Uncle Wiggly

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Toyo Ito & Associates

Berkeley Art Museum (proposed), Toyo Ito, 2008/Images: Toyo Ito & Associates

That conversation I had on Tuesday with the Japanese architect Toyo Ito gave me a better grasp of the thinking behind his undulating design for a new Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive. (“My basic approach was to use the grid system but ask, what happens if we deform it, manipulate it?”) The museum is expected to open in 2013 on a site where the rolling greenery of the Berkeley campus meets the street grid of downtown. Ito spoke through an interpreter. Here’s some of our conversation.

Proposed Second Floor Gallery

Proposed Second Floor Gallery

LACAYO: This is an interesting design. The gallery walls part at the corners almost like curtains being pulled back.

ITO: It consists of a very basic grid system. Each floor has 16 spaces. The challenge I wanted to consider in this project was how to open the enclosed “white cube” galleries that most museums have. We wanted to employ the grid system while manipulating the openings between the rooms or “cubes”. We did this at the corners of each cube, which is usually unusable space for museums. If you open a doorway in the middle of a wall you’ll just have cube after cube. But if you open it at the corners you’ll have spaces that are articulated but still continuous.

LACAYO: From the models and graphics it appears that the walls are steel.

ITO: For the walls we used concrete “sandwiched” between two steel panels. We did this to create the thinnest possible structural system, just five inches thick, to emphasize this feeling of continuous space.

LACAYO: Does that mean that interior walls will be steel?

ITO: No, in the galleries there will be a layer of wall over the steel, but the exterior walls will be steel. When you walk past the building it will be like walking past a ship’s hull. The first floor will have most of the public spaces and free gallery space and theaters, as well as workshop space for artists and children. The second floor is for the permanent collection and special exhibitions. As you go up the tranquility of the spaces will increase.

LACAYO: American construction standards aren’t always as exacting as what you find in Japan. It’s hard to find American contractors, for instance, who can mix and pour concrete as flawlessly as Tadao Ando is accustomed to getting at home. Do you find you have to make adjustments to your work in the U.S?

ITO: We were aware that we might have to think differently in the U.S. I designed a library at the Tama Art University [near Tokyo] where we also used a sandwich structure, but the opposite of the one we use in Berkeley —  there we used a layer of steel between two layers of concrete. It requires a lot of technique to do that, to attach concrete to steel. I was sure we couldn’t do that in the United States, or that if we could, it would be extremely costly.

We will also manufacture the steel panels at a factory. We will try to minimize the amount of work we have to do at the site. We might actually work with ship builders to get what we are looking for.