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Brutalist former Berkeley Art Museum transformed into modern life science lab


Brutalist former Berkeley Art Museum transformed into modern life science lab

Building was vacated in 2014 after it was found seismically unsafe.

By Peter Fabris, Contributing Editor | May 20, 2022
former Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California
The historically-significant elements of the 1970 Brutalist structure have been upgraded with the utmost care to preserve the original character while protecting the building from future damage. Significant issues, such as seismic performance, water intrusion, and acoustic performance, have been addressed while bringing the building up to code. Photo courtesy Bruce Damonte

After extensive renovation and an 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 science lab building. The brutalist-style, historically significant structure, designed by Mario Ciampi, had been vacated in 2014 after being deemed seismically unsafe. MBH Architects, first brought on for a feasibility study, designed the renovations needed to make the building well-suited for life science laboratories while preserving the structure’s historical significance.

The design for the Bakar BioEnginuity Hub includes a glass-fronted addition and two new public plazas, as well as well-equipped research space, which is often cost-prohibitive for the young companies the facility will accommodate. MBH identified four major challenges to renovating the structure to satisfy the life science requirements:

  • Upgrading structural performance to the current code
  • Designing a life science and coworking program to fit within the building’s irregular geometry
  • Addressing life safety and substantial mechanical modernization
  • Performing renovations and upgrades while preserving the building’s historical character

Seismic performance, water intrusion, and acoustic performance, were addressed while bringing the building up to code. Mechanical, electrical, and plumbing infrastructure was overhauled, including the replacement of existing gas service with all-electric systems. This allowed the project to achieve low EUI, operational carbon neutrality, and Net-Zero HVAC water-use, as well as to meet LEED Gold requirements. Because the building is nearly all concrete, including floors, walls, and ceilings, the team was challenged to make all upgrades, including new modern lighting while minimizing the amount of cutting of the original structure.

Programmatic elements include a laboratory, open office areas, collaboration spaces, private offices, conference rooms, an auditorium, an undergraduate program area, terraces, and public outdoor spaces. The former museum’s upper-level galleries became glass-fronted labs that overlook dramatic cantilevered ramps hanging within a sky-lit double height space. These ramps and other parts of the museum’s circulation system that once led visitors from gallery to gallery have been preserved to foster interaction between groups of people who might not otherwise have an occasion to converse. This attribute furthers the university’s goal of encouraging innovation among scientists.

To spiff up what could otherwise be sterile-looking lab spaces, the design team infused the labs with liveliness by making walls brightly colored and importing natural light by uncovering and replacing skylights that had been covered to protect artwork from ultraviolet light damage. Workspaces and common area materials provide forms that contrast and complement the original structure and provide a welcoming environment.

On the Building Team:
Architect/Designer: MBH Architects
Structural Engineer: Forell | Elsesser
Historical Consultant: Page and Turnbull
Acoustics Consultant: Salter Associates
Lab Consultant: ZGF Architects
Civil Engineer: Luk & Associates
Landscape Architects: Jett Landscape Architecture + Design
General Contractor: Plant Construction

University of Cal science lab
Courtesy Bruce Damonte
University of Cal science lab int 2
Courtesy Bruce Damonte
University of Cal Science Lab int 3
Courtesy Bruce Damonte


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