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Catherine Bauer Wurster’s legacy to live on in renaming of UC Berkeley building

Public housing advocate and former College of Environmental Design associate dean will be honored by the college she helped create

Catherin Bauer WUrster black and white photo of her smiling

Former UC Berkeley College of Engineering and Design Associate Dean Catherine Bauer Wurster will be honored by the program she helped create through the renaming of Wurster Hall to Bauer Wurster Hall. (Photo courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley)

The concrete Brutalist architecture-style building on UC Berkeley’s east end is known to the campus community as Wurster Hall, named after husband and wife William Wurster and Catherine Bauer Wurster, Berkeley professors who together in the 1950s helped to create Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design (CED), the first college of its kind in the world.

To the greater public, though, Catherine Bauer Wurster is not equally recognized as part of the Wurster Hall namesake.

“I think a lot of people just assume the building is only named after her husband and have no idea about her legacy and significant accomplishments,” said Berkeley Environmental Design Archives Curator Chris Marino. “She was just as much behind the creation of CED as was her husband.”

That is why the building is being renamed Bauer Wurster Hall.

Black and white photo of Bauer Wurster Hall

Exterior view looking east of Wurster Hall, now being renamed Bauer Wurster Hall. (Photo courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley)

Regarded by some as the mother of public housing in America, Bauer Wurster worked as an educator at Berkeley and Harvard University for 24 years and was the first female faculty member to join the Department of City and Regional Planning at Berkeley.

Prior to her sudden death in 1964, she pushed to combine the departments of architecture, city and regional planning, and landscape architecture to create the CED program where Bauer Wurster served as its associate dean, after her husband retired as the college’s dean.

The renaming of the building was proposed by CED Dean Vishaan Chakrabarti and influenced, in part, by “150 Years of Women at Berkeley,” or 150W, a yearlong celebration commemorating influential women who have studied, researched or worked here. The physical renaming of the building will take place next year.

Chakrabarti and Chancellor Carol Christ last week hosted a livestreamed video panel “toast” to the renaming, and discussed Bauer Wurster’s impact on Berkeley and American housing reform with Marino and members of the campus’s 150W committee.

Vishaan Chakrabarti headshot

Vishaan Chakrabarti began as the new dean of UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design last summer, and made the renaming a priority for the program. (UC Berkeley photo)

“Catherine Bauer Wurster and William W. Wurster were decades ahead of their time as the founders of a groundbreaking interdisciplinary college dedicated to fighting climate change and social injustice through the dual lens of design and research excellence,” said Chakrabarti, who started as dean of CED in July 2020.

“It is our great pleasure to reaffirm the name of our heroic building as Bauer Wurster Hall to honor this visionary couple, both to reflect the need for equity in our history and to signal a renewed commitment to the issues of public housing, sustainability, racial justice and social infrastructure that are so critical to our collective past, present and future.”

Preserving a legacy

Born in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1905, Bauer Wurster attended Vassar College and majored in art history and literature. Her junior year she transferred to Cornell University to study architecture before returning to Vassar to graduate in 1926.

After becoming a well sought-after researcher in housing and planning policy, Bauer Wurster would advise three presidents on housing and urban planning strategies — including Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. She penned the U.S. Housing Act of 1937 and authored Modern Housing, a quintessential book on city planning that championed public housing.

Timeline of Catherin Bauer Wurster's life

(Timeline graphic courtesy of Chris Marino)

Her accomplishments and influence in housing policy, though, were sometimes not enough, said CED Professor Emerita Elizabeth Deakin, as Bauer Wurster would often find herself the lone woman in a sea of men discussing research and legislation.

She was once referred to as a “handsome blonde with brunette economic ideas.”

“She was subjected to comments about her good looks and her interest in cooking,” said Deakin, who has researched Bauer Wurster’s life for the Berkeley’s 150W History Project. “Despite her privileged upbringing, her elite education, her many powerful connections and her own strong voice for change, she was regularly underappreciated.”

Archival photo of a housing structure in Germany

Photo of public housing in Zurich, Switzerland. Bauer Wurster used these images she captured to help inform her Berkeley curriculum and teaching. (Photo courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley)

In 1974, the Catherine Bauer Wurster collection was donated to the Bancroft Library and consisted of Bauer Wurster’s personal notebooks, letters and photographs. The material had originally been found in Bauer Wurster’s office sometime after her death.

