Source: San Francisco Chronicle | John King | January 3, 2016
In an odd way, UC Berkeley’s new Shyh Wang Hall — built to house supercomputers capable of handling as many as 2 quadrillion calculations per second each, whatever that means — resembles a mainframe computer itself. It’s a sleek metal cube that’s hard to disguise, smooth in front with odd connections coming out the back.
The difference is that this four-story chunk of metal and glass isn’t tucked into a corner of a basement or control room. It’s attached to a hillside above the UC Berkeley campus — yet another Bay Area example of how research and medical buildings, no matter how innovative they might be inside, are increasingly awkward neighbors as our region grows more dense.
In and of itself, the $143 million structure dedicated in November is designed to be operated with machine-like efficiency, pairing form and function in surprisingly sustainable ways.
The new building is named for Wang, a Cal professor who did pioneering work in semiconductor research before his death in 1992, and sits inside the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, a 202-acre enclave managed by the Department of Energy.
The top two floors are office and meeting spaces for researchers in applied mathematics, computer science and high-speed computing and networking. The level below contains the drama: the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center, which makes its hardware available to 6,000 or so researchers around the country when they want to run their most demanding computer simulations.
As for the bottom “floor,” it’s not really a floor so much as a 30-foot-tall space pressed against the steep ridgeline with solid walls on the north and south and a screen of open horizontal grills facing west.
Taking advantage of the ridgeline might be the most innovative feature of this building designed by the San Francisco office of Perkins + Will. The west edge allows fog and cool air to come in from the bay — a largely passive system for heating and cooling that includes large screened cuts through the concrete floor of the computer level so that air can be sucked upward and filtered to allow the outside air to circulate more efficiently.
Blunt visual impact
Given the machines humming inside at all hours, the complex is still an energy hog: One look at the 30-inch-diameter cooling water pipes emerge from the south edge of Wang Hall into four induced draft cooling towers is all the visual proof you need. But with such features as the ventilation system, and smart-looking perforated sunscreens that slice from the exterior of the office floors, the goal at Wang Hall is to use 60 percent less energy than conventional mechanical systems would.
“It was an absolute design requirement that this building perform as well as possible,” said John Long, the Perkins + Will principal overseeing the project. The design team also included the structural engineering firm Thornton Tomasetti and Dynamic Isolation Systems to collaborate on such challenges as the need to ride out a 7.5 temblor on the nearby Hayward Fault.
Early schemes by the architects set the office floors perpendicular to the levels below, to reduce the visual bulk from afar. But space on the hillside already is so cramped that the office portion would have needed to climb several extra stories. So instead we have a thick bar that is 384 feet long and 85 feet tall.
The visual impact is as blunt as it sounds. Fortunately, the architects’ desire for white metal panels was nixed by the lab. They’re a dusty green meant to blend with the hillside’s eucalyptus trees — a hue that helps lessen the shock value from afar, though the hulk remains daunting when viewed on the approach to Lawrence Berkeley from Cyclotron Road.
This is a variation of the awkward shove of UC Berkeley lab buildings against downtown Berkeley. Or UCSF’s Mission Bay campus. Or every suburban hospital that rebuilds at a scale the neighbors have never seen. State-of-the-art code requirements plus user expectations equal boxes that often seem to land with a thud.
Wang Hall shows more care, with details like the office floors’ crisp sunshades and the tight metal grill vents cloaking the oversize lower floors. But there was no review of the project by UC Berkeley, since Lawrence Berkeley is autonomous. Nor does the city of Berkeley have anything beyond a courtesy say, since state-owned land is off-limits to local approvals. Once the client is happy and has money, the construction crews get to work.
Wang Hall is more sensitive to its surroundings than Lawrence Berkeley’s older crude, squat boxes. But like them, there’s no avoiding it from nearby neighborhoods — and with each new addition to the crowd, the crowd is harder to miss.