Forty years ago the Oakland Museum of California introduced a radical, modern, and green concept for a public museum -- and that vision is now being updated and preserved in a major renovation. The brutalist design by Kevin Roche was hailed as a landmark for its massive garden roof, extensive courtyards and low-slung concrete buildings that, for a casual observer, could appear like a long-abandoned industrial complex from afar. A major renovation is underway to preserve the extraordinary vision of this urban park and cultural complex while enhancing the interior to provide adequate programs for today’s needs.
The 4 square-block museum displays traditional and contemporary art, natural history, and cultural history, although locals once referred to it as “the bunker” because of its low profile and many disjointed sections. The $62.2 million renovation by Architect Mark Cavagnero aims to change that by bringing in much more daylight and opening up the maze-like galleries. The renovation will allow the galleries to host extensive showings and will create a state-of-the-art archives for the more than 2 million objects in storage. The most obvious change is a new covered entrance and unified lobby. The isolated spaces are brought closer into circulation, encouraging visitors to mingle in Dan Kiley’s extensive gardens, the galleries and the patios.
The museum is located just south of downtown Oakland, where it has always acted as an island, due in part to its design and a 1940s era 12-lane road that separated it from Lake Merit. The lake has long been a favorite of pedestrians and joggers, and a new revitalization project will link the museum, adjacent community college and park system together to create a major urban green belt complete with new wetlands. Although for the last couple of decades many cities have sought to build the boldest and baddest new museums, we should also look forward to polishing our older urban gems and renewing our urban vitality.