Design Gives Library Role Its Due

The Los Angeles Central Library is a cherished landmark that, in addition to being a regional educational resource, lends a generally dismally designed downtown valued open space and a singularly styled piece of civic art.

If anything, the tragic fires of last year and the various, ill-conceived attempts over the last decade by avaricious developers and myopic politicians to peddle its site for an office tower make us appreciate the library and its central setting all the more.

For these reason and others the ambitious proposed rehabilitation and expansion of the library demands delicacy. We are not dealing with chopped liver here, or with a less distinguished structure, such as the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Not coincidentally, the architectural firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates (HHPA)--that wrestled with the LACMA expansion, happily using it to smother the original complex and lending some interest to Wilshire Boulevard--also is the principal designer of the library expansion.

Judging from the preliminary plans and model of the library project recently submitted for approval to the city, HHPA, in this case, did not use the addition to overwhelm the original building. Instead of wrestling as it did with LACMA, with the library the firm has wisely taken up waltzing.

With some awkwardness, HHPA has more than doubled the size of the library, packing 300,000 square feet into an east wing of four stories above grade and four stories below, while allowing the original sublime design by Bertram Goodhue and Carleton Winslow to dominate most perspectives.

Gone, of course, is the east lawn, replaced with the well-stuffed new wing featuring a central atrium that challenges Grand Avenue. Less confrontational and better scaled is the wing's 5th Street facade, helped by the relocation there of a restored children's courtyard and the promise of landscaping fashioned by the firm of Campbell & Campbell.

To its credit, HHPA did not mimic the original design (which no doubt would have resulted in a farce), nor did it try to compete with it (which would have resulted in disaster.)

Instead, the firm has sought a solution in the east wing that, while sympathetic in scale to the Goodhue design, does not deny that it is new. How subtle is this newness is another issue, for to this eye, the patterned metal work, the modulated use of glazed terra cotta and onyx panel insets in the windows of the new facade seem a bit too busy. The proof of this HHPA pudding will be in the detailing.

Still, while I love the original library and its marriage of romantic imagery and modern (circa 1926) planning and materials, and am very pleased HHPA did not tamper with any of the decorative and sculptural elements in the proposed rehabilitation, one cannot deny the firm's attempt in the addition to seek out its own architectural vocabulary and its moment in the sun.

As a gesture of civic self-esteem and a nod to the future of downtown, the rehabilitation and expansion of the library is long overdue. It is time to stop talking and build.

As usual a problem is money. The cost of the ambitious project is estimated at $143 million, $27 million over the budget established by the city's Community Redevelopment Agency. And that, says the agency, is with much of the fat cut out, though one wonders if an auditorium and so much parking (600 underground spaces) is needed.

What is vitally needed, and, unfortunately, has been deferred, is the $4-million item of the rehabilitation of the west lawn. The plan by the landscape architect Lawrence Halprin recalls the gracious greenery, fountains and sculptures that were demolished 20 years ago and asphalted over for a raw parking lot.

And as he usually does, Halprin has added a number of new elements to attract people and provide them with places to sit and congregate, away from the noise and traffic of the bordering streets. There are lawns and shaded areas, cafes, water courses and amphitheaters, all adding up to a promise of an urban delight.

In effect, the park will be an extension of the library; its open air parlor, a welcoming gesture to the public. Indeed, the space undoubtedly will be used and experienced by more people than the library will ever hope to serve in its reading rooms and, certainly, in its auditorium.

The park also is a critical link in the imaginative pedestrian network proposed to connect California Plaza to South Park, and begin to make downtown a cohesive urban experience. To "defer" it will be a grievous mistake that, undoubtedly, will haunt the library and the city for decades.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World