An Architect's View 

The Gaia Building looms like a loud-voiced bully in a polite salon. Despite its frenzied efforts, it absolutely doesn't fit in.

The next time you're in downtown Berkeley, stand under the blue canopies of "Ross, Dress for Less," look across Shattuck Avenue, and discover what simple-minded contextualism and bureaucratic mismanagement have wrought. Rearing up behind the old two-story "Edy's" block (more recently "Eddie Bauer"), a clumsy intruder rudely disrupts the modest two-to four-story milieu of Berkeley's Main Street. With its huge, nine-story putty-colored west wall, confused by three kinds of windows - round-headed, segmental, and square - it resembles a poorly designed 19th-century New England textile mill topped by fancy railings, pretentious parapets, and ostentatious (vineless) trellises. All this folderol is crowned, in turn, by a pretentious elevator-machinery house, adorned with Versailles-like windows, and looking like a cross between an arms dealer's love nest and a PG&E substation.

Happily, the building's front, on Allston Way, is relatively successful. From across the narrow street, you are looking up at a six-story classical facade reminiscent of an old city hotel with shops or restaurants at the base. Two gently projecting "wings" frame a central portion that steps politely back at the third floor. It's all disarmingly civilized if you can overlook the strange disconnect between the blank tan surfaces above, and the lurid tiles and chocolate-colored brick arches below.

All in all, this is a big clunky square doughnut of a building, built around a top-lit atrium, and disguised as a friendly hotel on its one inadequate access street. Its split personality can best be noticed from the Oxford Street side, where you are looking at an almost unadorned and brutally honest 91-unit apartment structure that steps up, interestingly, from six to nine levels.

Not surprisingly, the inside of this mighty fortress, with balconies wrapped around the atrium, is as uninspiring as its Vegas-style exterior. The whole communal environment is boring and institutional, except for the top level with its novel roof-deck and related tenants' "sky lounge" - probably the best features of the whole development. The apartments themselves are surprisingly plain. Many of the bedrooms are interior-lit, their only window opening into the atrium - an uninspiring view first thing in the morning, no doubt. In contrast, the living areas have huge windows dominating a rather shallow space.

This is even more striking in the two-story "luxury" units up at the top which include sleeping mezzanines reached by trendy spiral stairs, and are dominated by two levels of big windows that seem to emphasize panorama over life itself. Even if the bay view is prestigious, occupants must sometimes feel blasted out of their space by the low Western sun, their only consolation the state-of-the-art computer wiring, closeness to BART and the UC campus, and a kind of eagle's- nest privacy. All this for $2,500 a month! More serious than the paucity of the Gaia Building's architecture or its "developer Mediterranean" decor is the failure of the project as urban design, i.e., its relationship to everything else around it. The city's planners have labored devotedly for years to preserve and enhance Shattuck Avenue as an unusually pleasant downtown boulevard, successfully resisting the high-rise onslaught of the '60s that Manhattanized so many city centers. Following completion of the thirteen-story Great Western Building in 1969 and with the Bank of American's abandonment of its planned high rise on Shattuck Square, the avenue has evolved into an attractively landscaped stretch of nicely restored old structures, augmented by low-rise "infill" in a variety of styles, brick ex-department stores coexisting with Art Deco movie palaces. Here and there the whole ensemble teeters on the brink of Disneyland's "Victorian" Main Street, but genuine period differences such as James Plachek's remarkable "Mayan-Modern" public library save it from being merely cute. Towering behind this long friendly frontage, the Gaia Building looms like a loud-voiced bully in a polite salon. Despite its frenzied efforts, it absolutely doesn't fit in! It is, in conception, an autonomous, freestanding, essentially modern block, in much the same category as some giant new classroom building on the nearby campus. Not at all a good neighbor, it introduces a whole new scale more appropriate to downtown Oakland.

So who, if anybody, should take the blame for this inelegant pile? Given our half-assed demo-bureaucratic system, it can only be a sort of group-guilt. The developer, Patrick Kennedy, can hardly be faulted for grasping a golden opportunity to fill a useful gap on this odd campus-side site, while the architects, those poor demonized professionals born into the wrong epoch, are even less to blame. The principal firm involved, HDO, carried out the nuts and bolts of Kennedy's social dream, while Kirk Peterson, his independent design consultant, worked on the exterior image to make it, in his words, "better than it would have been without me." The city's planning staff and the ever-timid City Council allowed themselves to be bamboozled into accepting two additional floor levels on the grounds that Gaia Books - since gone "belly-up" - was a cultural facility, while the lack of a strong master plan for the problematic site kept the city's establishment in a nervous mesmerized state.

But behind the principal actors in this mini-tragedy looms an almost anonymous producer, whose influence is dangerous and pervasive: The highly respected and locally powerful Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association must take no small responsibility for this dismal project. Over many years, BAHA has done a sterling job listing and saving significant older buildings, from Julia Morgan houses to turn-of-the-century corner stores, even taking into its stride once-scorned artifacts such as Art Deco movie theater pylons. Unhappily, this passion to conserve and protect anything "historic" - anything that exists, that is - quickly leads to a dislike of anything new, or even just unfamiliar. This instinct, exacerbated by the currently fashionable obsession with "contextualism" (i.e., the insistence on matching whatever is already there), has led BAHA members and many others to view lively or novel "nonhistoric" buildings with disdain. To their sentimental mindset, such buildings are "Bauhaus," "sterile," "joyless," or worse. Their other obsession is with height. Any tall building - especially downtown - is perceived as a "glassy corporate high rise." To these pathologies add a blind adoration of anything Spanish- or Italian-looking, i.e., arches, low-tiled roofs, and corner cupolas, and you have the perfect circumstances for the rise of Developer Mediterranean - a naive, all-purpose, fancy dress to slap on any modern-day function, which will result in almost guaranteed approval from design review committees and elected officials.

Ironically, both this and the next Kennedy-Peterson collaboration - a five-story apartment block planned for the top end of University Avenue - raise the fascinating question of future development rules to protect already built "view" apartments that depend for their livability on the rest of the block remaining low-rise. This essentially modern predicament will probably force the city to adopt a case-by-case review system. Come to think of it, this might be the Gaia's great (accidental) contribution to urban design!

Meanwhile, for those of us who find the invasive newcomer depressing, there are consolations, albeit long-term. As a result of recent Shattuck Avenue landscaping, 25 new street trees are flourishing between Allston Way and Kittredge, at least eleven of which are sycamores and ginkos. Eventually these will attain a splendid size, allowing us to look forward to the day when much of the Gaia building will have retreated behind the greenery.

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