Library Setting Up Camp in Tent : UCLA: The massive, colorful structure will serve as a temporary substitute for Powell Library, which is undergoing seismic upgrading.


Some people think it looks like a giant slinky. Others say it looks as though a giant spaceship has landed on the UCLA campus or some kind of postmodern circus has come to town.

In fact, the massive, yellow-and-white tent under construction on campus is a temporary substitute for UCLA’s 65-year-old Powell Library, which is undergoing seismic upgrading.

“It’s definitely, definitely not your run-of-the-mill library,” UCLA student Elaine Chu said.


University officials decided to put up the tent because they couldn’t find suitable space for the library’s 200,000 books and journals during the renovation, which is expected to take two years.

The $2.9-million tent complex was the cheapest temporary structure to build, said Sarah Meeker Jensen, associate director of master planning and programs at UCLA. A temporary building would cost about $4 million, Jensen said.

The tent is actually four tents--a two-level main tent with three adjoining smaller tent structures. One of the adjoining tents is the cylindrical “slinky” where most of the library staff will work. On either end of the main tent are reading rooms. One is shaped like a semicircle. Another forms an unorthodox rotunda with its ribs jutting out at acute angles.

The structure is made with custom-bent aluminum beams and covered with an insulated vinyl fabric.

Although a tent might conjure up images of campfires and cold nights in sleeping bags, studying in Powell’s temporary replacement will hardly be like camping. The 36,000-square-foot tent complex will have modern amenities: electricity, air conditioning, heating and a sprinkler system.

The structure will also include 500 study carrels, a 40-station computer lab, a 28-seat classroom and office space for at least 17 library staff.


Once the tent solution was selected, the university hired Santa Monica-based Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates to come up with a suitable design.

Craig Hodgetts and his partner, Ming Fung, took on the assignment after finishing work on a much more conservative design for the campus gateway, the ceremonial entrance to the university at Westwood Boulevard and Le Conte Avenue.

The temporary nature of the tent structure allowed them to “let the devils loose,” Hodgetts said. The architects came up with a whimsical plan that makes a circus tent seem stodgy by comparison.

“Even the tent company hasn’t dealt with anything that has such unusual shapes,” said Gregory A. Parker, president of American Constructors California Inc., the contractor for the project.

The components of the tent structure--the ribs and the vinyl fabric--were manufactured by a tent company in Sanford, Me., before being shipped to California.

On a recent tour of the site, two of the architects on the project could hardly conceal their glee.

Pointing to the skylight panels that help light the tent, project manager Lynn Batsch suddenly noticed an unanticipated consequence of the design.

“You can see the shadows of the trees,” she exclaimed, referring to the shadows of tree branches visible through several skylight panels.

The architects say they have never done a project like this before and are constantly encountering pleasant surprises as the tent takes shape.

Jensen said she knows of only one other university that has constructed a large tent on its campus. But Parker said this type of tent is often used by the military to create temporary buildings or hangars. Similar tents are also used in outdoor amusement areas.

The university’s tight budget has had an influence on the tent’s design. There will be no careful finishing. Pipes, cables and air ducts will be exposed, as will concrete walls and cement floors. Fixtures come “from the bins of a hardware store,” Hodgetts said.

But the architects have tried to make a virtue of necessity and to highlight, rather than hide, the peculiar beauty of exposed beams and cooling systems. The result is something highly reminiscent of the Pompidou Center in Paris.

A shiny metal air duct that looks like an oversized megaphone on a stand is displayed prominently in the main building, which houses book stacks and study carrels. A light will shine on the steam exuded from a yet-to-be-installed outdoor cooling tower, which Hodgetts described as a “sculptural object.”

In contrast to the venerable Powell Library, with its elegant dark-wood interior, the temporary successor is full of bright, bold colors and gestures. Wooden ceiling beams will be stained shades of blue, red and yellow. Some of the exterior walls of the tents will be made of an opalescent fiberglass that will glow at night, Hodgetts said.

The tent, under construction since March 1, is scheduled for completion Aug. 24. At that point, professional library movers will transfer the contents of Powell Library into the tent.

University officials had originally considered having each UCLA student check out several books from Powell Library and return them to the temporary library. But they later rejected that idea.

“It seemed like a major coordination activity,” Jensen said.

In the meantime, the library staff is preparing for the move into what librarian Tom Fry calls “a radical-looking place.”

Chu, who is a vice president of the undergraduate student association, hopes the colorful structure will “purge us of some tension during midterm and final exams.”

Though Fry and Chu both like the new structure, they haven’t relinquished their loyalty to Powell Library, which is larger than the tent.

“The Powell Library has a lot of great historic character,” Fry said. “There’s a real feeling of reverence when you walk in the main reading room. It’s like a great temple of learning,” he said.

Since 1987, the university has targeted 33 campus buildings for seismic renovation. Powell is one of the original six buildings on the university campus.

The tent will stay up for at least five years, at which point it may be moved to another part of the campus or sold, Jensen said. Before leaving its spot at the northeast end of the campus, it may become temporary housing for the Dance Building, which is also targeted for seismic upgrading.

The architects say they do not regret the building’s short expected life span.

“I’d rather see it come down than age poorly,” Batsch said.