The Architecture of BAMPFA

The First Building, 1970–2014


The site selected for the new museum, a large sloping lot across from the main campus, was owned by the University and occupied by a parking lot and a former fraternity house, the basement of which housed art professor Peter Voulkos’s pottery workshop and classes. San Francisco architect Mario Ciampi and associates Richard L. Jorasch and Ronald E. Wagner were selected from a field of 366 competition entries for the new building. Ciampi (1907–2006), an Ecole des Beaux-Arts–trained architect known for his urban planning as much as his architecture, created a dramatic concrete structure for the new institution, with cantilevered galleries spiraling fan-like above a sweeping central atrium space. The building was conceived and designed not only to house a dynamic program of art and film exhibition, but to make “an aesthetic statement of its own,” according to founding director Peter Selz. 

In the San Francisco Chronicle, Alfred Frankenstein praised it as the “Bay Region’s first thoroughly modern museum structure . . . a major work of art in itself.”

The almost Cubist massing of BAMPFA’s exterior, with its unadorned planes of cast concrete joining at sharp angles, creates a strong sculptural presence across the street from the UC Berkeley campus. Often compared to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York, Ciampi's BAMPFA is similarly anchored by a central full-height sky-lit interior volume and is ringed by ramps enabling access to the tiered exhibition galleries. Yet rather than the smooth spherical forms of Wright’s museum, Ciampi embraced a Brutalist approach, with blocky cantilevered concrete slabs jutting into the enormous hollow at the center. The galleries fan out and step up in a radial plan from the central node of the atrium, an organization echoed in the roof plan and dramatically revealed in views from the surrounding hills.

In his landmark History of Building Types, British architectural historian Nicolaus Pevsner cited BAMPFA as the preeminent example of the application of Brutalism to museum design. The influence of the Brutalist style, pioneered in the UK by Alison and Peter Smithson and in France by Le Corbusier, is evident throughout, from the massive scale and sculptural approach to the raw concrete and the angular composition. Brutalism (from the French brut, or raw, as in béton brut, raw concrete) was popular in the United States in 1960s and 1970s, particularly on American college campuses; its rejection of elite historical architectural styles and expensive materials seemed suited to the progressive ideals of the time. Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale (1958) was among the first, and other notable examples include the campus of UMass Dartmouth (1963–66), also by Rudolph; the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago (Walter Nesch, 1970); the UC San Diego Library (William Pereira, 1970); and UC Berkeley’s own Wurster Hall (Joseph Esherick et al., 1964).

The building was of its time in more than architectural style. The nontraditional gallery spaces were seen as appropriate for the avant-garde art that Selz planned to showcase. The reviewer for the Los Angeles Times, Henry J. Seldis, noted that the “great hall will prove to be ideal for those vanguard directions in art that seek to present creative processes divorced from material form and are breaking boundaries between the media of sound, sight and touch.”

Construction began in 1967 and the building opened on November 7, 1970, with the first film screening following two months later. Selz staged a multidisciplinary contemporary art extravaganza for the 1970 opening, featuring happenings by artists William Wiley and Robert Hudson; poetry readings by Gary Snyder, Richard Brautigan, and Robert Duncan; and a performance of Parades and Changes, the seminal dance by the avant-garde Anna Halprin Dancers. (Halprin reprised the dance, for its final stagings, at BAMPFA in 2013.) The inaugural exhibition, Excellence: Art from the University Community, represented what have continued to be the cornerstones of our collection: historical Asian paintings and works on paper; European old masters and nineteenth-century paintings and prints; American works of the nineteenth century ranging from folk to landscape traditions; and twentieth-century art from the Abstract Expressionist era to the present. On January 22, 1971, the theater opened with a three-day celebration of international and experimental cinema; Akira Kurosawa's Dodeskaden was the first film screened.

The building was dedicated as Woo Hon Fai Hall in 2011, named for the father of David Woo (College of Environmental Design ’67). David Woo began his career working for Ciampi Associates on the design of BAMPFA.

The New BAMPFA, 2016–

Twenty-seven years after the completion of Mario Ciampi's building, the University declared it building seismically unsafe. In 2001, the University determined that the current building could not be sufficiently retrofitted in a way that would not compromise the interior exhibition spaces. As temporary measures, immense steel braces were added to the exterior of the building to support the cantilevered concrete and film screenings were moved to a building across the street to the Hearst Field Annex on the UC campus. A decision was made to move BAMPFA to a new location and a University-owned site in downtown Berkeley, on Center Street between Oxford and Shattuck, was identified. An initial design, by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, was abandoned in 2008 because of its high cost. A new, more affordable design by the New York firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro that focuses on the adaptive reuse of existing buildings is currently under construction. The new facility, which will reunite the exhibition galleries and film theater and join the campus and city communities, opened in January 2016.

Diller Scofidio + Renfro merged old and new into a dynamic and versatile home for BAMPFA’s offices, collections, and programs. The building integrates a 48,000-square-foot Art Deco–style building, formerly the UC Berkeley printing plant, with a 35,000-square-foot new structure. The printing plant’s distinctive north-facing sawtooth roof has been preserved, which will allow filtered natural light into many of the ground-floor galleries. The new structure, a stainless steel–clad curvilinear volume, carries into the twenty-first century the streamlined Deco style of the 1939 printing plant. This distinctive form extends from the theater volume at the northeast corner to the cafe, which dramatically cantilevers above the main entrance on Center Street. BAMPFA visitors will enjoy two film theaters (with 232 seats and 33 seats, respectively), a performance forum, cafe, four study centers for art and film, a reading room, an art-making lab, and various creatively designed gathering areas. 

Learn more about the design of the new BAMPFA >


Above: Photo by Iwan Baan. Courtesy Diller Scofidio + Renfro and EHDD.