Home for Tomes : UCLA’s Powell Library Will Camp Out in a Big Tent for 2 1/2 Years


What kind of librarian would move 200,000 books and periodicals out of a stately brick building into a tent, albeit a fancy tent? A well-contented librarian, explains Thomas K. Fry, who is welcoming students this week to the new temporary home for UCLA’s undergraduate library collection.

Looking like the offspring of a gaudy circus tent and a Martian exploration base, the replacement for the Powell Library sits at the foot of Janss Steps by the athletic fields. The plastic-coated, mesh-fabric roof and large plexiglass walls may prompt traditionalists to fear water leaks and sun-bleaching. Its industrial-style interior may seem to some a jarring atmosphere for Tolstoy and Darwin.

But Fry, who has headed the library for more than a decade, is confident the precious books, computers and microfilms will be safe and well-used during the 2 1/2 years that the Powell Library is undergoing seismic strengthening and other renovations.


“I’ve done a lot of backpacking, and tents are dry,” he remarked, half joking. More seriously, he showed visitors a sample of the triple-layered tent material that is tautly stretched and bolted to curved aluminum frames. “It’s awfully durable stuff,” Fry stated, explaining that the roof has been tested for leaks.

Except for a few mumbles about “weird” and “ugly,” student reaction to the new library was positive on Thursday, the first day of fall classes.

An “architectural traditionalist,” Erik Thorson was skeptical as he approached the library, which he described as “a spaceship or a tin can.” Once inside, the senior political science major was pleasantly surprised. “It’s interesting,” he said at a sun-drenched desk near an air-conditioning vent. “It’s really going to be a good place to study.”

The tent roof kept construction costs to $2.8 million, significantly less than those of most other temporary structures, UCLA officials report. What’s more, the design is supposed to provide a less intimidating library than the dark and grandiose Powell, a 1929 Romanesque building which is just atop the Janss Steps.

Gloomy the new structure is not. Nicknamed Towell, for Temporary Powell, it is actually four connected buildings topped by blue, gold and white fabric panels--blue and gold being UCLA’s colors. Concrete floors, prefabricated fixtures and industrial-style lighting give it the flavor of a trendy Westside restaurant, or a fussy warehouse, depending on your taste.

In the main hall of stacks, light streams in through plexiglass windows, and the open floor plan allows visitors to see the books on the upper level from below. There are two reading rooms, one a rotunda, the other a hemisphere with columns rising tree-like from the floor. Offices and utilities are in a tube tent with cinder-block foundations.


Sherri Page, a UCLA junior who works in Towell, predicted students will more easily find books there than in Powell’s seven labyrinthine levels. “This is so open, very airy, and light and free,” she said.

But she and other students are worried about crowding. Towell has 36,000 square feet of space, compared to 100,000 at Powell. About 50,000 of Powell’s 250,000 volumes and journals were sent to storage elsewhere on campus. The new seating capacity is 400, half of Powell’s, although 200 other spots are available nearby in Royce Hall and on an outdoor patio.

Officials stress that the alternative was worse--splitting up the undergraduate collection among the UCLA libraries geared for graduate research. “The main challenge was how can we take care of thousands of undergraduates while keeping our commitment to seismic safety,” said Gloria Werner, UCLA’s chief librarian. “I think the solution was extraordinarily innovative and creative and it was done on a very tight budget.”

UCLA planners borrowed the idea of a tented structure from warehouses and amusement parks. Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates of Santa Monica were the architects and American Constructors California Inc. of Huntington Beach was the builder. Rubb Building Systems of Maine manufactured the 5,000 square yards of tent material.

Architect Ming Fung said she is not troubled by comparisons to a circus tent or spaceship. “If people read into it different readings, it makes the project interesting,” she said. Fung wanted to avoid a trailer-home atmosphere while preserving all the proper functions of a library.

National Library Relocation Inc. of New York carefully trucked the Powell collection downhill and, with hired students, reshelved the 200,000 items over 10 days recently. “If 50 books are out of order, it could take hundreds of hours to shift them back,” said librarian Fry, adding with relief that “everything was in order.”

Sometime in 1995, the books will be returned to the renovated Powell. Towell, designed to last 10 years, will be converted to other uses, possibly dance studios and classrooms, as other UCLA buildings get seismic overhauls. Meanwhile this week, workers are putting the finishing touches on Towell, and Fry promises sun filters soon will be placed on windows to better protect books from hot glare.

All those details probably don’t interest many students in the rush of a new academic term, said Linda Lange, a junior chemistry major. “Most students have one goal in mind,” she said. “Get their books and bail out.”