New Landmark Libraries 2012 #2: Berkeley Law Library, University of California, Berkeley

The 55,000 square foot addition to the UC-Berkeley Law Library appears like an open and transparent one-story pavilion from the street, but it has a huge impact on the law library as well as the law school.

An Airy Light Box for Legal Minds

Berkeley Law Library | University of California, Berkeley Architect: Ratcliff Architects


Opened 2011 Major expansion Special library SIZE 55,000 square feet Cost $50 million pending Leed-NC Gold certification Student pop 1,050

The 55,000 square foot addition to the UC-Berkeley Law Library appears like an open and transparent one-story pavilion from the street, but it has a huge impact on the law library as well as the law school. That’s because 44,000 square feet of library and connections to other parts of the law school are below ground. The 11,000 square feet above ground provide the perfect segue to the pedestrian scale of the streetscape.

Wedged between two courtyards, the pavilion-like structure is home to a café, student lounge, and lecture hall. Above it is a rooftop garden complete with dining areas, teaching and study spaces, and special-event capabilities. Indoor-outdoor social and academic activities are found elsewhere in the building, like the student lounge, whose movable glass walls open to a courtyard.

A clear set of project objectives—flexibility, shared spaces, appealing street presence, improved circulation, beauty, and materials that match the stature of the school—led to the stunning results.

A site challenge

Conquering constraints may be why this project is so successful. It was no easy task to fit the addition into a former courtyard surrounded by the law school. The creative solution—to put two floors under ground—led to extraordinary results. It resolved the pedestrian traffic jams in the former overly packed library stacks by moving the collection into automated compact shelving in the new addition’s two underground levels.

Surprisingly, these underground floors are filled with daylight. An expanse of glass connects the addition to the original structure and, in the process, allows daylight into the lower levels. Glass paving in the courtyards and skylights in the planter beds serve as daylighting conduits to a very pleasant and open experience on the lower levels. That’s ingenious.

A wonderland

Dark-stained cork flooring is a dramatic stage on which light and the neutral tones of the elegant materials and finishes perform. Along with the cork flooring, variegated cedar clads the ceilings above the reference desk to buffer sound and create the quiet needed for legal study. A monumental staircase of glass and granite is another conduit for light into the lower levels as well as a suggestive link between indoor and outdoor spaces. The backdrop of Indiana white limestone walls as well as figured eucalyptus walls makes this library a wonderland of beauty.

The building is on track for LEED Gold certification, and its sustainable strategies include an important symbolic gesture— restoration and reuse of the 100-year-old mahogany study carrels from the original building.

The addition becomes more open, airy, and public as it rises from floor to floor. At the lowest level is the least natural light, the most stacks, and some reader seats. The next level up has skylights, and it is used for staff offices, the service desk, reading rooms, conference space, and a student center. The third level up is dedicated to the café, lecture hall, lounge, and classrooms. Finally, the fourth level contains the main reading room, dean’s conference room, classrooms, and a bridge. Visitors crossing over the bridge find a comfortable rooftop garden designed for outdoor learning and relaxation.

This addition, thoughtfully detailed to take advantage of the vista, including views of the Golden Gate Bridge, ties elegantly to the existing buildings and courtyard spaces. Who wouldn’t want to walk by this building and, perhaps, stop and rest on its steps or in its café? A simple open and transparent box, it makes the most of the space to meet programmatic needs while creating a meditative experience for students and faculty.

“This is a wonderful diminutive project that ties to some real hulks of buildings in a delicate and beautiful way. It makes the existing buildings much richer, better,” one of the judges wrote.

If buildings could talk, the ones surrounding this gem would sing its praises.


Be the first reader to comment.

Comment Policy:
  • Be respectful, and do not attack the author, people mentioned in the article, or other commenters. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane, or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the topic at hand may be deleted.
  • Comments may be republished in print, online, or other forms of media.
  • If you see something objectionable, please let us know. Once a comment has been flagged, a staff member will investigate.


Get connected. Join our global community of more than 200,000 librarians and educators.

Get access to 8000+ annual reviews of books, ebooks, and more

As low as $13.50/month