Green Has a New Home
In its gestation, the David Brower Center — an environmental think-tank planned for downtown Berkeley, at the edge of the UC campus — has passed the blueprint stage and is deep in its third trimester. Groundbreaking is scheduled for this fall. The building, which honors the late Berkeley conservationist David R. Brower, will rise across Oxford Street from Edwards Field, so close to the cinder track that environmentalists working Saturdays in springtime will occasionally jump to the starter’s gun.
My son, David C. Brower, a twenty-year-old junior, is the grandson of the honoree. In his capacity as namesake, he has offered some thoughts about signage. It would be a great mistake, he suggests, to include his grandfather’s middle initial “R” on the marquee. Middle initials are old-fashioned, a little stuffy. Much more direct, and cleaner typographically, would be a simple “DAVID BROWER CENTER” chiseled above the entrance.
I think I catch his drift. In walking down Oxford with girlfriend or teammates, David Brower the younger will be able to slap his forehead in mock forgetfulness. He will cry, “Jeez, excuse me! I got to duck in at my center,” or words to that effect, and he will turn into the spacious courtyard of his four-story edifice. “Green tours” will be a feature of the building, and David will conduct an outlaw tour of his own, pointing out the recycled materials, the solar panels, the architectural design by Daniel Solomon, “Dean of the New Urbanism.” He will then lead his stunned schoolmates past his own name in big letters on the façade.
The David Brower Center, under the summit gardens of its photovoltaic roof, will incorporate the greenest of green architecture. On the ground floor will be earth-friendly retailers, an art gallery, a 175-seat auditorium with state-of-the-art media equipment, and a restaurant designed in consultation with chef Alice Waters, founding genius of Chez Panisse, who will work up a menu of affordable organic food harvested from local farms. On the three floors above will be office and conference space for a number of activist environmental and social-justice nonprofit organizations, with Earth Island Institute, the California League of Conservation Voters, and the Center for Ecoliteracy as charter tenants. The hope is for cross-pollination. Here, under one roof, students, environmental activists, green businesspeople, advocates for social justice, and visitors from around the world will meet, break bread, and exchange ideas, all toward the not-so-modest goals of a sustainable society and planetary salvation. The Brower Center, if all goes according to plan, will be a hub for progressive activism internationally and a home for the environmental movement for the twenty-first century.
If there is a feng shui of historical rectitude, then that force is strong at the site. The location next to the University is auspicious and right, given the coevolution of Brower, the University, and the environmental cause. The building will stand eight blocks from the Carleton Street house where my father was born and five blocks from the Haste Street house where he grew up. It will be midway between two of his alma maters — Berkeley High and the University of California — and a block south of the offices of UC Press on Oxford Street, where my father and mother met as editors. (My siblings and I have a great fondness for the Press; we owe it our very existence.) In his editor period, my father, as he repaired the danglers, clipped the redundancies, and pruned the jargon of manuscripts submitted by an assortment of Berkeley scholars, was simultaneously picking their brains. In 1952, when he left the Press to become the first executive director of the Sierra Club, those edited professors, and many of their Berkeley colleagues, became the core of his brain trust. Starker Leopold, the zoologist and author of the epochal Leopold Report on wildlife in the national parks. Starker’s brother Luna Leopold, the hydrologist who provided figures and formulae on stream aggradation that my father employed to defeat dams proposed for the Grand Canyon. Robert Stebbins, the herpetologist and scientific illustrator who taught my father what he needed to know about reptiles, amphibians, and desert conservation. Daniel Luten, the geographer who was his advisor on population. Carl Koford, the field naturalist who became the world’s foremost student of the California condor. The biologists Frank Pitelka and Alden Miller, the physicists John Gofman and John Holdren, and many more. The University even provided a few bêtes noirs, misguided scholars of mining and forestry who served my old man as foils.
There was nothing really new in this collaboration. In 1870, when the University was in its infancy, geology professor Joseph LeConte led his University Excursion Party to the High Sierra, guided by John Muir — a campfire friendship that endured and led in 1892 to the formation of the Sierra Club, co-founded by LeConte, his son Little Joe, and Muir. And the Sierra Club was just the beginning. In the intellectual sphere of influence of the University — germinating in the shelter of that parent tree — has sprung up a large part of the environmental movement. Nowhere has the soil been more fertile for good environmental ideas and organizations.
Opponents of the Brower Center — jihadi bicyclists enraged by the automobile and resentful of the underground parking that the city has required; dissers of the affordable-housing component that will adjoin the center; fiscal conservatives worried about the cost to the city — have argued for some other site, but the building’s supporters have been resolute in their insistence on this one.
All universities have their magnetic fields, but the field around Berkeley is particularly strong — a Saturn or Jupiter of academic institutions. The ideal spot for the new center is right here, tucked in close orbit outside Edwards Field, just beyond the outermost rings of the track’s oval. The intellectual energy of the University of California, crackling and contrarian, will discharge point-blank toward its satellite institution, feeding the environmental movement as it has before, and vice versa, with energetic discharges back in the other direction. For those of us who are David Brower’s family, disciples, and former colleagues, this commemoration in stone and glass of his pioneering work is enormously gratifying. Everyone else, we hope, will see the building as a working monument to past synergy between environmentalism and the University, and a promise of more to come.
Kenneth Brower’s last article for California, “Disturbing Yosemite,” was the cover story in May/June.