When one thinks about cities known for strong architecture, Chicago and New York immediately come to the forefront. Even stodgy San Francisco has had its share of post-1989 modernist design (the year of the Loma Prieta earthquake). Cast your gaze across the Bay from San Francisco to Oakland. Great modern architecture in Oakland?
The Cathedral of Christ the Light by SOM’s Craig Hartman is a stunning example of great design in Oakland. Yet decades before the Cathedral, the Oakland Museum arose on the shore of Lake Merritt. Designed by the prominent architect, Kevin Roche (think Boston City Hall), the Museum is one of strongest examples of the sadly misnamed Brutalist style.
The Oakland Museum of California was such a powerful statement of museum design when it first opened in 1969 that the museum board and staff issued a commemorative book entitled A Gift of Architecture. By the late 1990’s museum interpretation and exhibition had significantly changed; the Oakland Museum needed serious upgrading and renovation.
No small task when considering an architectural icon.
Architect Mark Cavagnero was tapped to take on the sensitive commission. The result was a reconfiguration of the museum to current exhibition standards while completely honoring the raw boldness of the Roche design. In fact, the Cavagnero renovation was so successful that the Museum is reissuing their book as A Gift of Architecture 2.
The clever and handsome tandem volume includes both the original book and the new publication bound back to back with spectacular fold out photos between the two. The new section contains lengthy (and well worth reading) essays by Cavagnero, architecture critic John King, and architectural curator/educator Andre Ptaszynski.
Staying true to the original Roche design concept was critical. “We sought a balance where we never eroded the original design,” commented Cavagnero in his essay. “[We] sent the plan to Kevin Roche and asked him for comment…his consent was liberating.”
King continued in this vein, “The original design…and the experience has been refined and deepened as a result of the low-key makeover by Cavagnero. It is difficult to imagine a better choice for the job than Cavagnero…”
The museum pointed the way to a different expression of what an urban environment could offer. As Ptaszynski points out, “The museum models a building type which has not been explored by today’s architects, that of a modern ‘city on a hill.’” He further asks whether other building types might employ this parti, “Might not we…build a fabric of shops and apartments and offices, lace them with gardens, and so create an entirely new city form?”
A Gift of Architecture 2 provides us a glimpse into example of a well-executed, recrafted 50 year old gem, reimagined to better serve its public without in any way damaging its original strength and beauty; we are shown a building that speaks to us from a new place while never letting us forget its previous greatness.
A better gift Oakland could not receive.