A hidden masterpiece: The art of designing a prestigious California museum

February 16, 2016 John Gautrey

The design story behind the scenes of a museum can be as interesting as the works of art on display.


Sometimes the most memorable projects in your career are the ones you find most challenging. I would know, because I just had that experience. I’ve been a designer for 30 years and spent the past 8 working on the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA) in Northern California. An absolutely stunning building, the museum – an art gallery, lecture hall, film archive, and café, among other things – opened early this month at a gala with champagne, society, and celebrities. This project represented three very different things for me, though: blood, sweat, and tears. Why? I led a design team that created the building’s mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems with some of the greatest creative challenges an engineer can face.

Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

Attending the gala and walking the museum with my Stantec team members was an amazing, reflective way to appreciate each obstacle and the finished product they helped deliver. Three of the main challenges all involved either bridging gaps in the building or protecting its assets:

Seismic savvy. Picture this: the museum’s structure is designed so that the floors and ceilings are not connected in a traditional way. Technically speaking, they’re actually separate buildings. The museum has five seismic joints that allow each of three buildings (including roofs and floors) to move safely and independently in the event of an earthquake. Our challenge was designing air and plumbing that connected the different spaces, but would be flexible to move. Imagine three shoe boxes connected by a two-foot-long drinking straw. Try moving the boxes independently without harming the integrity of the straw. That was our challenge in running pipes and vents throughout this facility.

Thinking 3D. Not everyone thinks and visualizes in 3D, but we certainly do. Using Revit software to model and visualize some of these spaces gave us a multi-dimensional canvas to work on and a much more realistic picture of how these systems will all fit together in a complicated space. But even with 3D modeling, we still visited the site to blend observational input and modeling data to visualize these systems. One of the spaces we visited most was the transition between the existing administration building and the new gallery spaces. It was amazing to see it completed on opening night.

Keeping your cool. To put it simply, art is more sensitive than people are. We’re comfortable with a range of temperatures and humidity in a building, but art or precious films can’t handle sudden changes in temperature and moisture. In a museum like this, those environments could change constantly from the conditions outside or the volume of people inside. The systems we design are flexible and know the ideal conditions for the art, adjusting constantly to accommodate the unpredictable factors that can change things.

John at the opening gala for the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive

Plainly put, I’ve handled some fairly amazing jobs in my time, but this one was complex. Essentially, a butterfly effect was always a possibility, where changing a feature on one side of the building could impact systems on the opposite. As designers, there are two ways we can handle those challenges: we can get frustrated or we can be inspired. Our project partners constantly challenged me and questioned our approach. Those are the experiences that make us better.

Hundreds of gala guests were also inspired on opening night by the artwork and the film archives. I left inspired by the building itself, including the systematic “masterpieces” no one sees, but I know are working seamlessly.

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