| By Jeanne Storck
From grand old masterpieces to streamlined contemporary constructions, the buildings that surround us capture imaginations, inspire innovations and, on occasion, offend aesthetic sensibilities. Building bust or boom, the East Bay has no shortage of sensational structures to keep the conversation buzzing. Following, a few standouts that locals reference when asked to name buildings that move them.
Kaiser Center Rooftop Garden
300 Lakeside Drive, Oakland
Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser’s striking headquarters shimmer on the northwestern tip of Oakland’s Lake Merritt. When the midcentury-modern Kaiser Center Building designed by Welton Beckett & Associates went up in 1959, it stood as the tallest building on the West Coast. In 1970, the Ordway Building rose next door, a dazzling 28 stories wrapped in a framework of aluminum, the metal that made Kaiser’s fortune.
The buildings changed the Oakland skyline, but the center’s rooftop garden tucked away on top of a five-story parking lot broke ground quite literally. The first of its kind in the United States, it became the go-to case study of living roofs long before they became fashionable. Executed by landscape architects Osmundson & Staley, the gardens include a pool with a wooden bridge, winding paths, rolling lawns, and a riot of trees and flowers—all of it carefully engineered to flourish in a thin layer of planting material. It’s rumored that Kaiser, who lived in the skyscraper next door for a period, commissioned the garden so he wouldn’t have to stare at a barren rooftop. Today workers on lunch breaks or passersby who stumble on this little paradise can only applaud Kaiser’s taste for the lush green life.
“The Kaiser roof garden is a fascinating project. It’s on top of a five-story parking lot that’s framed by the Ordway Building and the curving lines of the Kaiser Center Building. You experience these Oakland skyscrapers the way modernist architects wanted you to—without streets and sidewalks and cars racing by.”
—Mitchell Schwarzer, professor of visual studies, California College of the Arts, Oakland
“The Kaiser Center building is pretty much like every other commercial office building. It uses your standard off-the-shelf curtain wall, but the fact that it curves, expressing the shoreline—that makes all the difference, especially at sunset when the reflections give a wonderful light show. The garden was the first major rooftop garden and a pioneering thing to do with a rooftop at the time. Now it’s fashionable, but it’s also a damn good idea.”
—Henrik Bull, BSA Architects, San Francisco
Hearst Memorial Mining Building
Hearst Mining Circle, U.C. Berkeley
Perhaps no edifice on the U.C. campus elicits as much praise or exudes as much presence as the Hearst Memorial Mining Building. Everything about it—the history, the architecture, the lustrous materials—is weighty and refined, which seems entirely fitting in a building dedicated to the science of earthen materials.
In the early 1900s, philanthropist Phoebe Hearst financed the construction of the school as a memorial to her husband, mining magnate and U.S. Senator George Hearst (who also happened to be the father of future publishing king, William Randolph Hearst). Architect John Galen Howard took inspiration from the celebrated reading room of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, sprinkled in classical, Mediterranean, and California Mission motifs, and this Beaux Arts masterpiece was born.
Three arched portals lead into a grand hall ringed by a gallery of walkways with fretted steel railings and capped with skylights framed by sand-colored Guastavino tile vaults. Light and air flood the space and make the massive brick and steel interior stunningly airy and elegant.
“The Hearst Mining Building represents such a different age. There are actually fireplaces in all of the faculty offices. It’s poignant in its craft and monumentality and a powerful symbol of the period’s expanding industrial wealth.”
—David Baker, David Baker + Partners, San Francisco
“I love that it stands out as an older building among all of these new buildings that are so modern and shockingly angular. I love the graceful symmetry of its arches.”
—Anare Silva, U.C. Berkeley student
Cathedral of Christ the Light
2121 Harrison St., Oakland
Oakland’s recently minted cathedral wins the award for most talked about local building in recent years. After Loma Prieta, the Diocese of Oakland debated whether to restore the city’s quake-damaged, Gothic-style Saint Francis de Sales, built in 1893, or start from scratch. In 2000, citing exorbitant retrofitting costs, the Diocese chose the latter, much to preservationists’ dismay.
