There are those whose legacy is measured by the hearts and minds won over. For Richard Berteaux, local architect, it may be by another organ — the eye.
That’s because a Davis resident cannot go far without seeing the more than 15 new and old buildings he had a hand in shaping in downtown alone.
Aside from being an architect, Berteaux once was a professor in the UC Davis department of design, is a world-traveling linguist and almost was a CIA operative.
And his office, the Berteaux Architectural Collaborative, has since 1973 been a part of Davis history through the numerous projects it has undertaken.
One of Berteaux’s proudest accomplishments is the Orange Court complex at 129 E St. The collection of businesses — originally converted from residential property — has been without a vacancy since 1979.
Berteaux said many of his creative projects have involved transformation of existing buildings. That was true of the Hattie Weber Museum, a historic structure — originally a library — that was moved from First and E streets and remodeled at its current home at 445 C St.
The Lofts, a more recent project in the 100 block of E Street, is a 25,000-square-foot mixed-use building for retail and living space that he designed for developer Chuck Roe. In 2003, Berteaux received a national design award of special recognition for The Lofts, one of his many accolades.
Locals also may appreciate the major facelift he gave to the fraternity houses on First Street between D and E streets, or the Davis Manor Shopping Center at 1800 E. Eighth St.
And for each aforementioned project, and for the countless unmentioned, Berteaux has taken an approach to architectural design that’s uniquely his.
“I’m a simple person,” he said. “I don’t like gaudy, contrived, showy stuff. So my approach has always been very straightforward and simplified. No unnecessary adornments.
“But color has been an interest of mine all my professional life. … People really know me in Davis for my use of color over the years.”
That attention has been both good and bad, as his color schemes have caused quite a stir in the town. Berteaux’s own lavender office, at Eighth and F streets, and his bright orange paint job at Davis Manor both were points of controversy.
The former earned him multiple front-page stories in The Enterprise in 1986, featuring both public support and heated opposition. Ultimately, the issue went to the Davis City Council, which decided then to do away with city-approved color schemes for buildings.
“I think that was a really good thing,” Berteaux said. “When I first moved here, there was no color in any of the architecture. Buildings were required to be neutral.”
And when Berteaux came to Davis he brought his culturally influenced penchant for strong, bold colors with him.
“I’ve had no aversion to using color, something partly due to my background,” he explained. “I was born in Los Angeles, and traveled a lot in Mexico. You find a lot of color in those places.
“In Mexico, the attitude is really free: ‘What’s wrong with color? If you don’t use it you have no imagination.’ Whereas here it’s, ‘I don’t want to offend my neighbor.’ ”
Berteaux grew up in East Los Angeles, where he was first introduced to the concept of design through a course at a community college. However, it would be years before he would return to the subject.
“I wasn’t one of those — I don’t know whether to say lucky or not — people who knew what they wanted to do right away in life,” he said. “That wasn’t the case at all for me.”
His first interest in the world of academia was languages, so he studied Spanish, Portuguese and French. The latter he learned at a university in Paris, which he paid for with his GI Bill benefits after a year of service in the Korean War.
Upon graduation, Berteaux had a short stint with communicating in characteristically covert ways with the CIA. After months of exchanging messages, he was invited to work for the organization, but was turned down after a strenuous background screening.
Architecture was further put on pause for some international traveling with his wife, when the couple sold everything to journey through Southeast Asia, India, Egypt and elsewhere.
But it resumed for work at architectural firms in Paris and San Francisco, which he cites as formative experiences in his life. He also pursued a master’s degree in urban design from Stanford.
Berteaux taught what he’d learned to others at a college in Seattle before the cold drove him away. He landed at UC Davis and spent 30 years as a professor there.
Throughout that time he was simultaneously completing projects through his architectural firm. And though he’s retired from teaching, he has no plans to retire from the other profession he’s come to love.
“Work has been slow during the recession,” he said. “But I plan on continuing to do this as long as I can. As long as I can still get up and use a keyboard. I have no interest in stopping.
“Most of the well-known architects work until they drop dead. It’s not unusual. … It’s a passion, so what’s the point in quitting something you’re passionate about?”
— Reach Brett Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-747-8052. Follow him on Twitter at @ReporterBrett