Five decades after Mario Savio stood on the steps of UC Berkeley’s Sproul Hall and addressed student activists gathered in the plaza, the echoes of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement still linger on campus—not in any monument but in the strength of today’s student groups and organizations. It was these voices that the architects of Moore Ruble Yudell heard as they approached the Lower Sproul Revitalization Project, a $223-million initiative that opened this fall.
The comprehensive project located along the south side of the Berkeley campus at Bancroft Way encompasses multiple buildings and outdoor spaces, including a new Eshleman Hall, an addition and adaptive reuse of the midcentury Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union, and a rethinking of the César E. Chávez Student Center and Sproul Plaza. Dedicated to a participatory process, the design team held hundreds of meetings and workshops with faculty, staff, locals, civic leaders, and over 900 student groups.
“We saw this as opportunity to reveal the programmatic activities and culture of student life,” said Moore Ruble Yudell principal Mario Violich, adding that the modernist student union designed by Donald Hardison and Vernon DeMars, was not only functionally outdated but also was “really opaque.” Moreover, there’s a grade change between Upper and Lower Sproul Plaza, so while the former is the historic gateway to campus that continues the axis of Telegraph Avenue, the latter was seen as an oversized throughway to other parts of campus.
The new MLK addition honors the architecture of the existing concrete building, but opens it up to the public with a glass facade and a grand exterior stair that brings people to the lower plaza and nearby Zellerbach Hall. By relocating the dining commons to the ground floor of the revamped student union, the architects ensure that the building will be a regular hub of activity.
One issue was “the pit,” an existing Bancroft Way entrance into the student union building that was sunk below street level. Visitors had to descend a grim outdoor stairwell to reach student services. The architects replaced the old entry with a street level retail pavilion. Its jaunty, slanted roof mirrors the midcentury language of the César E. Chávez Student Center.
The old eight-story Eshleman Hall was the home of UC Berkeley’s student organizations; programmatic inflexibility compounded with the need for extensive seismic upgrades led to demolition. Flanking Bancroft Way, the new five-story building is shorter but longer, and it knits together the campus and the city. The building sits next to the transit hub where buses drop students off all day and serves as an alternate gateway. A pathway cuts through the middle of the structure, lined on either side with glass elevations that offer views deep into the building’s retail and public gathering areas.
Moore Ruble Yudell worked with CMG Landscape Architecture to retrofit Lower Sproul, originally designed by Lawrence Halprin. To determine the sizes and locations of stairs, openings, and landscape areas, the design team spent hours in the plaza mapping how students move through public space. “The question of choreography was critical,” said Violich with a nod to Halprin’s design process. “Our mapping studies of those movement streams told us where we could enable effective community-making—literally shaping the architecture and programmatic placements.”
The upper stories house student government spaces, meeting rooms, and offices for student organizations. A bridge connects MLK’s first floor to Eshleman’s second. The move helps navigate the grade change and links together the programs across the two buildings. According to partner Buzz Yudell, meeting with student groups was a substantive and productive part of the design process.
“The students themselves questioned the trajectory of the project and the idea that everything has to be together as in a house,” he recalled. “One student said, ‘This is a neighborhood not a house.’ Decentralization isn’t negative. It’s positive because a student from the Gender Equity Resource Center has to walk by a La Raza Law Journal workspace.”
He noted that this realization ultimately led to a recalibrated approach to programming. “Participatory planning made us feel that the of soul of the project was connected to the legacy and the spirit of the original planning and design,” he said.