By the time it was dedicated in 2008, the cathedral had seen two architects, weathered a clerical sexual abuse scandal, and drawn fire for a much-higher-than-planned price tag, deemed excessive in light of the parish’s other pressing needs.
Today, architect Craig Hartman’s creation looks out over the northwestern shore of Lake Merritt, a steel-framed, gently undulating, almond-shaped sheath of glass that bears the same 21st-century modernist mark as his designs for the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport and the future Transbay Terminal in downtown San Francisco.
Critics of the building’s exterior often fall silent when they step inside. The oval-shaped space contrasts cool cement floors with walls formed by strips of warm Douglas fir that resemble grand Venetian blinds. Light filters in obliquely, dialing across the interior as the sun moves across the sky. The pièce de résistance lies behind the altar—a metal screen perforated with holes that render an almost-digital image of Christ when light shines through.
“It’s just spectacular and regardless of religious persuasion people should visit the inside. It appears quiet on the outside; it doesn’t lure you in. It looks like a glass envelope, but there’s an entire other building inside, a giant musical instrument that when the organ plays gives you the most amazing feeling you’ve ever had. There’s an awe of scale, sereneness, and an incredible lushness of materiality. Everybody I’ve taken there—their jaw drops.”
—David Meckel, director of research and planning, California College of the Arts, Oakland
“I’m not crazy about the outside. It doesn’t look like a church to me. But I do like the altar image inside; it’s a high-tech version of a traditional religious painting.”
—Lee Anne Boles, passerby
“It doesn’t look like a church. It looks like a conference center, like Moscone Center.”
Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive (BAM/PFA)
2626 Bancroft Way, Berkeley
The redesign saga of BAM/PFA continues to unfold with art fans still bringing the love to Mario Ciampi’s quake-compromised 1970 building on Bancroft as the museum scrambles for a solution. The university contemplated demolition, but a 2001 Band-Aid seismic bracing bought some time—and a chance to hire Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who in 2008 delivered a striking but cost-prohibitive proposal that would move the museum into completely new digs at the foot of campus. This year, New York architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro has come on board with a more modest proposal that repurposes the Art Deco printing plant that Ito had planned to raze and replace. So the design process continues, with the museum trying to quit the old for the new in a process that in its stumbling, uncomfortable confusion brings to mind a bad relationship breakup. If all goes well, lovers of the old building might see Ciampi’s masterpiece repurposed, while those looking for the shock of the new will find happiness in DS+R’s fresh interpretation.
“It’s probably one of the most interesting buildings in the Bay Area. It was the Bilbao of Berkeley when it was built. The first exhibits were created by Peter Selz, a noted curator who came from New York’s MOMA. He filled the space with sculpture and art that was appropriate to the scale of the building. Now the collection that originally adorned the museum is dispersed and other things that have come along have not scaled correctly to the interior.”
—Susan Dinkelspiel Cerny, past president of the Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association and former chair of Berkeley’s Landmark Preservation Commission
“I love all of the different interior levels. A choral group performed here with singers stationed on different floors, some hidden so you couldn’t tell where the sound was coming from. When there’s a musical performance like that, the whole building resonates. I think a lot of people are going to miss this space.”
—Betty Liu, museum employee
The Rotunda Building
300 Frank Ogawa Plaza, Oakland
Passersby might not give downtown Oakland’s Rotunda Building a second glance. Its neutral stone facade and unassuming brass name plaque belie the treasure that lies inside: a Beaux Arts–style 120-foot-high atrium topped with a glass dome that floods the interior space with daylight.
Architect Charles W. Dickey (designer of another local landmark, the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley) drew up the plans and the space opened for business in 1912 as Kahn’s Department Store. Shoppers strolled five floors of merchandise, pausing to gaze out over the gold-trimmed balustrades and classic stone columns that ring each level. The elegant space also served as the stage for a more rough-and-tumble chapter in Oakland history when, in 1946, Kahn’s retail workers went on strike for the right to unionize, ultimately sparking a citywide shutdown.
This airy birdcage of a building underwent renovation and retrofitting after the Loma Prieta quake, reopening in 2001. Nowadays, bridal parties and gala-goers make their entrance on the grand staircase, reveling on the green and gold terrazzo floor whose elegant starburst design mirrors the filigreed glass ceiling above.
