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Building Anew 

Wednesday, Feb 10 2016
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In its December 19, 1953 profile of the Museum of Modern Art, The New Yorker quoted the museum's founding director, Harvard-educated Alfred H. Barr, Jr., as saying this about art institutions: "The historical museum has to be very conservative and careful in its choices. The modern museum, on the other hand, has to be audacious, to take chances. It has to consider the probability that it would be wrong in a good many cases and take the consequences later."

BAMPFA, UC Berkeley's art museum and film center, has moved to a new $112 million home near downtown Berkeley. In doing so, it has definitely taken chances — on its 83,000-square-foot building, a multi-era mix of revamped, 1930s Art Deco and modern stainless-steel texture that resembles an ornamental "spine"; and also on its inaugural exhibit, "Architecture of Life." The show consists of 250 pieces of architecture-related art, some of which is instantly recognizable as beautiful but some of which details the utter inhumanity and soul-destruction that buildings —physical structures and emotional ones —can impose on people and entire communities.

In the latter, "imposed-upon" category: Planta (2008), a dystopian 3D film by Argentine artists León Ferrari and Gabriel Rud, that imagines a building of workers piled together like drone-ish statues — all steely and stiff, frozen in their feet as the camera sweeps past packed meeting rooms and unoccupied toilets, as wildly dissonant music (orchestrated by Ezequiel Finger) plays in the background. For anyone who's ever felt trapped by working spaces that feel like cubicle prisons, Planta — which is all of five minutes long — will feel like an atmospheric nightmare.

Then there is Till Roeskens' 2009 Video Mappings: Aida, Palestine, in which the French artist interviews Palestinians in the Aida refugee camp. Through elemental drawings that Roeskens films, they explain what it's like to live under the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Using black markers on white sheets of paper, residents sketch simple lines and arrows that become narrative maps of the camp, including Israel's military outpost and Separation Wall, which has severely curtailed what was once a thriving community where Palestinian shopkeepers welcomed Jewish pilgrims to nearby Rachel's Tomb. The camp has existed for more than 60 years, and Israel's most recent walls and architectural build-up have divided families from one another, subjecting them to economic hardships that — through the child-like drawings we see, and the voices we hear — come alive in Roeskens' 46-minute film, which has won international awards for its exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian divide.

At first glance, it's hard to see the "architecture" in Stephen Kaltenbach's gigantic painting, Portrait of My Father, which shows him in a frail state of late-stage Alzheimer's, lying face up — a Moses figure covered with a white netting that acts almost like a pre-death shroud. Portrait of My Father is a haunting piece that BAMPFA curators say "conveys the impression that we are witnessing an event that is woven into the timeless structure of the cosmos." That's certainly one way to see it. BAMPFA gave itself a wide mandate for "Architecture of Life," which lets it showcase such things as a 16th-century Tibetan mandala; a series of Ruth Asawa wireworks; a Marcel Duchamp piece that's a mini-retrospective of his famous output (yes, a thimble-sized toilet is there); Gordon Matta-Clark's photographs of broken-windowed Bronx housing projects (Window Blow-Out); and Tomás Saraceno's spider-web art, which uses real silk from the arachnids' spinnerets to create fantastical labyrinths under lighted glass. Saraceno and Matta-Clark studied architecture in academia, with Matta-Clark (who died at age 35 in 1978, from cancer) rejecting the formalist traditions he encountered at Cornell University.

Matta-Clark, who was known for ripping apart houses for art projects and who once said of his architecture professors, "I hate what they stand for," may have hated BAMPFA's new building, too. "Too pretty and even precious" might be his critique. But the previous BAMPFA building, located for decades on Bancroft Way, was seismically troubled. And by modern museum standards, where the architectural apex is represented by Frank Gehry's wavy, shimmering Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, the new BAMPFA isn't decadent. Not at all.

Before it became the new BAMPFA, the building at the corner of Oxford and Center streets was a printing plant — an ivory-colored building with milky windows to which few people gave a second thought. One hundred million dollars later, everything has changed. With its large peekaboo windows on both sides, BAMPFA invites passersby to look inside and see the spectacle – the warehouse feel, the clean sight-lines, and the multiple levels. From Center Street, the one-story-high "Art Wall," has as its first, temporary offering a monumental inked mural by the great Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie called The World Garden. It's an idealized map of physical and intellectual geography, where everything is seamlessly connected and balanced in nature. In it, an "Islamic Garden" sits next to a plain called "General Life," which is close to a "French Formal Garden," all of which are below an area labeled "Picturesque Theory." Written in both English and Chinese, the map borrows from traditional Chinese brush painting, an inspired overture that demands contemplation. To do that, BAMPFA also commissioned a wooden seating area that slopes downward, amphitheater-style. On opening day, lots of people snuggled there on cushions, taking pictures of Qiu's work or just taking a breather from taking it all in.

There's a lot to take in at BAMPFA, including side galleries, film theaters large and small, workshop spaces, and — if you're a researcher — all the study centers and research rooms. On the Addison Street side, BAMPFA has an LED screen that, on opening day, showed an odd art film, while the main theater inside was screening an avant-garde movie where shapes danced around like amoeba under a microscope. People sat in droves, waiting in lines for galleries without even caring what was there. "Do you know what's in the gallery?" one patron asked another, who was waiting patiently for Saraceno's spider-web art. "No," the person said – to which the other patron said, "All right!"

Charles Renfro, partner of the New York architectural firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, which designed BAMPFA, has predicted the museum "will become a new social and cultural hub for the entire region." We will see about that. But BAMPFA's programming has always had a sterling, well-deserved reputation for art and film alike. And its new building, which is located just a minute's walk from BART's downtown Berkeley station, offers a more convenient destination than its previous incarnation. If that building was one-third bigger in size, this one has more burrows — smaller spaces that break up a visit into more concentrated areas. Not everyone will like that. Ultimately, BAMPFA's new architecture is merely the salve — the ornamental salve — that helps get people inspired, and the only thing that matters is the personal connection that art-goers have with the building or the actual art. "Architecture of Life" offers a thousand ways to connect with the feeling of architecture — from conventional plans to structures that dehumanize people to what can be called mystical glimpses of the foundations that make up people's lives and follow them into death.

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Jonathan Curiel

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