UC Berkeley’s new East Asian Library

The C. V. Starr East Asian Library on the University of California’s Berkeley campus opened in March 2008. The EAL is the country’s first free-standing library dedicated to east Asian collections built on a university campus; it was named for Cornelius Vander Starr, an early leader in the insurance industry and founder of the American International Group (AIG), Starr attended UCBe as an undergraduate.

Designed by Billie Tsien and Tod Williams, the building occupies a site on the north edge of the Memorial Glade that is part of the campus’s landmarked Classical Core. The library‘s rectangular form, tiled hip-roof, vertically proportioned punched windows, and granite cladding were mandated in the criteria of the 2002 New Century Plan and derived from the neo-classical buildings in the campus core area. The library’s location across from John Galen Howard’s monumental Doe Library made designing the building to harmonize with the tone of the core particularly important.

Yet, while honoring the criteria, the architects created a building that has more in common with the tenets of Modernism than those of Classicism. Notwithstanding the primary use of poured-in-place concrete and the exterior’s 3’-7”x 7’-10” granite slabs, the library does not convey the sense of a masonry building kin to its neighbors. The 2.25″-thick slabs are treated like giant tiles affixed to the concrete walls. The walls’ separation from the roof gives them a screenlike appearance, and the punched windows with minimal projecting heads contribute to the impression of thinness associated with Modernism.

The defining feature of the long south façade is not the grand flight of stairs that typically announced the entrance to a neo-classical building, but a bronze grille 110 by 32 feet designed in a variation of the traditional “cracked ice” pattern often used in previous eras in Chinese history. This and two other elaborate bronze grilles located on the east and west walls were cast in sand in a foundry in Hangzhou, China. Night illumination increase their magical effect

In addition to their aesthetic contribution, the grilles have the practical effects of lowering energy costs by reducing over forty-five percent of the direct sunlight entering the building and allowing office windows of different sizes to be hidden behind the south wall’s grille.

Cherry wood was used throughout the library interior, often in sections of narrow battens backed by a red fabric, as shown above. Floors are made of bamboo.

Photographs by Jonathan Reo

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