Although the days of elegant shopping at Kahn’s are long gone, lunch spots and shops like Men’s Wearhouse line the terraces, keeping the retail spirit alive.
“From the outside, it doesn’t necessarily cry out ‘landmark,’ but when you walk in and look up, you see this incredible elliptical dome overhead. My grandfather was a department store executive for the Emporium, and that store and this building are of the same era, so I like it for that personal reason as well.”
—Annalee Allen, program coordinator, city of Oakland
“I just stumbled on it as I was looking at the historical displays and realized this used to be the Kahn’s department store that my mother talked about shopping in back in the 1940s. I love the Beaux Arts style. The bright airy space and the lofty dome remind me of the Emporium in San Francisco.”
—Erin Bloom, passerby
Greenwood Terrace, Berkeley
In 1952, William Wurster, dean of U.C. Berkeley’s school of architecture, invited several leading California architects to each design a house on a communal plot of land that Wurster had purchased in North Berkeley.
Over the next five years, an army of local talent—Rudolph Schindler, Don Olsen, Robert Klemmedson, Joseph Esherick, Harwell Hamilton Harris, Howard Moise, John Funk, and Henry Hill—built eight houses that were unique and yet harmonic, subtly individual and yet designed and landscaped to be communal. The dwellings in this visionary subdivision showcase the Bay Area’s particular strain of modernist architecture with their native redwood material, flat or low-pitched roofs and, in keeping with the region’s mild weather, a fluid movement between indoors and out created by windows, patios, and decks. The houses are drawn further together by a shared commons landscaped by Lawrence Halprin of Sea Ranch fame.
Today, design geeks make pilgrimages to the site (much to the chagrin of the residents) and real estate aficionados dream of the day when one of these rarely-on-the-market dwellings goes up for sale.
“Fantastic. This is an example of architects and landscape architects working together to create a community. We don’t see neighborhoods executed as well as this very often. It feels very private and almost institutional in a way.”
—Gretchen Hilyard, public programming manager, San Francisco Planning + Urban Research Association
The Cathedral Building
1615 Broadway, Oakland
Telegraph Avenue ends at Broadway in downtown Oakland and the point where these two iconic arteries meets creates a pie-slice bit of real estate that is home to one of the city’s most delectable edifices—the Cathedral Building. Built by local architect Benjamin McDougall and similar to its New York cousin, the Flatiron Building, this Gothic Revival structure opened in 1914 as the Federal Realty Building. Fifty-five years later, it was rechristened the Cathedral Building for the lofty arches and spires that make it look like Oakland’s answer to Notre Dame. In 1979, it was entered into the National Register of Historic Places.
Now the wedge-shaped and whisper-thin ground floor retail space sits empty, “For Lease” signs hanging in the windows. The first six floors house offices while seven through 14 now boast luxury apartments. The tiny lobby opens on to both Broadway and Telegraph so visitors can glide through in a few quick steps—but why hurry through this little jewel box of a foyer with its cream and rose marble walls, the intricately decorated brass elevator doors with a dial that moves as the lift ascends and descends, and the thin winding staircase that leads heavenward?
“I love it as pure architecture, but also as a symbol of how Oakland saw itself a century ago. It exudes a certain confidence that says: ‘We’re as big as that city over there across the Bay.’ There’s a spirit to it that I like.”
—John King, urban design critic, San Francisco Chronicle
With its stark concrete facade looming 10 stories high, Wurster Hall doesn’t rack up many beauty points. Its monochromatic gray skeleton, hard angles, and repetitive geometry (all characteristics of the Brutalist style popular on U.S. campuses in the 1950s and ’60s) have led many critics to call it an ugly duckling. But some argue it’s simply misunderstood. Case in point—those protruding cement sunshades that hang over every window. Some might call them unsightly, but they help cool the building and an imaginative viewer might even see in them a grid of coy, winking eyelids.
Despite its severe aura, Wurster Hall has long been a haven for creative experimentation. U.C. Berkeley architecture professors Joseph Esherick, Vernon DeMars, and Donald Olsen designed the building in the early 1960s to mark the newly formed College of Environmental Design; they named it in honor of the school’s founder, Maybeck protégé William Wilson Wurster, and his wife, urban planning professor Catherine Bauer Wurster.
