PRINT December 1964

The New Oakland Museum

IN APRIL, 1961, THE VOTERS of Oakland, California, approved a $6,000,000 bond issue, thereby insuring that the residents of the East Bay Area would have, at last, one of the country’s finest new museum buildings. This museum, designed by Kevin Roche of Eero Saarinen Associates, and expected to be completed late in 1966, will house the collections and activities of the city’s three present museums of art, history, and natural science.

Conceived to complement the existing civic structures which they adjoin, the buildings will, themselves, form a park-like setting. Extremely important to the visual success of the project will be the landscaping. The straight edges, right angles, and mass of building at different levels will contrast with the soft colors and irregular silhouette of natural-forms of the plantings. This will enhance the “indoor-outdoor” feeling the visitor will experience no matter where he is within the plan. The roof of one gallery will become the garden and terrace entering into another. Plantings of indigenous trees, shrubs, and vines will provide the visitor with an expansive series of roof gardens through which he may walk to and from the galleries and offices.

The primary building material, inside and out, will be concrete of a light beige tonality, sandblasted for textural effect. Extensive use of carpeting and accents of wood will create an atmosphere of warmth and comfort.

The site on which the building is to be placed is located on four square city blocks to the south of the Alameda County Courthouse and sloping toward Lake Merritt. Taking advantage of the incline, the architects have conceived the three major galleries as three steps, the top step at the west side being the art gallery, marching down to an enclosed garden at the east side where, happily, twenty conifers of various types, presently on the site, will remain undisturbed. This garden court (which is roughly 200 feet by 200 feet) will be used for many museum activities, including exhibitions, concerts and receptions. A pergola, reflecting pool, and small courts will add to the beauty and intimacy of the surroundings. The three levels will emphasize the distinct nature of each gallery but the architecture, subject matter, and overall exhibit design will insure a coherent and unified museum experience.

Along the south side of the plan are located those various facilities necessary to the carrying out of a complete museum program. At the southwest corner of the site is a flexible changing exhibition hall permitting the presentation of either one large or several smaller shows. In plan, the gallery is 200 feet by 70 feet and two stories high for half of its length.

At the southeast is a theatre seating 300 persons. The entrance to the theatre is provided with a ramp connecting with the main corridor of the building. By using the ramp and elevators, the handicapped visitor may reach any part of the building without having to use stairs. Along the south side, between the auditorium and the theatre, are located the main lobby, entrance to the science museum, sales desk and above, on the second level, the restaurant. Four classrooms accommodating 40 persons each and a 100-seat lecture hall complete the plan.

The building has four office areas—one for each of the three curators adjacent to the galleries, and as has been noted, each on a different level. The Director’s office and those concerned with general administration are adjacent to the changing exhibition gallery and on the same level as the art gallery.

This complex of museum facilities may be entered at three locations. One entrance, on the west side, serves the art gallery, administrative offices, and the changing gallery. This permits the closing of the rest of the building if an evening reception is held in connection with a major opening.

The main lobby, entrance to the natural science and history galleries, and sales desk, are reached by an entrance on the south side.

It has been noted that each gallery is on a separate level. This creates two stories of space beneath the art gallery, one story below the history gallery and none beneath the natural science wing. Much of this space below is taken up with a loading dock, workshops, storage and employee facilities. Most of the area, however, will be occupied by a 200-car parking garage which will be used by those visiting the museum and the area. In addition, an underpass, permitting traffic to flow smoothly on one of the streets bisecting the original site curves through one corner of the plan.

In every aspect of design the quality of the visitor’s experiences with the building has been the first consideration. He will not be overwhelmed with vast staircases and intimidating halls. Rather, the architects have planned a delightful place in which to spend a day. Such a setting now presents an incomparable opportunity and challenge to the staff of the museum to develop new techniques (or improve old ones) in order to bring to the public, meaningfully and clearly the real significance of the objects on display.

The museum is an educational institution. It uses its objects (as a library uses its books) to help its visitors gain a greater understanding of the world about them. The City of Oakland has provided itself with an inspired museum design in which it will be possible to develop one of the nation’s outstanding regional museums and cultural centers.

James M. Brown is Director of Museums of the City of Oakland.