Room with a view: Designer charts new Berkeley buildings

The new Li Ka Shing Center on the UC Berkeley campus. Photo: TheRealMichaelMoore

By Preeti Talwai

Preeti Talwai, an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, has had a front-row seat as two of Berkeley’s newest buildings have arisen within sight of her downtown apartment. Here she reports on the impact watching the emergence of the two structures has had on her, not least in the way the sites became an extension of her classroom.

At the usually quiet intersection of Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street at the northwest corner of the UC Berkeley campus, years of planning, earth-moving, and manual labor have culminated in two significant assets to UC Berkeley’s longstanding tradition of excellence in scientific research.

In spring 2012, the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences made its official appearance on the university’s online schedule of classes, welcoming students into a variety of classes ranging from “Forms of Folklore” and “Earthquakes in your Backyard”, to courses in neurobiology, biochemistry and physiology.


Designed by the Los Angeles office of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects (who can claim credit to a long list of academic and research buildings), the 200,000 sq ft center was catalyzed by a $40 million donation from the philanthropist and entrepreneur whose name it bears.

The Li Ka Shing Center provides the Berkeley community with numerous scientific laboratories, teaching suites, a large lecture theater, and several large facilities, including the Henry H. Wheeler Jr. Brain Imaging Center and the Berkeley Stem Cell Center.

Across the street, at 2151 Berkeley Way, is the Li Ka Shing Center’s cousin: the Helios Energy Research Facility, a $133.2 million project that offers five stories and 112,800 sq ft for the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI) and the UC Berkeley Bioengineering program.

The new Helios Energy Research Facility on Berkeley Way is nearing completion. Photo: Tracey Taylor

The LEED Silver certification-targeting building by the architectural firm Smith Group is currently in the last stages of construction with just tiling, interior glass installation, and exterior landscaping to be completed.

According to general contractors Rudolf & Sletten, the project will house wet laboratories for molecular and microbial biology, fermentation, and chemical separation, as well as greenhouses, shared instrumentation space, offices, workrooms, and conference space. Investigating the impacts of biofuels will be a central focus, and the facility will bring together staff members that are currently scattered in different buildings across the campus

But these architectural new kids on the block serve more than the scientific community. For some, such as myself, a student of architecture, these sites are extensions of the classroom.

Last spring, students in an introductory construction class visited the Helios Facility site to observe the work in progress, and learn about metalworking, construction, connections, and the role of structural elements such as brace frames. Subsequently, one of their assignments was to sketch construction drawings and architectural sections of the building.

“Going to on-site visits is valuable to understand how construction can limit and enhance real buildings,” says Kenya Bravo, a recent graduate of UC Berkeley’s architecture program and one of the students who was in that group. “It gives us a better understanding of why certain design and placement decisions are made, that we can then apply to our own designs.”

Construction crew at work on the Helios Building in January 2012. Photo: Ira Serkes

As both a neighbor to these buildings and an architecture student, I have been surprised at the ways in which my design journey has been microcosmically mirrored by the construction of these buildings.

I moved into the Berkeleyan Apartments, at the corner of Hearst Avenue and Oxford Street, in summer 2010 as a new transplant to Berkeley, unaware of the metamorphosis about to take place on my doorstep. As the foundations for the Helios Facility were prepared, my summer course – a lower-division, introductory design studio – was simultaneously laying the groundwork for my architectural education.

At the time, the demolition of the Department of Health Services buildings rendered the site a pesky neighbor that blew dust through my window screens and disrupted the few hours of sleep I got after long nights in my studio. But my appreciation for these projects grew with my understanding of design, echoed by the rise of the structures themselves.

In spring of 2011, as I made computer animations to analyze the light and shadow in my virtual creations, the real-life silhouettes of the Helios Facility’s towering frames danced across the street. At night, the glowing lights within the metallic skeleton of the Li Ka Shing Center helped me navigate the construction detours adjacent to my apartment.

The Helios building in July 2011 as the "skinning" process began with the application of temporary green cladding. Photo: Jef Poskanzer

I completed my final requisite design studio last summer, when Helios was being “skinned” with exterior cladding. It was a process that coincided uncannily with my struggles to resolve the steel-and-glass structure of my own design for an urban activity center. While library shelves contain ample information on wall construction details and metal joinery, there was something different about being able to step outside my door and approximate the size of bolts or determine the size of a beam for my project by looking at the real thing.

Certainly this ubiquity of its subject matter is one of the most interesting aspects of a design education. Consciously or not, we are surrounded by the products of design every instant of our daily lives, and each new layer of knowledge – be it construction, performative strategies, or landscape planning Ð provides new lenses with which to perceive the built environment. Within the academic parameters of a design studio, free of budgetary and other real-life constraints, students assign formal operations, sustainable strategies, and structural properties that are often realized only on computer screens or through small-scale models.

Living next to the Helios and Li Ka Shing facilities has enabled me to put images to these conceptual ideas. To stand forty feet above the street on my fourth-floor balcony, nearly level with a welder straddling a metal beam less than ten yards away. To watch the building’s facade be lifted into place, panel by panel. As silent teachers, they have helped me, over the past two years, to realize what my academic path entails.

Today as these two buildings come into their own, I am excited to witness the new life they will bring to Berkeley’s downtown community and am proud to continue as their neighbor – living, looking, and learning.

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