As much as anything else, Berkeley's new Ed Roberts Campus is defined by its concrete floors.
Throughout the overscaled lobby there's a smooth finish with a burnt sienna sheen, but a broad path through the middle is dark and rough to provide visual and tactile cues for sight-impaired visitors seeking the offices that lie down corridors on either end.
Touches like this are emblematic of what's known as "universal design," an approach that seeks to make buildings comfortably functional for as many people as possible. And the touches are ingrained throughout the $51 million complex, which is home to such organizations as Center for Independent Living and World Institute on Disability. The result isn't flashy architecture. Instead, the 82,000-square-foot building across from Ashby BART Station excels as a different sort of showcase.
"Design is about everything, not just how things look," said William Leddy of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects, the designer. "The more I did this project, the more I realized that good architecture is a social justice issue."
The two-story building was developed by a consortium of seven nonprofits that work with disabled people. Roughly half the budget was covered by private fundraising, the rest by grants from eight government sources.
The decadelong effort translates into a structure scaled for civic presence along Adeline Street, facing BART with a long wall screened in wooden slats and scooped in at the center to create an expansive entrance. Where it turns the corner to face a row of older wooden homes along Woolsey Street, the second floor pulls back to allow a spacious terrace on the ground-floor roof for the building's workers and clientele.
The most striking visual element is inside: a 7-foot-wide spiral ramp suspended from the skylighted ceiling by thin cables, red resin panels lining the ramp on either side.
The lyrical red ribbon is an enticing treat - why search out an elevator? - but it's also a declaration of equal access. Instead of straight stairs next to a back-and-forth ramp - transportation segregation - the coil is a route that people on foot and in wheelchairs can use side by side.
"We wanted to create a means of access that signals universal access the second you enter the building," Leddy said.
Other aspects of universality at Ed Roberts Campus are less obvious.
One end of the lobby has a burbling fountain to serve in part as an orientation tool; card readers on automatic office doors are strong enough to read a security card from several feet away, making passage easier for wheelchair users who can't extend their arms.
There's natural ventilation in private offices. The restroom dimensions are spacious enough that personal attendants can help users. Carpeting has low-key patterns to avoid the chance of triggering a seizure in someone with epilepsy.
"The independent living movement is all about letting people with disabilities have self-determination," said Dmitri Belser, president of the campus and executive director of the Center for Accessible Technologies, one of 11 organizations with space in the complex. "We wanted this building to embody that, to enable the broadest range of users."
For all the ridicule aimed at Berkeley's norm-prodding foibles, Ed Roberts Campus testifies to the value of the city's activist heritage.
Born in 1939, Roberts in 1962 was the first student with significant disabilities to attend UC Berkeley. From there he stirred the disability rights movement to life, was the first person with disabilities to serve as California state director of Rehabilitation and received a 1984 MacArthur fellowship as a "civil rights leader." He died in 1995.
The existence of this campus does more than honor a pioneer. It is an egalitarian oasis that, with luck, will send ripples into the mainstream.
Monday, December 13, 2010
The San Francisco Chronicle. In the picture, Stephanie Miyashiro (left), of a nonprofit group, introduces herself to Ed Roberts Campus receptionist Leah Frenchick.
Posted by BA Haller at 5:22 PM