Saturday, October 12, 2013

A first look at San Diego's new Central Library

San Diego Central Library
I wasn't sure that I liked the library at first. This is what it looked like while still under construction. I loved the drama of the dome and the overall design, but It seemed like there was really just too much going on. After touring and seeing it up close, I'm a convert. It's brilliant. Photo ©Darren Bradley
San Diego has long always been a big city with a small town mentality - but not in a good way. I'm not sure whether it's the fact that much of our population is transitory (many get transferred elsewhere after a few years, and so aren't invested in the community for the long-term) or because we have a lot of conservatives who aren't interested in seeing tax dollars spent on large infrastructure projects. Whatever the reason, our public buildings just aren't at all what you would expect to see for a major metropolitan area with a population of over 3 million. But that's finally starting to change... 

San Diego Central Library
Photo ©Darren Bradley
Like just about any major project in this town, the new library required decades of planning, controversy, legal battles, funding shortfalls, and aborted attempts. There have been multiple plans for a new library, at various locations around the city. In the 60s and 70s, there was even talk of putting it in Mission Valley. In the late 80s and early 90s, there was a plan to build it straddling over the rail tracks near the train station. None of those plans ever came close to fruition. 

The principal architect, Rob Wellington Quigley, is one of San Diego's most celebrated architects. He received this commission in 2001 (and was earlier commissioned to design the library at other sites). For this effort, he was joined by Tucker Sadler Architects, another long-time San Diego firm, well known locally for their modernist buildings dating back to the 1950s. 

As you can tell from my photos of the library, Quigley's more of a post-modernist / deconstructionist. There are definitely some classic modernist elements in this design - but often incorporated in a post-modern way. That is to say, in bits and pieces that seem to reference this design vernacular with a wink and a nod. Post-modernism is not usually my thing, but I do like Quigley's Children's Museum and the UCSD Student Center. This library also really impressed me. 

Anyway, the photos above and below are the result of my first quick walk-through of the building. I spent an hour or so walking quickly through and taking pictures off the cuff, without a tripod or any planning - a bit of a scouting mission, if you will. I hope to find the time to come back soon for more. 

The main entrance. These cantilevered window alcoves are a design theme with Quigley. He used the same in his UCSD Student Center. Photo ©Darren Bradley
In true Po-Mo fashion, the architect has made allusions to the purpose of the building in his design.

This building is an open book. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The entry atrium is quite dramatic, with a giant concrete brutalist arch defining and dominating the space. 

Entry atrium, looking back towards the main entrance. Only a couple of minutes after it opened, it was already filling up rapidly. Photo ©Darren Bradley
On the ground floor, you first hit the DVD library, which also has some display spaces and seating areas. Here's a view of the other side of those book windows:

Photo ©Darren Bradley
A bit further beyond, on the ground floor, is the children's area. 

San Diego's hometown favorite, Dr. Seuss, is on murals around the area. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Climbing the escalators gives us another, up close view of that central arch in the entry atrium. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
And as seen from the other side...

This guy looked so excited to see this place. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The second floor provides access to those cantilevered glass pods seen from the entrance arcade outside.

Photo Safari Today
Enjoying the morning sun. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The building is full of quiet little corners and eclectic design surprises that reveal themselves as you explore. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley

Every one of the nine floors tells a different story as you climb up, and has different designs. Watching how the light plays off the windows in these various spaces was fascinating to me, and quite beautiful. 


There's even a little rock garden on a terrace of one of the middle floors.

Photo ©Darren Bradley
As I climbed each floor, the place slowly revealed itself and built in drama and tension like a crescendo. Until finally, you arrive at the atrium under the dome. I had visions of Beethoven crashing in my ears. 

The main atrium under the dome is 5 or 6 storeys tall, with stunning views of the south bay and Coronado Bridge. That campanile is the main transit center. Photo ©Darren Bradley
It's a bit blinding and disorienting when you first enter from the darker area with a low ceiling (seen below). This emphasizes the drama of the glass atrium. 

View of the atrium looking back. Most people will enter this space from the low ceiling area seen at background. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Getting up close and personal with the huge supporting trusses for the giant dome. These blue chairs are part of an installation art piece. The artist drove around downtown San Diego recovering abandoned chairs. He brought them back to his studio and recreated copies that are all blue, and that are used as furniture in this space. There are a variety of styles, including some that appear broken (intentionally so). Photo ©Darren Bradley
Photo ©Darren Bradley
This space was almost sensory overload for me - it's so dramatic and beautiful. When I saw that even after all that, there are stairs leading up to STILL MORE SPACES... well, it was almost too much. But I still pressed on and kept exploring. 

The stairs lead to a rooftop terrace on the 9th floor, which includes the rare book section, an art gallery, and several functional and conference spaces. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
Here's a view of the conference space, with a view over Petco Park and the western side of the city. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
And from the outdoor terrace space off the conference center.

Worst possible time of day to try to shoot this, but you get the idea. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The art gallery was closed while I was there (didn't open until noon), but here's the entry area just off the rooftop terrace.

I assume this will become a vertical garden wall at some point, once those plants fill in. Photo ©Darren Bradley
The view from the terrace makes it a nice place to stop for a coffee or something. But I didn't see any coffee or anything else available to drink up there. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
You get a great view of the structure of the dome from up there, in any case.

More trusses. And yes, I waited intentionally until a trolley passed before taking this. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Anyway, it was a short visit but an enjoyable one. I'm very impressed with this project and look forward to going back to explore in more detail soon. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley


Unknown said...

Lovely pics and some really obviously successful elements but still not convinced that the whole assembly has any unity.

osbornb said...

Excellent photo essay – mirrors my initial impression. I need to go back to the library to sort it out and find the places where I feel most comfortable.

Howard Barnett, Salinas CA said...

I agree with Unknown, Oct 20, 13 commenter, about possible lack of unity. Stunning images on first take, but seems there's a lot going on not all of which relates to one another. It's almost as if there were themes taken from separate buildings. Although there are bits of continuity here and there but overall massive diversity within it seem to dominate.
Seems exciting place though from that, and if variety within a structure is what the design is seeking that's certainly accomplished.

Great images btw, but who's Chimay Bleue? At first i thought it was someone stealing credit for your copyright photos; is that a pen name you have or something? Very confusing to have that come up as one's mouse drags oveer each image. At first I thoght bradley was the name of the library, eac h photo here says " by Chimay Bleue on fliker, do you know that?

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