Deconstructing Dwinelle

Contact Jessica Lum at [email protected]

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The best way to navigate Dwinelle Hall, according to those who work in the split-level maze of a building, is to walk in circles.

"If you can't find something, just go around and you'll eventually find it," says Hiromi Urayama, a lecturer in the department of East Asian languages and cultures who says her department serves as a kind of information desk at the front of the building. "The same thing happens with the restrooms. If you just walk around, you'll hit one."

Dwinelle is the one campus building everyone seems to get lost in. Faculty cite a room numbering system that jumps from thousands to hundreds, the unorthodox alphabetical labeling of levels, and elevators that transport people to unexpected floors.

"It's difficult with TV equipment with wheels. You have to go to D floor or G floor. That's the only place where (the elevators) match," says Suin Shin, a graduate student in the German department.

Nero Tinsley, a UC Berkeley student with a philosophy discussion section in the building, says certain floors are only accessible from select sides of the building.

"It's hard to get from the front of the building to the back," Tinsley says.

Galen Cranz, a professor in the campus's department of architecture, agrees that the architects seemed to neglect the importance of circulation in Dwinelle.

"It disorients people and upsets them," she says.

Why is Dwinelle so difficult to figure out? The unvarying response is the legend of two architect brothers.

The tale goes that the two brothers started planning the building together, got into some sort of fight, and then proceeded to plan and construct the building without collaborating with each other.

Actually, there were no brothers, according to Jeffrey Tilman, an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Cincinnati and a leading scholar on the building's supervising architect, Arthur Brown, Jr.

Brown, who designed the Coit Tower and San Francisco's City Hall, appointed his successor firm, Weihe Frick and Kruse, to help design the building, completed in 1952.

Most of the features of the building that make it difficult to navigate, Tilman says, are "simple architectural strategies to better respond to the conditions of the site."

Those conditions include the site's gradual slope and the form of surrounding buildings.

Originally, short flights of stairs were used to ease the floors of the building down the slope, he says. The stairways created multilayer a basement, labeled A through F.

"They call the floors and elevators A, B, C, D, E and F, but no one knows what it corresponds to," Urayama says.

A complicated elevator system later became necessary to make these half-levels manageable for the handicapped, Tilman says.

He says the original plan was for Dwinelle to be several smaller buildings centered around a main auditorium seating about 6,000 people.

But over time, the auditorium was broken up and plans were changed to allow departments to expand without having to relocate to a separate building.

"The idea for the building was to create some flexibility for the skyrocketing student population and the increasing number of faculty," he says.

A boom in the student population after World War II caused the current layout of Dwinelle, he says.

This modified format is a single large building made to house and properly ventilate many departments and the three separate auditoriums, he says.

Another effect of the post-war period was that the university could not afford to finish buildings with granite, he says. Instead, Dwinelle was gilded in plaster with a stucco finish.

Technicalities aside, Tilman says John Galen Howard's work on campus, including Dwinelle Annex, and Brown's own work at Sproul Hall were most likely the artistic inspiration for Dwinelle Hall.

Faculty like Shin say they appreciate the aesthetics of Dwinelle's Ishi Court, but adds, "After all these years of working here, we still haven't figured it out."


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