UC Berkeley has plans for its former, now empty, art museum

UC Berkeley hopes to turn the vacant former BAMPFA into the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub, a full-service life science incubator. Rendering by Robert Becker with Digital Frontier for MBH Architects and UC Berkeley

The distinctive concrete stronghold on Bancroft Avenue that has sat empty now for four years, ever since the Berkeley Art Museum Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) left for shiny new digs in 2014, may eventually get a new lease on life as a life sciences hub.

UC Berkeley is working with MBH Architects to convert the architecturally complicated building into the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub, which the university describes as a “full-service life science incubator… with private labs for enterprises desiring more dedicated space, wet and dry open lab benches for faculty and student start-up researchers, and … office space to support the research function.” The facility would be named for philanthropist, developer and Haas School of Business alumnus Gerson Bakar who died in 2017.

The Mario Ciampi-designed fanned-out structure at 2626 Bancroft Way was built in 1970. Forty-one years later it was named Woo Hon Fai Hall. UC Berkeley moved its art museum and film archive to 2155 Center St. in downtown Berkeley after its original home was declared seismically unsafe in 2001.

The project is currently in planning stages, and university spokesperson Kyle Gibson said the UC Regents will review a full, detailed plan later this year.


The cost of the project has not yet been determined, according to Gibson, but will include retrofitting and numerous infrastructure changes. The current plans include a 6,600-square-foot glass enclosure to use for office space and lab space on the ground floor and upper gallery.

The former screening room will be converted into a student and “maker” space and art galleries will become laboratories, Gibson said. During this process, planners will also consider whether indoor and outdoor areas of the incubator will be open to the public.

UC Berkeley hopes to turn the vacant former BAMPFA into the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub, a full-service life science incubator. Rendering by Robert Becker with Digital Frontier for MBH Architects and UC Berkeley

Woo Hon Fai Hall is a Berkeley city landmark and a National Register building. Likely hated and loved in equal measure, its brutalist architecture style flourished between the 1950s and the 1970s. Famous brutalist buildings, which are characterized by unadorned concrete, sharp angles and repeating geometry, include Boston City Hall, Habitat 67 in Montreal and Geisel Library at UC San Diego. Both Wurster Hall and Evans Hall on the Cal campus also come under the brutalist umbrella.

But the Ciampi building is in a league of its own.

“There’s certainly nothing in the Bay Area like it,” said John King, urban design critic for the San Francisco Chronicle who was a regular visitor to BAMPFA at its old location. He likened the building’s structure to several cards spread out in a central space to create one massive, tiered room, where every gallery was at a slightly different height.   

Though adventurous, King said the building is also rigid. Its rooms can’t be partitioned for office space like other historic structures, and the “heroic statement of the 1970s” could sometimes be overwhelming as a gallery. “Unfortunately it’s a space that a lot of art curators and directors don’t really like,” he said.

In an interview with Berkeleyside earlier this year to mark his 10 years heading up BAMPFA, Larry Rinder echoed King when he said many more people are visiting the new downtown museum, designed by Diller, Scofidio and Renfro, than were coming to the Bancroft Way building.

The types of exhibitions we’re doing now are very much like the exhibitions we were doing before,” he said. “But in the old building, it’s like we were an orchestra that was playing and no-one was listening. It was just empty. We would work on these exhibitions and then go out into the galleries and there’d be no-one there. It was just heartbreaking. It was hard, hard — just not good. Not good for anybody.”

Woo Hon Fai Hall on Bancroft Way seen from the air in 2011, when it was still home to BAMPFA. Photo: Michael Layefsky

Ciampi, who died in 2006, designed the Westmoor, Fernando Rivera Elementary and Vista Mar schools in Daly City. He built only one other brutalist building, Newman Hall at 2700 Dwight Way, and his plans were selected from a national pool of 366 designs in 1965 to create a dedicated art museum for Cal.

“The whole complex has a kind of Piranesian grandeur about it which takes your breath away; this is the nearest you will ever come to walking in actuality among the dizzying forms of the great Venetian fantasist,” San Francisco Chronicle columnist Alfred Frankenstein wrote in 1970.

The new building won’t include a space for visual arts, Gibson said, but the design team will include a preservation architect to ensure any renovations meet U.S. government standards for historic structures.

The hall will also undergo an environmental review process sanctioned by the 1970 California Environmental Quality Act. Bringing the building up to speed with the current decade will likely require numerous plans and revisions.

On April 25, about 20 people attended a community open house to learn about the proposed project, according to Gibson. Following a short presentation of possible design renderings, attendees talked to campus representatives and project architects about the building, its landscaping and the research that is planned for the new space. On June 7, the City of Berkeley Landmarks Preservation Commission discussed the project. UC Berkeley anticipates it will be presented for approval by the UC Regents later this year.

King, for one, is glad the building will survive and have a new purpose.

“Pragmatically, I think it’s good the building will have people in it and it will have investments put into it to get a little tender loving care,” he said. “If you tear down a building you can’t rebuild it.”