BERKELEY -- Like a modern-day version of a barn raising, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives' "topping-out" block party at Addison Street below Oxford Way on July 17 was a community affair.
Heralding back 1,000 years to a Scandinavian convention of raising a fir tree or flag when a new building's structure reaches a pivotal point, city officials, BAM/PFA stakeholders and staff, builders of the institution's new home and the general public roared their approval as a 15-foot, 3,000-pound steel beam soared 50 feet overhead.
BAM/PFA began planning for the new facility in 1997, when its longtime home at 2626 Bancroft Way was deemed seismically deficient. Film programs were temporarily moved to a separate building in 2001.
The new building, designed by architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is expected to be completed by July 2015 and open for operation by early 2016, when it will once again unite art exhibits and film programs under one roof.
About 500 people gathered to write their names -- some adding spirited embellishments such as "Art Rocks! and "Cal, Go Bears!" -- on the beam.
At the celebration's climax, having their ears blasted by 14-piece brass band Mission Delirium and their taste buds "snow-coned" by Skylite Snowballs, the crowd watched as the beam was maneuvered into its final position where the old art deco printing plant integrates with the theater portion of the new building.
"The location will form a bridge between the campus and the community," UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor John Wilton said to the partygoers.
Berkeley Vice Mayor Linda Maio said that at a time when new technologies arrive "by the fistful," the building represents "a place devoted to the best of our past and an exciting vision of the future."
In comments at an invitation-only VIP party before the topping-off, BAM/PFA Director Lawrence Rinder said, "It's a shot in the arm."
He said the location, just three blocks from Berkeley High School, fills his mind with possibilities. Close to BART, just steps from both the entrance to the university campus and downtown, he liked "inner fringe" as a description of the site.
UC Chancellor Nicholas Dirks agreed, noting the promise of a moment when a plan and an idea are realized in a material way. "The unity will provide events that are exchanges," he predicted.
His imagination was abuzz: International exhibits that examine modernity and how it is expressed in different parts of the world was just one of the many ideas he hoped will come to the museum.
The importance of place, he said, is how well it situates knowledge and engagement in such a way that positive, thought-altering energy is created.
Joan Roebuck, a BAM/PFA trustee since 1998, simply knew she wanted to participate. She said fundraising for the new building as the project grew and changed was hard work. Now, surrounded by people envisioning the museum as a community resource, she said it was worthwhile.
Retired civil engineer and new BAM/PFA member Bob Gomez never had a doubt about his participation. "When they started the building, it caught my interest," he said.
Happy that art and film will be combined, thrilled at the museum's proximity to BART, he even has a suggestion for an exhibit: "The sculptor Alexander Calder -- his sister had a house on Tamalpais (Road), so he'd be perfect." Margaret Calder Hayes taught art classes for children in her Berkeley home and was instrumental in BAM's creation.
Obadiah Hampton, a 2009 Cal art graduate, expressed a mild reservation, pointing out that the building was no longer "just across the street" from the UC building where art classes are taught. But swept into the frivolity and futuristic tone of the block party, he said the building's attraction was irresistible. Did he write his name on the beam and anchor his lofty place in eternity? You bet.