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Blockeley 2.0: A Virtual Commencement, 19th Century Style

May 13, 2021
by Dano Nissen
Blockeley 1893_fp

UC Berkeley’s campus is a shrine to an ever-changing architectural aesthetic. The original 1868 campus plans called for the buildings to be created in the Second Empire style, a Victorian era architectural movement that modeled itself after the French Renaissance. (Think: mansard roofing and French oeil-de-boeuf windows.) Only one of those original buildings remains: South Hall, finished in 1873, still stands alongside Doe Library.

While the physical buildings of old have crumbled to the ground, they’re now being resurrected in clunky, pixelated, gamified block form: on Minecraft.

Picture of a campus building on top with the block version on the bottom
A side-by-side comparison of South Hall, the oldest current campus building, which was completed in 1873. // Courtesy of Blockeley

Welcome to “Blockeley,” which debuted a year ago and has recently undergone a retrospective transformation. Last spring, for Berkeley’s 2020 commencement—made virtual because of the pandemic—a group of students and other dedicated builders recreated most of the campus to much fanfare. The Minecraft-native site allowed students to walk through Sather Gate and other familiar landmarks before heading to Memorial Stadium to graduate—albeit as block avatars. Now, there will be a companion campus for the May 15 spring graduation ceremony: UC Berkeley as it was in 1893, featuring the Second Empire buildings of the original plan.

The Blockeley team, led by current students Christian Nisperos and Elliot Choi, has been working with University archivists to accurately recreate the 19th century campus. These historic buildings are relics of an international competition launched in 1898 by the University, and with the help of Phoebe A. Hearst’s largesse, to design the future campus. The subsequent buildings were a much more eclectic bunch than the distinctly uniform Second Empire set. Archivist Kathryn Neal has been helping the team over Zoom to find photographs of the old buildings. She says there are plenty of exterior photographs but almost none of the interiors, the recreation of which have posed the greatest challenge.

While the pandemic has stultified campus life, its virtual analog has been flourishing. In the year since Blockeley’s inception, over a dozen campus buildings have been added and construction has expanded onto Telegraph Avenue and into downtown Berkeley. Even shuttered businesses like the Japanese market and Telegraph mainstay, Daiso, live on in Minecraft world. Chois says, “The idea around Blockeley was being able to capture a certain point in time—the last thing the class of 2020 remembered.”

The block version of Memorial Glade with llamas in the forefront
A sign invites students to “Destress with llamas on Memorial Glade” during Cal’s annual Llamapalooza. // Courtesy of Blockeley

Blockeley has also hosted several events since last year’s graduation. When the in-person Llamapalooza, the ASUC’s llama-therapy event, was cancelled during spring finals, the builders populated Blockeley with block-shaped llamas. After the death of George Floyd, Berkeley community members reached out to the Blockeley leads asking them to provide a kid-friendly space to discuss, via the game’s chat feature, difficult issues about the murder and the subsequent social uprisings. Children, along with parents and other demonstrators, joined a virtual Black Lives Matter march from Memorial Stadium to Sproul Plaza in June of 2020.

The 1893 campus is currently open for Minecraft players to roam. Additionally, a view-only version is available for anyone to explore, meaning those without the game can still scroll around the campus, just not as an avatar. Blockeley plans to host a virtual commencement on May 15, since the in-person event has been cancelled once again. Students will be able to walk around both campuses, old and new, on commencement day, simulating what it was like to graduate from Cal in both the late 19th century and in those long-lost, pre-pandemic days of just over a year ago.

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