Bateson State Office Building

Sustainabilities: Eco-oriented | Utopian
Part I: An Icon of Sustainable Architecture

The significance of the Bateson State Office Building is unlikely to be apparent to the casual observer; the architectural discipline’s brief spell of interest in it in the late 1970s and early 1980s is now largely forgotten; and architectural historians often overlook it. But for a community of ecological designers in California, the building was a showcase for ecological architecture broadly conceived—reducing energy consumption, encouraging social interaction, and trying to revive the midtown area of the State Capitol. It is acknowledged as “the first large-scale building to embody what we now call sustainable architecture.”


Atrium of Bateson State Office Building

Prompts for this foray into sustainability included the 1973 oil crisis, the increasing receptiveness of Californian politics to environmentalism, and the influence of the Appropriate Technology movement on staff in the governor’s office of California following a young Jerry Brown’s electoral victory in 1975. Consequently, the Bateson Building foresaw the State of California itself assuming a potentially vanguard role in the rethinking of industrial civilization in the wake of countercultural upheaval and systems theory. As paradoxical a pairing as counterculture and systems theory may seem, both made it imperative that the world is understood holistically and as something that can trend toward self-destruction or toward self-renewal. The significance of this building is not so much artistic—the quality that tends to get buildings into the history books—but ideological. Its ideological program was nothing short of the promotion of life as the patterning of interactions between all the world’s entities.

The most obvious external feature of the building is its exposed concrete frame, played off against its infill of painted wood, windows, and shading devices.1 The highlight of the design is within: a huge 150’ x 144’ atrium, topped by enormous clerestories punctuated by north-facing sawtooth skylights. Majestic atria had been a feature of office buildings since Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1904–6 Larkin Building in Buffalo, becoming a modernist signature in designs like Kevin Roche’s Ford Foundation Building, New York, 1963–7, and Norman Foster’s Willis Faber & Dumas Headquarters, Ipswich, England, 1970–75. But a couple of things distinguish the Bateson design: its purposive informality and its low energy use. While its low energy use was a contribution toward resource sustainability, its informality was a gesture towards social and even political sustainability.

The atrium was not air conditioned, but instead acted as a sort of lung for a building that was attempting an unprecedentedly low energy use. An 80-percent reduction of the norm in energy use for this type of building was one of its targets, so that it would pay for itself (it was hoped) over 20 to 30 years. Vertical louvers were installed to automatically close the south-facing clerestory surfaces during Sacramento’s notoriously hot summer days; banner screens would bounce sunlight into the space during the winter. Large vertical canvas tubes, which still hang enigmatically, were equipped with fans and served to de-stratify and recirculate atrium air. Cool night air was drawn down large air shafts, and hot air was purged through skylight vents. The sun’s energy was to be stored in the building’s most remarkable and controversial feature, a rock bed beneath the atrium floor that would take advantage of the rock’s 660 tons of thermal mass to absorb and store heat energy during the day and release it on demand, moistened by evaporative spray air washers and pumped in or out by reversible fans.

The atrium exchanged social as well as climatic energy. “The process of institution building and institutional innovation becomes more than a technical problem,” the building’s lead architect, Sim van der Ryn, had written with political economist Robert Reich (later President Clinton’s Secretary of Labor) about institution building in 1968. “It becomes part of an overall design. It becomes utopian.”2 Workers were apparently being encouraged by the building’s designers to people-watch from the office windows and circulation walkways, and the prominent main stairs offered an inviting alternative to the building’s elevators. The atrium, one early visitor noted, had a sidewalk cafe feel, drawing pedestrians through it from nearby office buildings on the way to parking, bus stops, or the capitol, and the building’s decks, panels and yellow fabric shades lent the building “a noninstitutional informality.”3 That sensibility surely stands at the source of what visitors to Silicon Valley, further south, have since noted about the studied, world-within-a-world informality that defines corporate life there, blurring (however problematically) the separation of work and life.

The net effect of the Bateson Building design was both high-tech and low-tech, futuristic and archaic. On the one hand, sensing devices and a computerized central control unit would adjust fans and roll the fabric shades on the east and west up and down throughout the day to exclude sun or allow views, while water was heated by 2000 square feet of solar collectors. On the other hand, climate was controlled by the ancient devices of thermal mass, trellises, and by the individualized switching on and off of lights. The building tried to recover a sense of communal control lost to bureaucratic rationalization. “According to Peter Calthorpe,” Progressive Architecture cited one of the building’s designers, “that’s the way it should be. Energy considerations, he feels, should be only one very natural part of any building program. Equally important in these state projects is the initial programming and its sociological implications.”4

Simon Sadler

Published June 1, 2015

1. Jim Murphy, “State intentions: State Office Building, Sacramento, California,” Progressive Architecture, 62:8 (1981), 76, from which much of the description in the present essay is derived.
2. Sim van der Ryn and Robert Reich, Notes on Institution Building, unpublished draft report for Behavioral and Systems Approaches to Design Grant #1 RO1 MH16285-01, September 1968, 4.
3. Sally Woodbridge, “Governing Energy: California State Office Buildings,” Progressive Architecture, 65:4 (1984), 86–91.
4. Murphy.