Urban think tank: Student visions for blighted Berkeley lot

Jarrod Hicks' Urban Ecology Center is designed to help people protect, improve, and sustain the local urban environment

By Rudabeh Pakravan

Empty lots raise questions. Projects take years to make progress, leaving people to wonder what ever happened to the ambitious images promised on signs surrounding the fences. Some of us daydream of transforming unused real estate into community gardens or public housing.

The City of Berkeley’s recent ultimatum to the owner of the site on Haste and Telegraph prompts another question: is there an ideal project for a given site? We typically trust city planners, architects, developers, and other experts to zone and build on the land around us. We may protest or applaud, but we usually let the decisions be made for us.

Jarrod Hicks' Urban Ecology Center seen from Telegraph Avenue

Students, however, can dream. Working outside of any parameters other than the physical boundaries of the site and the constraints set by their professor, students at UC Berkeley’s Department of Architecture spent the summer working on bold and unlikely proposals for the Haste and Telegraph site. Under the guidance of Professor Darell Fields, a lecturer on the design faculty at Cal, students worked on proposals for an “Urban Think Tank.”


“The project is conceived of as an opportunity to investigate the relationship between public discourse, architecture, and ideology,” said Professor Fields.

Students were encouraged to question how architecture can affect change in public spaces and create a link between research and community. Mainly unaware of the complicated and controversial transactions in the site’s history, students focused instead on issues such as the political legacy of People’s Park, sustainability, homelessness, and art as ways to generate an architecture that inspires public debate.

Jarrod Hicks, a student in the Fields Studio, proposes one such bold project. His Urban Ecology Center (pictured, top) is designed to “educate individuals so that they may make the best possible choices to protect, improve, and sustain their local urban environment.” The entire first level is open to Telegraph Avenue, and includes a covered and accessible space for a farmer’s market or classes on urban farming and sustainability. A primarily closed façade on Haste Street, dedicated to research spaces and conference rooms, contrasts with the porosity of the façade on Telegraph Avenue.

Wilton Ip's Institute for Anarchic Studies provide “soapbox” spaces that are available to anyone for speaking and engaging

Wilton Ip, another of Fields’ students, creates a space for the Institute for Anarchic Studies and the AK Press, a locally based radical publication. Empty voids in a façade provide “soapbox” spaces that are available to anyone for speaking and engaging, while “public discussion space fosters the development of anarchic thinking.”

Another student was inspired by Situationist International, a revolutionary movement popular in France in the late 1960s that envisioned urban space as a backdrop for wandering, playing, and interacting with other humans in a democratic way.


Why the site on the corner of Haste and Telegraph?

“I was intrigued by the proximity to People’s Park and by the idea that public space might become political,” said Professor Fields. “I actually gave them a generic set of requirements on purpose, hoping that they might discover that there is an ideological backdrop to how and why those spaces can be arranged.”

Fields is a recent transplant to the Bay Area, and so the status of the site was initially a mystery to him. Searching for a site close to People’s Park, he was surprised and pleased that there was an available lot on such a critical urban corner. He felt that the area’s rich political history would inspire students to think beyond typologies of public buildings and create spaces that encourage varied types of interaction.

Model for Natalie Tat's Center for Public Art

So is the Urban Think Tank an ideal solution for Haste and Telegraph?

“The site represents a rupture between public and private interests,” said Fields. “It is already a space of scrutiny and debate. Students struggled with the realization that architectural form, through techniques of resolution, thrives where there is a lack of contention.”


Working towards this set of ideals without becoming overly involved with the financial and political entanglements that burden the site, students were able to question what considerations should dictate how we build on empty land in urban areas. Their inquiries generated optimistic and thoughtful ideas that could ultimately become valid built spaces.

Clearly, no city will leave the development of its land in the hands of idealistic students, nor should it. Planning and zoning codes exist to ensure that one set of interests doesn’t fully determine the forms of our cities. But design studios such as these function as a think tank of their own, and help us to envision possibilities where normally we just see an empty lot.

Rudabeh Pakravan is an architect and long-time Berkeley resident. She teaches architecture design studio at the University of California, Berkeley.

Darell Fields is an architect, urban planner and scholar who has studied and taught at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. His work focuses on the intersection between architecture, urbanism, and culture.

Related:
City hands ultimatum to Sarachan on vacant Telegraph lot [09.07.11]
City to consider suing owner of vacant Telegraph lot [09.06.11]
What about that vacant lot on Haste and Telegraph? [08.11.11]
City says it is addressing Telegraph Avenue rats problem [02.10.11]
The rats of Telegraph Avenue (video) [01.28.11]