Building Berkeley to last, with a nod to the masters

Haas Pavilion was still in its birth throes in 1998, when Ed Denton — newly returned to campus as vice chancellor for capital projects — began rewriting the rules for how to do building at UC Berkeley.

Ed Denton

Ed Denton in his campus office, looking toward retirement and surrounded by images of sailboats. (NewsCenter photo by Barry Bergman)

Campus planners were firmly committed to a $42 million price tag for a spacious, state-of-the-art, Art Deco-style sports facility on the site of the old Harmon Gym. Denton insisted the budget was not up to the vision.

“No one was willing to say, ‘We can’t build this building for $42 million — we either need to reduce the scope to align with $42 million, or increase the budget,’ ” he recalls. No one, that is, but Denton himself, who came to Berkeley determined to put what he terms the “three-legged stool” of architecture — quality, cost and schedule — back into balance.

Before he’d completed his first month on the job, he says, “I was sitting in front of the regents, saying I need more money.”

While the regents had to approve the bigger budget, though, “Athletics had to pay for it,” Denton adds. “So Athletics wasn’t happy. No one was happy.”

That changed, of course, with the opening of the 12,000-seat complex, home to Cal’s basketball, volleyball and gymnastics teams. Looking back on it now, Denton — who recently announced plans to retire in January — says the episode was “painful,” but a crucial learning experience.

“The lesson, for me as well as my staff, was that if you don’t believe you can deliver it with the quality, the budget and the schedule that they expect, then let’s speak up early and talk about what we can do,” he explains.

“Hope isn’t necessarily going to get it for the price you want to pay,” he says. “You’ve got to have a little more rigor in your understanding of what that means.”

Injecting rigor into Berkeley’s facilities program quickly became a key part of Denton’s mission as vice chancellor. Now, more than 15 years later, he views its achievement as a key part of his legacy.

California Memorial Stadium

Denton’s “masterpiece,” the renovated California Memorial Stadium and adjoining Student Athlete High Performance Center.

That, and the way he’s both preserved and transformed the architectural landscape of the Berkeley campus, blending the new and old while giving new life — and seismic integrity — to classic structures.

By general acclamation, the jewel in Denton’s legacy is the revitalized, earthquake-proof California Memorial Stadium — a national landmark whose elegant, 90-year-old façade was preserved even as its interior was completely rebuilt — and construction of the adjacent Student Athlete High Performance Center, or SAHPC. The Beaux Arts-style coliseum, which straddles the Hayward Fault, was originally designed by architect John Galen Howard to honor World War I veterans. A 21st-century training center had long been seen as essential to Cal recruiting efforts.

The SAHPC is “as long as a football field, two stories tall, and it’s all underground,” says Denton, whose budget and schedule both were monkey-wrenched by lawsuits and a 19-month tree-sit in a nearby oak grove the campus had slated for clearing. “Most folks don’t even realize it’s there.”

Robert Birgeneau, a staunch advocate of the ambitious project who stepped down as chancellor in June, remembers a moment he and Denton shared after the stadium finally reopened. They were on the new plaza that serves as the underground facility’s roof, looking out at the Golden Gate Bridge, when Denton joked that a cluster of trees was blocking his view and should be removed.

“Only Ed could maintain such a sense of humor,” concludes Birgeneau, “after the 19-month delay of his masterpiece.”

Respecting history, leaving a legacy

It was Birgeneau’s predecessor, Robert Berdahl, whose administrative realignment in 2003 put Denton in charge of a vast, integrated unit responsible for managing all campus buildings and space “from cradle to grave.” In his expanded role of vice chancellor for facilities services, Denton’s staff of 100 or so employees grew to well over 500.

Denton, with East Asian Library Libary in background

With its granite blocks and tile roof, the “unmistakably new” C.V. Starr East Asian Library complements the Doe, a Beaux Arts classic built in 1911. (NewsCenter photo by Barry Bergman)

As vice chancellors go, Denton has kept a low profile during his 15 years at Berkeley. His face, anchored by an impressive white mustache, is not among the campus’s iconic, instantly recognizable images.

