Ed Roberts CampusLeddy Maytum Stacy Architects
By Clifford A. Pearson
With its grand roof canopy and sweeping entry plaza, the Ed Roberts Campus welcomes everyone into its fold. The 82,500-square-foot building, which sits atop a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station in a scruffy part of Berkeley, sends a powerful message of inclusiveness to the diverse groups of people who work in and use it, as well as the neighborhood around it and, indeed, the world beyond. As the new home of 10 organizations serving people with many different kinds of disabilities, the center caters to the specific needs of people who have been shut out of buildings in the past or brought in through the backdoor ramp. But its architecture speaks to everyone, using a design vocabulary that emphasizes the universal, rather than the particular.
Many people walking by or heading to the BART station have no idea the building provides offices and meeting spaces for groups helping individuals with special needs. That's exactly what these groups like about it. "We didn't want it to look institutional, like a hospital," states Dmitri Belser, executive director of the Center for Accessible Technology (CforAT) and president of the Ed Roberts Campus (ERC). Of the 10 tenant organizations, seven are ERC partners and serve on the board of directors. "We wanted it to be open to everyone," he explains. "Buildings that shut us off from others imply there's something shameful about having a disability," says Belser, who is legally blind. One piece of evidence pointing to the building's broad appeal is the story of a local couple with no disabilities who liked the place enough to rent it for their wedding in June.
The project began in 1995 right after Ed Roberts, an activist for people with disabilities, died. The first student with significant disabilities to attend the University of California at Berkeley and the first disabled person to serve as California state director of rehabilitation, Roberts inspired and led a movement to bring handicapped Americans into the mainstream of society. To honor his legacy, many of his admirers decided to create a place where some of the groups he influenced could come together and carry on his work.
Instead of looking for an architect with expertise in accessibility, the ERC searched for one who could deliver good design. In 1999 it interviewed a number of firms and ranked San Francisco–based Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects (LMSA) second. But after working with its first choice for a couple of years and not being completely satisfied, the client switched to its backup led by principal William Leddy. "Bill Leddy got it immediately and took the time to educate himself in the needs of the building's users," says Yomi Wrong, executive director of the Center for Independent Living, an ERC partner organization. "He drank the Kool-Aid," she adds with a laugh.