The new Brower Center in Berkeley

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The Brower Center at Oxford and Allston Streets.

The recently completed David Brower Center in downtown Berkeley is a memorial to a major figure in this country’s environmental movement. Brower served as the first Executive Director of the Sierra Club from 1952 fo 1960 and later founded such environmental organizations as Friends of the Earth, the League of Conservation Voters, and Earth Island Institute. He inspired a generation of environmental activists, some of whom now work in the building at the intersection of Allston Way and Oxford Street that bears his name.

Thirty some national and international groups occupy 24,000 sq. ft. of office space on the building’s upper three floors. Their mission is to foster collaborations, engage new people in advocacy and facilitate cross-sector communication and partnerships.

Although the work of the building’s tenants is a story in itself, the subject of this article is the Center’s building design and its structural system, which were created to insure that the physical embodiment of Brower’s legacy would be a state-of-the-art expression of his life’s work. The building is on track to receive a LEED platinum rating—the highest possible—from the US Green Building Council.

Plans show the shape of the site and the Brower Center's rounded facade derived from the street corner it faces. Plans of the Oxford Plaza housing are shown on the right.

The building’s site is unusual in that the corner it faces has a rounded edge. This feature prompted the architects, WRT/Solomon E.T.C., to design a rounded façade that enables a more natural flow of space than the typical right-angled street corner. Pedestrian traffic flows from the building’s entrance on Allston Street past the Center’s ground-floor restaurant, Gather, to a gated open space between the Center and the apartment complex, Oxford Plaza.

The building’s façade suggests a temple form with engaged columns set on a raised base, a slightly projecting attic story above, and a cornice, which departs from the classical type by continuing the solid array of photovoltaic panels on the south side with a slatted trellis that follows the roof line and rises as it curves around the eave from south to north like an upturned hat brim.

View of the Brower Center from a building across Oxford Street.
Both photographs on this page are by Tim Griffith.

The panels’ downward slant on the south side moderates the greater amount of daylight entering the building from that direction and reduce heat gain in the summer; their upward tilt on the north side increase the admission of light to meet the seasonal greater need. Measures like these have made the interior nearly 100% daylit.

In respect to materials, the metal used for the façade is zinc, which requires less energy to mine and work into forms than aluminum or steel. Its matt surface avoids glare. The window glass redirects sunlight and thereby reduces heat gain. Operable window sections allow changes in ventilation.

The concrete used in the building is 70% blast furnace slag in the foundation and 50% slag in the super structure. The use of this by-product of manufacturing steel reduces the building’s energy content and its “carbon footprint” by 40%. The Brower Center is the first Bay Area Project to use high-slag concrete on such a scale.

6 Responses

  1. Barbara Seaton says:

    Sally’s article made me want to travel right out to CA to experience the Brower Center for myself. Despite the excellent photos and descriptive material, I found it difficult to visualize the entirety. But as a longtime Sierra Club member, I appreciated the architects’ intent in honoring Brower.

  2. Gina Phelan says:

    A quick response to Dorothy’s comment about the height of the Brower Center: it was built up to Berkeley’s zoning maximum.

  3. Sally Woodbridge says:

    I appreciate Jay’s and Dorothy’s comments because they add different points of view to my article, and that is always welcome. We need more public discussion to better inform both the general public and the design community.

  4. Dorothy Walker says:

    Unfortunately, this innovative and impressive building and the adjacent housing underutilized an important site in City ownership near a BART station and across from the mass of the University’s Edwards Track Stadium. If it were several floors taller, this development would be even more “green”, its architecture more impressive, and it would have a more appropriate scale and create a better sense of place. With a larger vision, this site could have led the way demonstrating how a few taller buildings could transform Berkeley’s Downtown and support transit oriented development.

  5. A very informative and illuminating essay that helps me appreciate the building as it might be experienced without the oppressive closeness of the Oxford Plaza Apartments. Unfortunately, from the street the building cannot be understood as it is from Tim Griffith’s excellent photography and Woodbridge’s narrative. The view from the nearby upper level of a campus building shows the Brower Center as it should be seen. Fortunately,when Gather Restaurant is open, there is more of the spirit that the article describes. Perhaps if and when the area on the west side of Edwards Stadium across the street is free of its intrusive building and relandscaped, the Brower Center will appear more as it is described than as it is at present, which is a bit like walking past a Greek temple on a narrow infill lot in a declining downtown.

  6. Suzanne Harris says:

    Very impressive. Great Photos.

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