Barcelona Chairs by Mies Van De Rohe, 1929 @ the CED Library in Berkeley
This post started (two weeks ago) as a celebration of my favorite library, the CED library in Berkeley. I was just going to show you the sketch of Mies’ Barcelona chairs and tell you how much I liked there– and how conducive the environment is to getting things done and eating your frog, and call it a day. I then found a very interesting brief history of the building this Library is housed in, which actually embodies the creation of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley: it was so fascinating and full of great quotes, I wanted to share with you.
The ongoing debate about the relevance of libraries and printed matter begged to be included, since this was a post on libraries. As it happened once before, the Times published great material on the topic as I was crafting this post. I hope you ejoy it and will join in the discussion.
During a recent quiet (read: my internet was down) evening I pulled out a paper I brought home with me from Berkeley, a brief history of the College of Environmental Design at UC Berkeley and the building it is housed in: Wurster Hall. The paper was originally written in 1984 by Sally B. Woodbridge to mark the 20th anniversary of the building, and the following is a summary of its contents (read I am paraphrasing, not all ‘flour from my bag’ as we say in Italy).
As William Wilson Wurster said in 1964:
I wanted [future Wurster Hall] to look like a ruin that no regent would like…It’s absolutely unfinished, uncouth, and brilliantly strong…The Ark [previous Architecture building], for instance, is a ripe building; it has been lived in; it’s been used; it’s been beaten up…It’s arrived.
Our building will take twenty years to arrive.
Oral History, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library.
Detail of Interior Courtyard Elevation- College of Environments
In 1984, the twenty years had passed, and, as Woodbridge says, they had left the building lived in, used, and beaten up. The crisp mountain of concrete did not age gracefully, mainly because the university judged the building to be maintenance free: weak points such as the caulking were never redone or checked when necessary.
Woodbridge’s paper was reissued in 2009, with a new introduction, this time to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the building and the college. For, in fact, the building embodies the college, and the struggles to find unity in a name ( I had no idea that Environmental Design was a term fraught with so much political meaning) and in differences in design visions.
The issue of the name is important, because the CED was not just another college at U.C Berkeley, it was the world’s first institution dedicated to the study of Environmental Design (Woodbridge, 2).
The new building was going to be housing the City and Regional Planning, the Landscape Architecture, and Architecture Departments. In reading the essay, one realizes the power in a name, for there was a waryness of the other departments of being subordinated to the older and larger field of architecture.
Wurster, the Dean of the School of Architecture from 1950 to 1963 ,started working on the unification of the departments shortly after he assumed his academic duties, and formed a committee which met for four years, but the disapproval of the college names and disagreements over the new college led to a very poliically fraught atmosphere. Wuster disbanded the committee, and when the legislation finally approved the creation of the new building (prophetically without a name) in 1956-7, he assembled a team of unlikely-mind architects to design the new building.
It is very telling that the administration disapproved of choosing three faculty members to design a major building, but Wurster argued successfully that not choosing Architecture faculty would be a vote of disapproval. Wurster abhorred Avant Garde Design, ‘I want you to design a ruin”, he said, pounding the table for emphasis. He was concerned with consistencies of use of forms and materials. Some say he had a Brutalist approach, à la Kahn. Unfortunately, as Esherick, one of the architects, said, the funds at their disposal did not allow them to do the fantastically controlled concrete work that Kahn used at the Salk Institute in LaJolla.
Wurster got his wish, no regent liked the building, in fact, one of them remarked: ‘They should have not disguised the building with trees’, referring to the elegant renderings made to ‘sell’ the new design. If, as many think, the building did not age gracefully, it was and is certainly appreciated for its capacity to withstand neglect and intense use. Wurster was of the opinion that a school should be a rough place with many cracks in it. If, as many think, the building did not age well, it was certainly appreciated for its capacity to withstand neglect and intensive use . While it took a beating, it kept the uncouth character that Wurster so admired. Perpetually unfinished, Wurster Hall was an pen ended and provocative environment for teaching and questioning.
Right up to the exposed ductwork (sounds familiar?)
Rendering of the Interior of Wurster Hall. From CED Library, Berkeley. Oct. 2009
As J.B Jackson wrote: Where beauty has to be sought out and extracted from a reluctant environment, the arts often seem to flourish best. wherever it exists in profusion and variety it is likely to be accepted as a condition of daily existence, a kind of birthright calling for no special acknowledgement. American Space 1972
Extracting beauty from the environment is what the College of Environmental Design is all about.
A summary of: Sally B. Woodbridge ‘The College of Environmental Design in Wurster Hall: A History”, 1984, 2009
And now, for fun, or as my German teacher used to say, ‘zum spiel’, I would like to talk about that ‘brilliantly strong’ character, and what it reminds me of.
Wurster Hall. Elevation from Courtyard. Oct. 2009.
Casa Del Fascio by Terragni, Como, 1930.
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