In 2000, a round of seismic retrofitting pushed the envelope on green building, rendered the hall safer, and provided students and faculty with an exquisite example of how to perform a renovation in their own front yard. During the upgrade, one Wurster resident, architecture professor and aerial photographer Charles Benton, captured images of Wurster Hall shot from a camera attached to a high-flying kite. These reveal a grandeur to this oft-maligned structure that most people never see.
“As a student at Berkeley, my first reaction was: ‘It’s an ugly pile of concrete,’ but then I learned more about it and began to appreciate it. It’s a blow against the Barrows Hall slickness of the era, the drab, generic boxes of common 1950s and ’60s campus architecture. The building is very much a provocation of what was put around it. I like the physicality of it.”
—John King, urban design critic, San Francisco Chronicle
“It represents a wonderful optimism of its period. With the seismic retrofit, they’ve brought a lot of non-draconian renovations that didn’t change the character of the building, but made it more functional. It’s become a much nicer building—it was trashed and weird when I was there, in the spirit of the times.”
—David Baker, David Baker + Partners, San Francisco
“It’s weird-looking. I’m not an architecture student. There’s probably a specific history to it that I don’t know about, but without that, I’d say the concrete is kind of bleak and the building stands out starkly among this sea of pretty trees.”
—Natasha Milner, U.C. Berkeley student
1200 Park Ave., Emeryville
The production company Pixar may have lavished as much attention on the layout of their 20-acre Emeryville campus as they have on the sumptuous storyboards for their blockbuster animated films Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and The Incredibles. Late Apple CEO Steve Jobs commissioned San Francisco architectural firm Bohlin Cywinski Jackson and the new headquarters opened in 1998.
Employees dream up the next big feature in a 200,000-square-foot industrially designed space with access to a company cafe, a 600-seat film theater, two screening rooms, a fitness center, and a large central piazza which also houses centralized bathrooms—a Jobs idea conceived to force employees to cross paths and cross-pollinate in casual conversation. Employees have free rein in creating their own individual workspaces, which leads to secret lounges and miniature freestanding offices that look like cottages.
Pixar guards its creative brain trust and its campus tightly, with a security guard at the entrance and a high perimeter fence to keep curious fans at bay. The secretiveness hasn’t exactly won the hearts and minds of the neighbors, but it’s hard to argue with a company that represents so much revenue.
“I recoil at the idea of the campus with an iron fence and thorny, tall rosebushes straddling it. It’s literally across from Emeryville Town Hall, which is all about transparency and openness. The Pixar campus is all about not being a part of the urban landscape. There’s an anti-urban feel to it.”
—John King, urban design critic, San Francisco Chronicle
“The central nave, covered by an elaborate truss system, is quite spacious and does have intriguing architectural aspirations. It is fascinating most of all that it uses a language from the era of industrial production for a workplace where creation occurs on computers. This . . . nostalgia is almost as if factories, back in their day, appropriated Renaissance ecclesiastical design as a nostalgia for a lost era of faith.”
—Mitchell Schwarzer, professor of visual studies at California College of the Arts, Oakland
Alameda Theater (Timothy L. Pflueger, 1932)
Berkeley City Club (Julia Morgan, 1929)
Oakland City Hall (Palmer & Hornbostel, 1910)
Ed Roberts Campus, Berkeley (Leddy Maytum Stacy, 2011)
First Church of Christ, Scientist, Berkeley (Bernard Maybeck, 1910)
Fox Theater, Oakland (Weeks and Day, 1928)
Julia Morgan Theater, Berkeley (Julia Morgan, 1908)
Oakland Museum of California (Kevin Roche, 1969)
Paramount Theatre, Oakland (Timothy L. Pflueger, 1931)
Tribune Tower, Oakland (D. Franklin Oliver, 1907; clock tower, Edward T. Foulkes, 1923)
Tsui House (aka the Fish House), Berkeley (Eugene Tsui, 1993-1995) [see last photo from top]
Watergate Towers, Emeryville (various architects, 1972-2001)
Jeanne Storck is a San Francisco writer and frequent contributor to The Monthly, and the former Critic’s Choice art critic.