When the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) first opened in September 1969 it was hailed as one of the most significant architectural examples of mid-century modernism in the United States. Designed by architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo in collaboration with landscape architect Dan Kiley and garden designer Geraldine Knight Scott, the Museum achieved an integration of architecture and landscape through the creation of a series of indoor and outdoor spaces.
Having visited the Museum in the 70’s I was excited and intrigued to revisit it in April this year. The first experience that struck me as the sense of moving horizontally and vertically through a series of spaces defined by a combination of geometric concrete surfaces and plant material. At the time the Museum opened 40 years ago this modulation of spaces was considered ground breaking. The dramatic effect was further enhanced by coordination of external spaces formed by a series of roof terraces that function as geometric gardens and settings for sculptural installations.
While moving around the roof terraces however, I became very aware that the gridded layout has effectively created a series of cul-de-sacs in which sculptures sit static within the rigid geometry of the terrace. This striking experience contrasts with the current emphasis on flow of visitors through contemporary sculpture gardens. Nevertheless the roof terraces function very effectively as garden spaces in which plant material provides a rich visual experience that is enhanced by views to the surrounding the landscape that include a lake visible in the mid distance and hills on the distant skyline.
I was also struck by the contrast in visual character between the sculptures installed in the 1970’s and more recent installations. In particular there is a general lack of colour in many of the original installations that emphasise the natural materiality of metal, timber and stone. By comparison a recently installed laser cut and powder coated metal sculpture presents a strong emphasis on colour.
The original design brief for the Museum stated that it “should sensitively reflect the character of Northern California, its native building materials, functional use of outdoor patios and courts, native plants and also its architectural traditions.” According to landscape architect Joe Karr, who worked with Dan Kiley, “The Oakland Museum structure and its overlaying landscape were uniquely interwoven together as one … [and] appeared as an extensive multi-level garden rather than a building.”
The Roche / Dinkeloo masterplan concept created a building to serve the dual purposes of a Museum and public urban park. The project involved construction of a 2 ha concrete building topped by rooftop garden terraces and outdoor exhibition spaces. The 3-tiered terraced roof gardens together with the central courtyard were designed by noted landscape architect Dan Kiley and serve as an urban park for Oakland residents and visitors. The three levels of galleries each have gardens that form the roof of the level below. Broad flights of stairs and trellised walkways connect one level to the next and guide you through the landscape spaces.
Nearly 180 individual planters are growing in the roof gardens. Each containing plants with common physical requirements for healthy growth. At the lowest level is a large central space located on the only portion of natural ground in the Museum. Large trees include Eucalyptus and Live Oak that were planted around a central lawn area that contained several pre-existing Cedar of Lebanon trees. Throughout the remainder of the gardens, smaller trees are planted in straight rows in tiered planters, reflecting Kiley’s tendency to group trees of the same type, often in bosques, rows and allées. They include a combination of fruit trees (Olive, Lemon and Japanese Pear); evergreen (Pine); and deciduous (Hawthorn). As a pioneer roof garden project the Museum presented a number of major challenges. Species were selected for their tolerance of the arid climate and their ability to survive with the limited root space provided by the on-structure planters that had soil depths limited to range of 200mm to 1 metre. A special soil mix was created for the planters (UC Mix #6) and automatic irrigation system installed to provide the plants with adequate water and fertilizer.
The Museum recently underwent a $62.2 million renovation that sought to pay homage to the original vision of integrating architecture and landscape. In recent years many of the original plantings have been renewed and a great number of the sculptures within the garden have changed. Nevertheless the design intent for the landscape components of the Oakland Museum has been faithfully maintained and it continues to serve as an outstanding model of extensive landscape on structure that is successfully integrated with the building architecture.