Sunday, July 31, 2016

Neutra's Brutalist Library

Huntington Beach Central Library
Huntington Beach Main Library by Richard & Dion Neutra (1972). Photo ©Darren Bradley
The name Richard Neutra conjures up a lot of images... spider leg posts and beams, ribbon windows, silver paint... But chances are, brutalism isn't really one of them. So it's not really surprising that many people are completely unaware that Richard Neutra designed this brutalist building in Huntington Beach (along with his son, Dion, who completed the design and saw it through construction, after his father passed away before it was done). 

This spiral concrete ramp and fountain were once outside the building, protected by a canopy. They were enclosed as part of the interior of the building in 1994, when a new children's wing was added. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Like in Santa Rosa, the city of Huntington Beach once possessed a Carnegie Library. But also like Santa Rosa, that library was damaged in an earthquake. 
The Carnegie Library was built in 1913, damaged in an earthquake in 1933, and then repaired and finally replaced in 1951. 

A new library downtown, on Main Street, was built in 1951. 

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This library on Main Street dates from 1951, and still stands today, pretty much intact. Photo National Park Service. 

But by the 1960s, the rapidly expanding city had outgrown its library and a new site was chosen on the shores of Talbert Lake to build a new, state-of-the-art library. 

The library board embarked on a tour of libraries and other municipal buildings around California, and derived a list of 35 potential architects for their new building. That list was eventually whitled down to 17. Richard and Dion Neutra had drawn up some preliminary plans and concept sketches, which were enough to impress the board. They walked away with the commission. 

Dion Neutra and his father, Richard. 

But Richard Neutra died suddenly while overseas in Europe, so his son Dion took over and finished the project. The project finally broke ground in October of 1972, and took nearly 3 years to build. 
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Huntington Beach Main Library, shortly after construction. Note the lack of trees, and also that the spiral ramp and fountain is outside, under a portico. Photo courtesy of Huntington Beach Library. 
Another view of the library, shortly after construction in 1975. Photo Huntington Beach Library. 

The building was one of the most innovative libraries in the country at the time of its construction, and continues to be today. 

It was designed as a concrete and glass shell, meant to appear to be floating on a reflecting pool or pond. 

Huntington Beach Central Library
Photo ©Darren Bradley

Modernist architecture is known for blurring the lines between indoors and out, and the Neutras pushed the boundary even further, by bringing gardens and water features inside the enclosure, like a greenhouse or botanic garden. 

Interior atrium. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Interior Atrium. Photo ©Darren Bradley
Photo ©Darren Bradley
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Note the iron railings around the fountain ponds now. Such a shame... Photo ©Darren Bradley

Concrete platforms at random heights would be floating above these gardens, providing views both inside and out. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley
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Note the railings around the fountain/pond at the base of the column. Those are new... Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Photo ©Darren Bradley

And the centerpiece of this innovative design is a free-standing steel tower, 5 levels high, housing all of the book stacks. 

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The book stack tower in the middle of the library is separated from the rest of the structure via a series of catwalks and stairs, and a garden moat at the base. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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It's virtually impossible to get a view of the entire tower at once, because of how the rest of the structures sit around it.
Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo ©Darren Bradley

Photo ©Darren Bradley

As you can probably tell, the book tower is supported by thin, steel square columns on a grid pattern. Each column is perforated, and is meant to be used as supports for shelving for books. The whole system is designed for maximum flexibility. 

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The effect of the low ceilings and the close intervals of the steel columns is perhaps a bit claustrophobic. Photo ©Darren Bradley

To further reinforce the idea of a free-standing, separate tower, the structure is surrounded on all sides by a sort of "moat" of gardens, catwalks, and stairs across which one must venture to reach the books. 

Access to the book tower across the garden moat. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Another moat. Photo ©Darren Bradley
It's a great design. But of course the Neutras didn't invent the idea of the free-standing book tower within a separate, larger enclosure. Gordon Bunshaft with SOM had already done the same thing with the beautiful Beinecke Library ten years earlier, in 1963. 

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University by Gordon Bunshaft/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (1963). Photo by Ezra Stoller. 

The effect is less obvious or dramatic at Huntington Beach than it is at the Beinecke - largely due to the lack of setback between the tower and the other structures. At the Huntington, the tower seems crowded on all sides by the rest of the building and the concrete floating platforms. But still, it works. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley

It's a design concept that has inspired other libraries more recently, as well. For example, the Seattle Public Library by OMA follows this same idea, at an even grander scale. 

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The Seattle Public Library with its central "Book Spiral" is a variation on the same theme of a box within a box, housing all of the books. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Nonetheless, it's a great idea and one that deserves to be copied. 

Photo ©Darren Bradley

Unfortunately, the Huntington Beach Library has fallen victim to a few ill-conceived modifications that have disfigured the entry quite a bit. And more recently, guard rails have gone up around the planters and fountains on the ground floor, which ruins the effect. Why they felt the need to add guard rails around the fountain ponds after more than 40 years without them is beyond me. They've also drained the huge reflecting pool outside, which really hurts its aesthetic. I know we're in a drought and all, but it's too bad. I hope it gets filled again quickly when the drought ends. 

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Reflecting pool in drought mode... Photo ©Darren Bradley

But at least the building was returned to its original 1975 paint scheme back in 2006. The original Neutra paint scheme shows that at least somebody in Huntington Beach appreciates the design. 

I'd encourage anyone to stop by when passing through Orange County. No photos can really do this place justice, and you really must experience it first-hand. But a word of warning... they don't allow tripods - I had to shoot all of these handheld, on the fly... 

Photo ©Darren Bradley


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