Berkeley's Many Revolutions

Berkeley's Many Revolutions


Design on the Edge: A Century of Teaching Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, 1903–2003
Edited by Waverly Lowell, Elizabeth Byrne, and Betsy Frederick-Rothwell
William Stout Publishers, $60.00

It is probably fair to say that most of the nation’s best-known architects have been educated east of the Mississippi. Likewise, the cultural elite on the East Coast probably perceive Berkeley to be a group of lunatics teetering on the edge of the Pacific. But it is that very condition that has generated a clamor of loud and important voices. This handsome volume tries to capture history, share the personalities of the key characters, and most importantly, reveal how architectural education evolves. A major problem with the book may be its premise. 

The book celebrates the first 100 years of UC Berkeley’s Department of Architecture, from 1903 to 2003. But the foundations for the College of Environmental Design (CED), which brought several disciplines together and remains UC Berkeley’s great contribution to architectural education, didn’t come into being until William Wurster took over in 1953, 50 years after the school’s founding.

Wisely, the editors divided the 100 years into two sections. Historical essays by Kenneth Cardwell, Joan Draper, Inge Horton, and William Littman cover the first 50 years. Essays on Wurster, Charles Moore, Joe Esherick, and others cover the second half-century. Subsequent sections address topics for which the school ultimately became best known: researching the environment; teaching history, communities, and cultures; systematic approaches; ecology and building science; and the buildings themselves. These areas are laid out in the essay “Architecture on the (Cutting) Edge” by former CED Dean Roger Montgomery, who sadly passed away before the volume was released.

In her preface, the new dean, Jennifer Wolch, says that the school’s greatest contribution may have been its philosophy of addressing the larger fabric of urban life, and not just iconographic objects. The theme of student resistance—another hallmark at Berkeley—appears repeatedly and helps prevent the book from being a self-congratulatory commemorative volume. Littman brings to light the resistance to the outmoded Beaux Arts pedagogy of Warren Perry (and that of his predecessor and school founder, John Galen Howard) and chronicles the transition to Wurster’s more modernist approach. Other resistance moments include Sim van der Ryn’s splendid personal tale of People’s Park and Inez Brooks-Myers remembrance of Gorilla Graphics.

The book also reveals new information and introduces us to the leading lights of the school. I was unaware of Charles Eames’ brief but important time at Berkeley until I read this book. Other figures like systems guru Ezra Ehrenkrantz and social scientist Clare Cooper Marcus gave the school its reputation for innovative thinking. During much of this era, Esherick was a wizard, bringing the perspective of practice to the whole circus. Another great influence, according to Dan Solomon’s essay, was historian Spiro Kostof. This was a scholar who could speak about complex ideas in ways that civilians could grasp. In some ways, what he promoted—that history and theory were part and parcel of practice—became CED’s core concern.

Clare Cooper Marcus writes about the school’s controversial social factors curriculum. Aesthetes resisted it, while others must have understood it as a logical outgrowth of the Bauhaus interest in social change and decent housing. I would argue that the Bay Area became a leader in contemporary affordable housing, disabled rights, and community participation in part due to the social factors faculty and their influence.

Of course, architects are not usually writers, and the quality of the writing varies from Chuck Davis’ dictated rambling to David Littlejohn’s fine recollections of the Old Ark. Marc Treib’s well-written essay gives the best description of the evolution of teaching design, while Michael Bell’s very brief contribution captures the essence of the whole place: plurality.

But what do all these essays, analyses, and memories add up to? A nostalgic collage for those associated with architecture at Cal? A history of architectural education through the lens of one school? A way of understanding different strains of Bay Region architecture? Indeed, the book accomplishes all three, to varying degrees. It is an important keepsake and insight for anybody who hears the echoes of Wurster Hall.


It is essential reading for architecture schools struggling with their curriculum and the challenge of a strong leader versus a plurality of voices. As Montgomery points out in his posthumous essay (completed by his son Peter), the heroes of the book and the college remain William Wurster and his wife, the social housing expert Catherine Bauer Wurster. For better or worse, they set the school on the path of multiplicity—it is the book’s unifying theme.

No book about architecture at Cal is complete without some space dedicated to the most controversial character in Wurster Hall, Christopher Alexander, the primary author of A Pattern Language. He inspired committed devotees and adversaries, and there are three essays that serve as a testament to his significance. Every graduate of the school that I have ever met holds a strong opinion about Alexander. He was an academic who didn’t give an inch. In this way, he serves as an antidote to the courtly Kostof.

Perhaps that is what Wurster was trying to achieve—a great range of characters who would push students and each other. The editors successfully connect many voices—some polite, a few funny, and several honest. And they have found an essential truth. A plurality of viewpoints creates a stronger education, if a somewhat muddled legacy.

Read all of AN‘s Friday Reviews here.