A ‘Moorish-Tudor fever dream’ is unveiled on Telegraph Avenue

It’s been described variously as a cave dwelling, a wizard’s house, an Italian hill town, Petra and a Moorish palace. It’s been called La Fortalezza, El Jardin and, simply, Telegraph Haste Student Housing. Finally, after sitting vacant for several decades, and after a long-running battle with the city of Berkeley, the lot known as 2501-2509 Haste St. is now occupied by an eclectic, mixed-use building named Enclave Dormitories, which is under construction and set to open for graduate student housing in the fall of 2020. 

The building’s distinctive façade, which was unveiled last week after its scaffolding was dismantled, is causing a stir, with passers-by stopping to gawk and take photos, and others taking to Twitter to share their reactions.

“People will be talking about [the building] a year from now. They’re not going to stop talking about it. Everyone who walks down the street will have an opinion,” Ken Sarachan told Berkeleyside. Sarachan, the owner of Rasputin Records, bought the empty lot in 1994 but has since sold it, and he was the one who commissioned the original design for the current building.

Kirk Peterson, the first architect on the project, did his first drawings for Sarachan nearly 20 years ago, but he has nothing good to say about the completed building now. According to Peterson, one of Sarachan’s ideas was to create a building that looked like a wizard had built it. Another concept was to build something that resembled an indigenous shelter, which would be accompanied by a grand narrative about the history of Berkeley. 

Peterson researched various influences for the project, including cave dwellings in the South of France, the architecture of Yemen, the Alhambra, Baroque churches in provincial Italy and the work of Julia Morgan. He synthesized these disparate ideas into a concept resembling an Italian hill town, a settlement built upon a hill and surrounded by cliffs or walls for protection. His final design included a prehistoric bottom section that resembled a cliff topped by Spanish Colonial Revival-style architecture. 

“I wanted to make art. I wanted to do a correct, authentic, historicist building. Now it looks like crap. It looks god-awful.” — Original architect Kirk Peterson

“I wanted to make art. I wanted to do a correct, authentic, historicist building,” says Peterson. “Now it looks like crap. It looks god-awful.”

The Telegraph Haste housing project changed hands several times as a result of chronic legal and permitting issues with Berkeley’s City Council. In the process, Peterson was replaced by an Oakland-based firm, Jarvis Architects, who were then replaced by the current designers, LCA Architects, who work in partnership with West Builders, the developers who eventually bought the lot from Sarachan in 2018. 

“If all this had happened and the building was beautiful, I could find joy. But it isn’t,” continued Peterson. He cites proportional issues with the arches on the ground floor, the lack of attention to the detailing of the moldings and the artificial quality of the rock work on the base of the building. “I’m not even sure if the cliff is Disneyland quality. It looks really fake. It looks really phony,” he says.  

Others echo Peterson in their distaste for the building’s aesthetics.

“There are like a million different memes on our Berkeley memes page making fun of the fact that it’s ugly,” Hannah Raslan, a UC Berkeley undergraduate in global studies, said recently as she peered up at Enclave Dormitories. “It’s a horrible work of architecture. I just don’t think it fits the vibe of Berkeley.” (Berkeleyside requested to join the Facebook memes page, but hadn’t been approved before the publication of this article.)

Others, however, find the Enclave a welcome addition to the landscape of Telegraph Avenue. Laura Saimai, the manager of the Copy Central which is adjacent to the construction, said, “It’s an amazing façade and I’m very excited to have that next door. I think it’s very unique and it’s just going to enhance Telegraph Avenue. I think it’s beautiful.” 

“Telegraph is already an iconic street and it’ll be another landmark, another location for people to enjoy.” — Evan Romero, West Builders

Evan Romero, the traffic control supervisor for West Builders, says he likes the building he’s helping to make. “You have modern Berkeley inside the building and an older western rustic feel on the outside. I like it, it’s nice. Telegraph is already an iconic street and it’ll be another landmark, another location for people to enjoy.”

In terms of layout, the ground floor of the building will be retail space as per city standards. The builders hope to attract trendy stores and restaurants to the prime location, helping contribute to Telegraph’s vibrancy. Floors two to seven are student housing with a South-facing courtyard and a rooftop terrace with views of the bay. According to LCA Architects, the first three floors of the dormitory are finished and the team is on schedule for the building’s completion in mid-July. 

“Everyone said to me, ‘you can’t make this work.’ I was confident that we could build it, waterproof it, make it structurally sound, and pull it off to get it ready for the students,” says David Bogstad, president of LCA Architects. 

The seven-story, wood-frame structure is enhanced by details and ornamentation created through a collaboration with the City of Berkeley’s Civic Arts Program, which grants artists opportunities to create work for public projects. To make the rock face on the base of the building, artists and artisans carved and chiseled concrete as if it were an actual piece of granite and then hand-painted it. They also worked on tiling and light fixtures with Moorish themes, which will be finished by May or June. 

Bogstad said he likes that the structure is unique: “There are so many nondescript dorms in Berkeley. They are forms that are also seen in Southern California or Nevada. This doesn’t look the same. This is built in the context of expressionism of Berkeley.” 

Alfred Twu, a designer and a community activist, who took to Twitter to share his enthusiasm for the building after it was revealed, agrees. “One thing that makes this building unique is it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s nice to see something that has some fun,” he said.  

John King, the urban design critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted that the building appeared as a “Moorish-Tudor fever dream.” Speaking to Berkeleyside, he said, “So much of infill housing that we see across the street or behind it [on Telegraph] are boxes that have an interchangeable feel. To see this bizarre super-scaled whimsy is a nice change of pace.” 

Ugly or beautiful, the architecture of the Enclave is certainly having an impact.