Coming around the bottom of Lake Merritt towards 12th Street, it is easy to glance right past the Oakland Museum of California without taking any notice of it. Pinched between the ornate whiteness of the Kaiser Convention Center and the imperial gravitas of the Alameda County Courthouse, the OMCA’s tall trees and blank cement become such a non-entity that it is hard to see even when you are looking at it. Were it not for the sign, a fanciful person might imagine that the building was a gray, rectilinear tumor spreading from the wall of the 11th Street tunnel, rather than a architectural masterpiece.

Architectural shadows engaging a sculpture

Architectural shadows engaging a sculpture

Once inside, however, the building is clearly and unmistakably a masterpiece.

At 45, the architecture of the building is still appealing and intense in a way that few buildings ever manage. The geometric asymmetry of the walls and terraces and stairs evoke the very thrill of modernism, while the tall trees, dense landscaping and busy ponds disrupt the repetition and provide living counterbalance to the cement and glass and wood.  Far from being kept neatly separate, the art and architecture and landscape interact throughout the museum, catalyzing and enhancing one another.

Every Sunday of last month, and every first Sunday for the rest of the summer (at least), the OMCA provides a free architectural tour, guided by members of the museum’s Council on Architecture. These tours are in anticipation of the re-release of the small book The Oakland Museum: A Gift of Architecture, an update on the original analysis and photos with new photos taken following the 2010 renovation.

Architecture and landscaping interact to create secluded bowers

Architecture and landscaping interact to create a secluded bower

On Sunday, July 6, the tour was led by Andre Ptasyznski, a former chair of the museum’s Council on Architecture, and one of the architects who helped update the book. He discussed not only the history of the building’s design, but also reflected on the ways in which it both prefigured many contemporary green-building ideas and yet remains a landmark of mid-century modernism. “This is a model for what a city could be, if we paid attention to it,” said Ptasyznski in reference to the building’s style, vegetation and utility.

In the 60s, the OMCA was conceived of as a way to unite the collections of three separate Oakland museums–natural history, cultural history, and art–under one roof. To that purpose, Eero Saarinen, who created NYC’s striking TWA flight Center and the St. Louis Gateway Arch, was selected to design the new museum. Unfortunately, he died suddenly at the age of 51, and the project was inherited by Kevin Roche, who worked for Eero’s firm.

The OMCA was Kevin Roche’s very first design project in a career that would eventually earn him the Pritzker prize, often thought of as architecture’s equivalent to the Nobel prize.

The ponds, with black-crowned night herons, koi, turtles and 4ft long strugeon

A night heron at the ponds, along with koi and turtles

What makes the building remarkable, besides its modernist precision, is its visionary use of green-building designs and methods. According to Ptasyznski it was probably the first green building in the tradition of public architecture. The materials were local, including the most prominent material: cement from the Henry J. Kaiser’s Permanente Quarry. The design emphasized the use of natural light, the hybridization of nature and structure into living habitats, the preservation of trees that were already part of the construction site, and the use of living roofs. “There’s nothing else like it from that period that has these aspects,” said Ptasyznski.

Apparently these retro-innovations are more than just bragging rights. In 2010, when the museum was renovated, the building was easily able to achieve a LEED certification, despite being a heritage site. The green roof and the natural light already supported energy efficiency, and additions to the museum were built with predominantly recycled and reclaimed materials.

People's Park

A people’s park

OMCA was initially envisioned as a “people’s park”, with entrances on all sides and free admission, its design both avant-garde and humbly utilitarian, with spaces for congregation and for seclusion, for art and for nature and for people. It is hard to see all that from the outside, these days, but that’s why, wandering around the terraces, on a free first Sunday, during the free tour on the architecture, the place comes alive and reveals its genius.

About The Author

Eric is a freelance writer who covers Oakland's thriving New Economy movement, as well as local culture, community projects, and letters. As graduate of UC Santa Cruz he is essentially a socialist, but what does that even mean anymore, really? As a proud Oakland transplant from the PNW, Eric sees his work at Oakland Local as a small part of Oakland's battle to keep its identity, support all its peoples, and be prospering without plundering.

3 Responses

  1. PRE

    Eric, what a great article on a great building and a fantastic garden space! Oftentimes it feels like a my private garden as I’m often alone or with two or three others enjoying the great views of the Lake.

    Do you know if there are plans to try and find a permanent solution for the graffiti that oftentimes mars the exterior of the museum, with hanging plants for example?

    Also, a bit off topic, does anyone know if the Museum picked up the “Northerly/Southerly” sign when the 12th St. Dam was reconstructed?


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