An archival project to reprocess the collection was undertaken in 2016 to identify, restore and organize the material. Marino said a separate collection exists at the Environmental Design Archives, a nonprofit research facility at CED that is committed to raising awareness of the architectural, landscape and design heritage of Northern California and beyond.

Archival photos of Catherine Bauer Wurster and Frau Lang

Through Bauer Wurster’s travels in Europe, she met residents and their families. Here she is in Berlin, Germany socializing with Britz Housing residents in 1936. (Photo courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley)

The CED exhibit consists of a new understanding of Bauer Wurster’s contributions to the modern housing movement, said Marino, as it illustrates how photography was an essential tool in Bauer Wurster’s work.

Through a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1936 and research she acquired while working with American historian Lewis Mumford, Bauer Wurster traveled throughout Europe and several American cities, taking photographs of neighborhoods that helped in crafting her research and curriculum at both Berkeley and Harvard.

“We hold her hand-annotated research photography, including her Guggenheim research, which was cut short because of the Nazi occupation,” Marino said. “She also took some of the first color photographs of public housing in California while teaching at Berkeley — really rare footage, because most, like Dorothea Lange, were documenting in black and white.”

Black and white photos of buildings

Photos of nonprofit housing in Tegal-Berlin, Germany from 1936. (Photo courtesy of Environmental Design Archives, UC Berkeley)

Those experiences abroad, Marino said, impacted Bauer Wurster’s views on housing, most importantly how it should function in society.

She penned several letters and essays that critiqued the very housing policy she wrote, speaking out against racial segregation, discrimination and other social justice issues, such as the wartime internment of Japanese and Japanese Americans in the U.S.

Most notably, Bauer Wurster’s 1957 article, “The Dreary Deadlock of Public Housing,” chronicled the faults of public housing that led to segregation, stating “the resulting degree of rigid social segregation is difficult to align with traditional American ideas. … if a tenant manages to increase his income beyond a certain point, out he goes, a restriction which also results in the continuous loss of natural leadership among the tenants themselves.”

“What struck me as I was researching her life and career was the extent of her awareness and action against injustice, especially in response to the implications of legislation she helped to create,” said Marino. “She didn’t just put this legislation out into the universe. She recognized its problems and actively tried to solve them. She was very vocal about that.”

A life’s work lives on

Picture of bust of Catherin Bauer Wurster

To honor the work of Catherine Bauer Wurster, a bust of her is placed in the lobby of the HUD headquarters in Washington DC. This picture of it is from the book Houser: The Life and Work of Catherine Bauer. There is also a replica of the bust in the CED library. (Photo courtesy of Chris Marino)

With over 40 years of experience working in housing policy, CED professor Carol Galante serves as Berkeley’s faculty director for the Terner Center for Housing and Innovation, a campus initiative that advances solutions in research, policy and practice that helps house families in affordable homes and communities.

Galante said that Bauer Wurster’s work and ideas were so revolutionary for her time that they are still impacting housing reform to this day.

Carol Galante

Berkeley Terner Center faculty director Carol Galante has been working on housing policy for over 40 years and says Catherine Bauer Wurster’s influence is still seen in the field to this day. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Department of Housing)

In a 1946 letter to the publication Architectural Forum, Bauer Wurster, despite having a working architect for a husband, vehemently criticized architects in the industry, saying they should “accept their large share of responsibility for the dangerous trend toward complete racial and economic segregation.”

“We have been far too exclusively concerned with the techniques for ‘neighborhood planning,’” the letter states, “while ignoring the fact that zoning, restrictive agreements and large-scale building enterprise (public, as well as private) are rapidly pushing us towards a feudal social pattern which is the very antithesis of democracy.”

“She really tried to get architects to understand it isn’t just about whatever beauty or high-end design that they’re interested in, but it’s about where people live, and how they live and the social network of the neighborhood,” said Galante, who previously worked at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development under former President Barack Obama. “Those are things that are still very much a part of the vision we are still working toward.”

Third-year Berkeley student Daisy Son this year has researched Bauer Wurster for the 150W commemoration, in order to honor her as the first female professor at CED.

Son said that Bauer Wurster’s ability to break the female stereotypes of her time and persevere in a field dominated by men inspires her the most.

“She is an exemplary figure to look up to for all aspiring women planners out there, including myself,” said Son. “She bolsters my confidence to enact change myself and push myself to carry out my goals.”