Art museum

Berkeley’s former Brutalist art museum transformed into a modern life science lab

After a complete renovation and addition, the former Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley campus reopened in May 2022 as a modern life sciences laboratory building. The historically significant Brutalist-style structure, designed by Mario Ciampi, was released in 2014 after it was deemed seismically unsafe. MBH Architectsfirst contracted for a feasibility study, designed the necessary renovations to make the building well suited for life science laboratories while preserving the structure’s historical significance.

The design of the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub includes a glass-enclosed addition and two new public plazas, as well as a well-equipped research space, which is often cost-prohibitive for the start-ups the facility will house. MBH identified four major challenges to retrofit the structure to meet life science requirements:

Structural performance upgrade to current code
· Design a life science and coworking program to accommodate the irregular geometry of the building
Address life safety and substantial mechanical modernization
· Perform renovations and upgrades while preserving the historic character of the building

Seismic performance, water intrusion and acoustic performance were addressed during the building code update. The mechanical, electrical and plumbing infrastructure was overhauled, including replacing the existing gas service with all-electric systems. This enabled the project to achieve low EUI, operational carbon neutrality and zero net HVAC water consumption, as well as meeting LEED Gold requirements. Since the building is almost entirely concrete, including the floors , walls and ceilings, the team was challenged to complete all upgrades including new modern lighting while minimizing the amount of cut out of the original structure.

Programmatic elements include a laboratory, open office spaces, collaborative spaces, private offices, conference rooms, auditorium, undergraduate program area, terraces, and public outdoor spaces. The former museum’s upper-level galleries have become glass-enclosed laboratories that tower over dramatic cantilevered ramps suspended in a sky-lit, double-height space. These ramps and other parts of the museum’s circulation system that once carried visitors from gallery to gallery have been preserved to foster interaction between groups of people who would otherwise not have the opportunity to converse. This attribute contributes to the university’s goal of encouraging innovation among scientists.

To spruce up what might otherwise be sterile lab spaces, the design team breathed liveliness into the labs by creating brightly colored walls and bringing in natural light by uncovering and replacing skylights that had been coated to protect the artwork from UV damage. The workspaces and materials of the common areas offer forms that contrast and complement the original structure and provide a welcoming environment.

Construction team:

Architect/Designer: MBH Architects
Structural engineer: Forell | Elsesser
Historical consultant: Page and Turnbull
Acoustical Consultant: Salter Associates
Laboratory consultant: ZGF Architects
Civil engineer: Luk & Associates
Landscape Architects: Jett Landscape Architecture + Design
General contractor: Plant construction

Courtesy of Bruce Damonte.
Cal University Science Lab int 2
Courtesy of Bruce Damonte.
University of Cal Science Lab int 3
Courtesy of Bruce Damonte.