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A Blue and Gold Reunion

Posted on: Sep 04, 2015

MRY - Lower Sproul Plaza

Lower Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley

To say that the University of California, Berkeley was the center of the student movement in the 1960s is like saying Antarctica is cold. And no piece of university real estate in the United States has more history or significance than Sproul Plaza and it’s adjacent buildings. Little did the Regents or their appointed architects, Lawrence Halprin, Vernon DeMars, and Don Hardison know that their mid-century modern civic renovation on a U.C. campus would create a stage with global significance. It was this public, open air, forum that became the center of the Free Speech Movement and the podium for luminaries and political leaders of all stripes. When I was a student there, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. gave speeches, Joan Baez and Country Joe sang protest songs and Mario Savio and Jerry Rubin exhorted the students of the world to revolt.

Sproul Plaza was actually a repurposed slice of Telegraph Ave. that the University had annexed in its expansion plans moving the campus southward in the 1950s. Halprin laid out two plazas that contained or were bordered by five significant buildings. On the eastern side was Sproul Hall, the hulking beaux arts administration building. On the Western edge, facing the Lower Plaza, was Hardison and DeMars’ Zellerbach Hall, the University’s performing arts center. In the middle sat the Student Union bldg., the Bear’s Lair and Eshleman Hall, the center for student activities and government. Of all the plaza buildings, Sproul Hall not withstanding, Eshleman Hall, a smallish suburban office tower, was the least interesting.

About ten years ago, the “seismic police” deemed Eshleman a hazard and in need of immediate replacement. Moore Ruble Yudell, of Santa Monica was commissioned to come up with a new building for the site. Mario Violich, the project architect from MRY says that it started out as a landscape job to create a natural green buffer to filter rain water from the plaza and then grew into a complete redesign of the plaza, the renovation of the Student Union and the Eshleman Hall reconstruction. The Sproul Plaza complex serves both the University and general public with a wide variety of functions. There are over nine hundred student organizations that call Eshleman Hall home.

MRY Sproul Plaza

Touring the Sproul Renovation Complex, led by Mario Violich.

On Saturday I was one of 40 very privileged alumnae to get a tour of the soon to be completed lower Sproul Renovation Complex led by the MRY design team and their student aides. I have always been a fan of the original Halprin / DeMars design. There was a lot to like of the original plan and how it served so many diverse needs. The Student Union with its broad wrap around staired entry and trellised top was an inviting building and served as the “living room” for the campus. So I was a bit skeptical how one could go about improving a good thing. After several years of intense meetings with scores of student committees, the MRY architects came up with a plan that not only improved Halprin’s original design, but created a handsome and extremely versatile multipurpose facility for this campus of 30,000. Working with a design motif of triangular bays that open north and south, students on all floors of the building can get exceptional and unexpected views of the Bay and the Campus. On one hand, open office floor plans afford a maximum of flexibility. On the other, the building has some very specific use spaces, like a beer hall on the ground floor and a dance studio on the second. Violich and team came up with a cedar shingle like surface pattern for some of the larger exposed concrete walls facing the street and courtyard. One of the tour members asked Violich if he ever designed that pattern before. He said it was the first time and it took some doing to create the form-work.

MRY Sproul Plaza

The new Eshleman Hall

Thanks to Moore Ruble Yudell and the hundreds of students who took an active role in the design process, the U.C. Berkeley campus will have a new student heart. Who knows what new revolution will emerge from this bit of Berkeley turf, the home of the last ten elements of the Periodic Table, the discovery of Photosynthesis, the A-bomb and the Free Speech Movement.

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