In Berkeley, one of Louis Kahn’s last designs, the Flora Lamson Hewlett Building, has been renovated by Russell Architects

Berkeley Brut

In Berkeley, one of Louis Kahn’s last designs, the Flora Lamson Hewlett Building, has been renovated by Russell Architects

Exterior view of the Hewlett Building by Louis Kahn in Berkeley (Courtesy Graduate Theological Union)

In Berkeley, California, renovations by San Rafael firm Russell Architects to Louis Kahn’s Flora Lamson Hewlett Building at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) completed this November.

The Hewlett Building—designed and built between 1974 and 1987—is distinct in Berkeley for its Brutalist style, its exterior terraces with lush plantings, and sensuous wooden slats coalescing with a smooth concrete finish. Its lighting fixtures, lintels, mantels, window trims, and furniture are painted in a proto-Yves Klein blue, acting as contrast to the wood and concrete. A pyramidal skylight into the atrium space crowns the symmetrical, ziggurat facade.

Oblique view of the Hewlett Building looking towards downtown Berkeley (Courtesy Graduate Theological Union)

Starting in 2020, Russell Architects began surveying the building for today’s needs while seeking to preserve the historic edifice’s profound qualities. For the adaptive reuse project, Russell Architects ultimately moved several functions to different spaces: The Hewlett Building’s original library was relocated to the first level, opening up to the building’s entrance on Scenic Avenue; new gathering and study spaces were added to floors one and two; a rare book, archival reading room, more classrooms, conference rooms, and flex spaces were added; and faculty, student services, and GTU staff were consolidated to the second floor in a centralized operational space. The restoration was finished just in time for GTU’s 61st anniversary.

Since its founding in 1962, the GTU’s mission has been advancing the causes of ethical leadership, social justice, sustainability, and spiritual care for the betterment of communities worldwide. Its three-story, 50,000-square-foot Brutalist headquarters within walking distance from Berkeley’s famous campanile is home to over 375,000 volumes.

The Oculus, looking up (Courtesy Graduate Theological Union)

Kahn was selected by the GTU to design a new headquarters in 1972. He died two years later in 1974 in the middle of design. Following Kahn’s unexpected death, the California office of Peters, Clayberg and Caulfield, in association with Esherick, Homsey, Dodge, and Davis, was hired to finish the project. The California architects were tasked with staying true as much as possible to Kahn’s vision.

From the street level, it’s hard to ascertain that the building is in fact square in plan, much like Kahn’s famous Exeter Library in New Hampshire. Unlike the Exeter Library, the Flora Lamson Hewlett Building steps back from the street at each level; it formally evokes nearby modernist designs in the Berkeley area like Kevin Roche’s first project, the Oakland Museum; and Wurster Hall by Vernon DeMars, Joseph Esherick, and Donald Olsen. The Hewlett Building’s trademark space is its 3-story high Oculus that visually connects each of the building’s three floors, centered by an abstract sculpture.

Study pods (Courtesy Graduate Theological Union)

“I see the library as a place where the librarian can layout the books, open especially to selected pages to seduce the reader,” Louis Kahn said describing his design approach at the Flora Lamson Hewlett Building. “There should be a place with great tables on which the librarian can put the books, and the reader should be able to take the book and go to the light,” he said shortly before his sudden passing.

Study (Courtesy Graduate Theological Union)

The Hewlett Building didn’t have its dedication ceremony until 1987. That year, the building earned its moniker in use today, the Hewlett Building, after Flora Lamson Hewlett, a philanthropist and wife of William Hewlett, cofounder of Hewlett-Packard Company, made a generous donation to help fund the GTU building. The Hewlett Building is now recognized as one of the very few Bay Area buildings to be named after a woman, according to a 2020 study conducted by the Department on the Status of Women.

The Oculus (Courtesy Graduate Theological Union)
New classroom (Courtesy Graduate Theological Union)

“We are proud that the alterations remained true to Louis Kahn’s original vision, especially the role that natural light should play in illuminating a space and inspiring its occupants,” said Uriah Kim, GTU’s president. “The completion of these alterations represents a key milestone in our five-year strategic plan, bringing the GTU community under one roof in reimagined spaces that will continue to foster the interreligious dialogue and brave conversations that are hallmarks of our GTU community.”

Today, Kahn’s original drawings of the Hewlett Building are at the Architectural Archives of the University of Pennsylvania.