‘No Stirrings of Pride’

‘No Stirrings of Pride’

Two buildings at the University of California at Berkeley can be seen all the way from San Francisco on a clear day. The first, a tall, granite bell tower called the Campanile, is the visual anchor of the campus and was a favorite subject of Ansel Adams.

The second, Evans Hall, is an imposing concrete structure that most people on the campus would like to see demolished. Campus planners call it a mistake, and students, like me, call it “a fortress” or “a prison.” Photographers try to leave it out of their pictures altogether.

If the bell tower is the campus icon, then Evans Hall is its outcast.

The mathematics building, only 36 years old, now seems exactly wrong for the Berkeley campus. It blocks views of San Francisco that planners had kept open for a hundred years. Its 10 stories overpower many of the campus’s Beaux-Arts buildings nearby. It has, according to Robert M. Berdahl, a former chancellor, “no stirrings of pride in placement, or massing, or architectural design.”

“I’d like to tear it down,” Mr. Berdahl has said.

If only it were that easy.

From its beginnings, Evans Hall has prospered because of a paradox: One of its worst attributes, its outlandish size, makes it extremely valuable to the university. In the 1960s, Berkeley faced a huge wave of students and research money, and it desperately needed to build more classroom and office space. So it built as big as it could.

As lead architect, the university chose Gardner A. Dailey, who had designed several other Modernist buildings at Berkeley. Evans Hall, finished in 1971, was the tallest and most centrally located. When the federal government offered grant money for the project, the university increased the number of floors from eight to 10, just to be safe.

“No skyscrapers,” Clark Kerr, the university’s first chancellor, set forth as a rule of campus design. Evans, he later said, “escaped this rule.”

One might imagine that the members of the math department, liberated from cramped offices spread haphazardly around the campus, would have taken kindly to their expansive new headquarters. They did not.

The building opened a few years after Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement, which pitted students and faculty members against the university itself. Evans Hall, with its stark hallways and windowless classrooms, quickly became a symbol of the administration’s inhumanity.

Department members and others organized lectures to attack the building, with titles like “Fascism and Architecture” and “Architecture and Insensitivity in Academia,” says Calvin C. Moore, an emeritus professor of math. According to Mr. Moore’s history of the department, one lecture on the building included “slides of Hitler waving to crowds from the balconies of buildings in Berlin.”

Complaints singled out not only the new building’s size but its placement. Evans Hall was situated at a high point on campus, and it competed with the Campanile, towered over the library, and literally cast a shadow over another celebrated campus structure, the Hearst Mining building. It was as if Le Corbusier had managed to erect a large Modernist housing development across the street from the Louvre.

Some of the protesters took to painting murals on the building’s interior walls, Mr. Moore says, covering them with topology diagrams and images of the death of Archimedes. Several graduate students staged an impromptu “paint-in” on the seventh floor, and were nearly arrested by the campus police.

Berkeley’s student activism is not what it used to be. Many of the city’s most fervent activists now live off campus, having long ago reached middle age.

But the campaign against Evans Hall continues – albeit without any mention of the Third Reich – and is now formally supported by the university itself.

In 2000 the university proposed demolishing Evans and replacing it with two much lower buildings. In preliminary sketches, the new buildings are styled to fit in with the surrounding classical architecture. The plans would also leave a pathway between the new buildings, restoring some views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

But the project will not commence anytime soon. Most of Berkeley’s current capital spending reflects more pressing concerns, like earthquakes. The campus lies directly over the dangerous Hayward fault line, and many buildings are badly unprepared. Buildings that have been given the worst seismic ratings are generally replaced first, says Kerry O’Banion, a principal planner.

Evans Hall itself has a seismic rating of “poor,” meaning that in a major earthquake it would very likely sustain “significant structural damage” and “appreciable life hazards,” a university review said. But in California, that isn’t saying much: More than 50 buildings on the campus have been rated the same or worse.

A decision on whether to replace Evans Hall or to spend millions of dollars retrofitting it, Mr. O’Banion says, might be made sometime around 2015.

In the meantime, campus officials have decided that if they cannot get rid of the building, they should at least try to hide it. Several years ago, large pieces of concrete began falling off the face of Evans Hall without warning. The building’s frame had begun to rust, causing the walls to shed and requiring $2-million in repairs.

When the repairs were finished, the campus had to repaint the building. It chose a new color, gray-green, so that Evans would blend in better with the surrounding hills.

Mr. Moore, the emeritus professor of mathematics, says he doesn’t expect anything further to happen soon. The ample space the building provides is still extremely valuable to the campus, he says, and he fears that fact will make it “last on the list” of possible projects. Spending millions of dollars to replace a building primarily for aesthetic reasons, he says, is unheard of.

“It’s going to be a major, major issue,” Mr. Moore says. “I can’t recall any other building where such considerations were a central role. It’s always been that the building is outdated and that replacing it is simply more cost-effective.

“I’m not sure you could go to the state and say, We want to tear this building down because it’s ugly.”

By Josh Keller

The Chronicle of Higher Education
July 6, 2007