Emeryville Keeps it Local

Emeryville Keeps it Local

A glass performance space rises from an existing brick warehouse.
Courtesy Emeryville Center for the Arts

While Bay Area museums like SFMOMA and the Berkeley Art Museum have looked outside the state and even the country to find architects for their recent expansion projects, a new arts organization in Emeryville, a small city sandwiched between Berkeley and Oakland, was determined to find an up-and-coming local firm to design its facility. Yesterday, after an unusual selection process, the Emeryville Center for the Arts announced that Jensen Architects of San Francisco had won its competition. The new arts venue is adjacent to Emeryville’s City Hall and will help establish a stronger civic presence as the city develops its post-industrial identity.

In selecting an architect the ECA took into account its new model for a visual and performing carts center, which will include salons and master classes as part of every exhibition and performance to encourage public engagement.

Jensen Architects’ proposal calls for an open-air courtyard carved into the existing warehouse (above) and an aerial view of the future Emeryville Center for the Arts (below).

“A big part of our mission is to foster emerging artists and a vibrant arts sensibility, so the architecture competition was developed in order to reflect that, instead of doing a traditional RFP,” said Sheila Bergman, ECA’s executive director, who previously held that role at UCLA Arts, UCLA’s professional school for arts and architecture. The ECA board was advised by CCA’s director of research and planning, David Meckel, who came up with the idea of inviting local talent that didn’t include FAIAs (Fellows of the American Institute of Architects). In short this meant attracting emerging, rather than established firms. In addition to Jensen Architects, the other five architects on the shortlist (narrowed down from an initial list of 20) were Aidlin Darling Design, Edmonds + Lee Architects, Envelope A+D, Ogrydziak/Prillinger Architects, and Schwartz and Architecture. The architects presented their concepts in a public forum on December 6.

exposed beams in the existing warehouse (top) and an interior view of the performance space (above).
Presentation images for all the firms are online at the Emeryville Center for the Arts.

Jensen Architects, led by Mark Jensen, is best known for designing the new sculpture garden on the roof of SFMOMA. In the team’s concept drawings the centerpiece is a steel-framed glass cube, which houses the performance space, inserted into the shell of the existing 30,000-square-foot brick warehouse on the site. “The theater is very transparent—you’ll be able to see the catwalks above the stage, the rigging, the lights changing – you’ll see the inner workings of this art center from the outside,” said Jensen.

One of the strengths of the team’s presentation, according to ECA’s Bergman, was the possibility of multiple theater configurations. Thanks to retractable seating, the space can morph from a conventional stage with about 230 seats to a completely open floor. In the design for a “theater with no walls,” as Jensen describes it, the indoor space opens through big hangar doors directly onto a 2,700-square-foot open-air courtyard carved into the center of the warehouse. Gallery spaces will be located on the other side of the courtyard.

“In general, given that they [the center] have such ambitious ideas for programming, we took a swing-shift approach to the spaces, without strict boundaries between them,” said Jensen. The team also presented some thoughts for a new civic plaza that would connect the museum with City Hall.

The glass theater rising from the brick warehouse walls.

“It’s part of the revitalization of Emeryville, which has done a great job creating spaces for innovative companies and good housing opportunities. But now there needs to be some effort and investment in building the heart of the community,” said Bergman.

The $12 million project is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2012. The city, which purchased the building in 2006, is currently signed up to provide $3.5 million; the animation company Pixar, which is in a neighboring building, is contributing another $2 million; and the center is planning to launch a funding campaign for the remainder.