “The place was in sad repair and the restrooms and concessions were Spartan,” he recalled. “The access gates were too narrow for the crowd to exit rapidly, as they would have if the big fire in the Berkeley Hills had occurred during a game.” When the old box was removed, he and his colleagues had to take their laptops into the open seating where they could be rained on. Now they enjoy snug quarters with windows that can be opened on fine days.

Football is the cash cow of Berkeley’s sports programs, but there are only seven home games a year. To activate the stadium year-round, the skybox and plaza are frequently rented out, and provide space for a variety of campus events. There is a mini conference center, a classroom-research area for the business school that is located close by, and a student gym. Multiple small HVAC systems allow each part of the stadium to be used economically. Still to come is a concourse that will improve access on the far side where the bleachers rest on a natural slope, and underground parking for 450 cars. The stadium also relies on a network of public transportation. Architects, engineers, and university staff seem to have mastered all the challenges, satisfied a demanding constituency, and created a facility that should be good for another century of use.

Michael Webb