Revisiting the Bateson Building

Bateson Building, Sim Van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe (Sacramento, 1975-78) from

Bateson Building, Sim Van der Ryn and Peter Calthorpe (Sacramento, 1975-78)

Previously I mentioned the Bateson Building, said it "will surely earn a place in the history books of the future," and I applauded Dell Upton for recognizing the importance of the project in his book Architecture in the United States.  Here's a bit more.

I believe it is accurate to say the Bateson Building was the first major public building after 1973 to achieve major energy savings.  It was built for the State of California, in Gov. Jerry Brown's first term.  The architects were challenged to save 75% on energy costs, and upon completion it was promoted as the most energy-efficient office building in the nation.  (I think the actual savings did not reach the goal, but I haven't been able to locate figures.)  It was also probably the first effort to make design decisions based on computer simulations of energy use in a large-scale public building.

I'm interested in the Bateson Building for several reasons, but here I'll emphasize that it displayed some techniques developed in early experimental solar houses.  In particular, the gravel bed for thermal storage (shown in the image below) is surely a direct descendant of the work of George Löf, as described in The Solar House.  In the Bateson Building, the gravel stored "coolth" from the night air rather than solar heat.  And like many earlier solar houses, the Bateson Building needed mechanical air systems to help mix hot and cold air.  The vertical air ducts became a major feature within the building (see last image below), and they remind me of the way architect James Hunter used vertical cardboard tubes for aesthetic interest in the George Löf Denver house of 1956 (see here).

I also enjoy sharing the Bateson Building with students because it responds to more basic and eternal principles, tapping into pre-modern wisdom about environmental control.  The building is organized around a four-story shaded courtyard, and the shaded courtyard is a feature in virtually every type of traditional architecture in hot-dry climates.  (In this case the courtyard is within the building, and part of the conditioned space.)  The courtyard also creates an ennobled sense of community for the office workers.

And the Bateson Building broke with modernist practice by offering a different expression on each of the four orientations.  The south facade includes deep trellises to provide shade; the east and west have operable canvas shades, and the north has clear glass in the plane of the wall.  Then the structure was topped by south-inclined roof monitors with operable vanes for passive solar heating when needed, and north-facing skylights for daylight.  In all of these ways, it profoundly embodied the concept of 'solar architecture'.  Calthorpe wrote:

"Each facade is different in response to its solar orientation: the south is shaded by deep trellises and decks, the east and west have colorful canvas shades that retract, and the north has simple clear glass to maximize daylight. This facade variation, along with the decks, wood siding, and landscaping, makes the building compatible with a mixed residential neighborhood."



I'm also interested in the building's emphasis on legibility.  You can see what is structure and what is infill.  You can see how the shading works.  You can see how the air is being moved.  Several writers have found a Louis Kahn-influence in the Bateson Building, and I think the nature of that influence resides in the idea of legibility, as exemplified by Kahn's earlier Richards Medical Research Labs (1957-60).  This theme is buttressed by Reyner Banham's famous aphorism from The Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (1969): "The building is serviced, and manifestly seen to be serviced."  In this way, the Bateson Building can be understood as part of a tradition including Kahn's work, the Pompidou Center by Richard Rogers & Renzo Piano (1973-77), and continuing in the work of people such as Rogers and Piano today.

Simon Sadler, in the context of a discussion about Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, offered this interpretation of the Bateson Building:

"The building recalled something of the urban holism requested by the Whole Earth Catalog’s most revered architectural critic, Lewis Mumford, and before him, Frank Lloyd Wright and Bernard Maybeck. It was not a caricature of a cybernetic or biological technostructure; with its pronounced stylistic debts to Louis Kahn and traditional Japanese architecture, its outlook was as humanly unsystematic as any of the other coevolutionary experiments visited by Brand."



Upton emphasized that Calthorpe "described the Bateson Building as a living organism that would respond almost sentiently to changes in environmental conditions," and he wrote:

"Calthorpe's image of the building as a sentient being ... propels the Bateson Building from the technical domain of building science back into the metaphorical realm of nature and culture"

I'll give the final words to Sim Van der Ryn:

"We found that in designing with natural energy flows we became sensitive to difference.  The measure became not foot-candles of quantifiable illumination, which means nothing, but the quality of light you experience, which means everything.  We found we could consider the wall of the building not as a static, two-dimensional architectural element, but as a living skin that is sensitive to and adapts to differences in temperature and light.  We found that designing a building to save energy means designing a building that is sensitive to difference and results in a building that is better for people.  We are not adapted to live or work at temperatures or lighting levels that are uniform or constant.  We are most alive when we experience subtle cycles of difference in our surroundings.  The building itself becomes "the pattern which connects" us to the change and flow of climate, season, sun, shadow, constantly tuning our awareness of the natural cycles that support all life.

Maybe this is what esthetics and beauty are all about.  Maybe what we find beautiful is that which connects us to an experience of difference: to an experience of the patterns of wholeness, patterns that distinguish the living world from the works of humankind."

Leonard Bachman, Integrated Buildings: The Systems Basis of Architecture (2002)
Peter Calthorpe, Urbanism in the Age of Climate Change (2011)
Carroll Pursell, "Sim Van der Ryn and the Architecture of the Appropriate Technology
     Movement," Australasian Journal of American Studies (2009)
Simon Sadler, "An Architecture of the Whole," Journal of Architectural Education (2008)
Dell Upton, Architecture in the United States (1998)
Sim Van der Ryn, Design For Life: The Architecture of Sim Van der Ryn (2005)