His fingerprints, though, are everywhere. He has overseen 6.3 million square feet of new and renovated projects, and earthquake-safety improvements on three-quarters of all the square footage once deemed seismically unsound. When he departs in January, he’ll leave a campus that reflects not just his own aesthetic sensibility, but his abiding respect for Berkeley’s rich architectural history, from Howard to Bernard Maybeck to Julia Morgan.

Just as important to Denton, though, it reflects his appreciation for function as well as form. That means things like keeping restrooms clean, and locating water valves where maintenance workers can reach them.

“I don’t want my legacy to be a bunch of good-looking buildings that may work well for the architects, but are difficult to maintain,” he says. “I don’t think that’s a successful legacy.”

Denton studied architecture at Berkeley, earning his degree in 1970 — by which time he’d met and married his wife, Barbara, another alum. (The couple’s daughter, Alexis, also graduated from Berkeley.) He worked as an architect for 13 years before hiring on at Kaiser Permanente as a project manager, hoping to learn health care from the perspective of an “owner” — directing the work of architects and contractors — and then, after five years or so, return to private practice.

“But I discovered in those five years that I really liked being an owner,” he explains. “I love hiring architects. I love hiring contractors. I loved working with them to create a facility that for me, as the owner, was our physical brand, if you will. I loved it.”

In late 1997 he was invited, along with top facilities officials from UC Davis and the University of Maryland, to take a look at Berkeley’s capital program. “The perception, at the time, was that projects weren’t going too well,” he says. “They might be late, they might be over budget, and we were faced with this huge seismic problem that was coming down the pike. It was an opportunity to step back, to take a look at who we were and how we did it.”

What Denton saw was a process burdened by lowballing bidders — public-works contractors who made their profits from change orders — and an approach to building that was inorganic and inefficient. “They were used to designing it, bidding it and building it,” he explains. “That’s how they’d always done it.”

When the vice chancellor’s position opened up. Denton eagerly took up the challenge. “I left Kaiser mainly because I wanted to come back here and be part of turning this program around,” he says.

Haas Pavilion

Haas Pavilion, by night: “Hope isn’t necessarily going to get it for the price you want,” says Denton.

He created a scoring system to pre-qualify contractors, which not only boosted the quality of bidders on campus buildings but also — by having the contractor at the table with the architect in the early stages of design — vastly improved the likelihood of delivering projects on time and on budget.

And he brought an aesthetic vision that views the campus not as a collection of separate structures but as “ensembles of buildings,” relating to one another through “massing” (how different shapes are arranged), materials and scale. He points with pride to the “unmistakably new” C.V. Starr East Asian Library, whose bronze screen, granite exterior and tile roof complement Doe Library, and Stanley Hall, a modern research facility that “speaks to” the Howard-designed Hearst Memorial Mining building, commissioned in 1907 by Phoebe Apperson Hearst.

In part to prevent graceless, out-of-scale structures like Wurster and Evans halls — built, Denton says, “at a time when architecture wasn’t responding at all to the classical core” of the campus — he spearheaded the creation of a series of planning documents, such as the New Century Plan and the Long Range Development Plan, that enshrine a respect for Berkeley’s architectural heritage into its building philosophy.

All of which, perhaps, makes it easier for him to retire, though he plans to remain connected to campus by keeping a second home in Northside and making use of his season tickets at Memorial Stadium. (He purchased the tickets through the Endowment Seating Program, created to help finance the $321 million stadium upgrade.) He’s also likely to do some sailing, and almost certain to “dabble professionally” in architecture.

“I’m very proud of all we’ve accomplished. And I have to say we’ve accomplished it not because of me, but because of all the folks who work here,” says Denton, who lost more than 30 custodians to budget cuts in a “very traumatic” round of layoffs. (All those who wanted to return are back on the job, he adds.)

“For a while, when folks would ask me what’s important, I’d say ‘our people, our customers, our legacy.’ In that order. But legacy on a campus can be quite pronounced, because there’ll be 50,000 people coming here every year. And they’ll be appreciating, and enjoying, and hopefully learning from all we’ve accomplished in Facilities Services.

“It’s quite humbling, really,” he adds. Behind him, in his modest Architects and Engineers office, a photo of his sailboat fills his computer monitor. “It’s been a great run.”