Mira Mesa library
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Recently I set out to visit the newest branch libraries in San Diego. Most are all but unknown to San Diegans outside each community.

Architects, however, scrutinize these innovative buildings intensely. One, two, or even three have opened each year since the mid-1980s, and a commission in City Librarian William Sannwald’s ambitious building program has become one of the most desirable jobs in town. Why? It’s now obvious that the designer will get the chance to draw a building that is unlike any other library — or public building — in the city.

As I toured the branches, I realized that most of the old myths and impressions about libraries are being shelved. It’s most often been requests from the communities themselves that have brought about big changes in the way we think about and use libraries. These new buildings are not the result of architectural whimsy and experimentation. Yet some look it.

How enzymatic are these new libraries to the learning process, the needs of a community, and the preservation of reading as a necessity and a pastime? How much have they abandoned the morality of the old library order — the inherent quietude of paper pages being turned, a librarian’s sharp hiss for silence — and what have they replaced it with?

First stop on the tour: Mira Mesa. A “sidewalk” runs through the center of San Diego’s newest branch library (8405 New Salem Street). As you would expect, it leads first to a central desk (this one massive in concrete), but on its way to the stacks, children’s area, and study areas, it plunges through a forest of tall lamps rising above colorful armchairs. The effect is not unlike a Parisian street where a popular cafe has lapped near the curb. The carpet underfoot is a squiggly pattern of peacock feathers and other slitty tove-looking oddities.

Designed by architect Bill Boecken of BSHA in San Diego, the Mira Mesa branch is an angular, high-tech-looking building that seems to pay passing homage to the hangars or service bays of nearby Miramar Naval Air Station. A hillock of grass, shaped like a spear point, guards the entrance.

Oh my, you might wonder, especially because the trees are still small, and the building has a certain steel-and-glass machismo. Inside, however, wonderful, goofy support poles angle toward the ceiling, each at a slant of about 10 degrees. Two pod-like light fixtures grow from each pole like arrogant buds. Light bounces in, not unpleasantly, from a bright courtyard that is scattered with large marble blocks carved with numerous “greatest hits” literary passages, such as “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net...so much of life in it’s [sic] meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”

Linda Vista library

Linda Vista library

Despite one stonecutter’s errant apostrophe, this is a library with a message: gyre and gimbal and celebrate being around books. It is packed with students, senior citizens, and small children throughout the day. It is noisy but not unpleasant. You succumb to the energy here. As I sat to read for a while at 4:00 p.m. on a weekday, I took what appeared to be the last empty seat in the building.

“Mira Mesa had a lot of community input,” said William Sannwald, speaking by telephone from his office downtown when I called to ask about the design’s genesis. “For starters, they put it in a place where I didn’t want to put it! I wanted it on Mira Mesa Boulevard...right across from the high school, but the baseball fields were there, and I guess I didn’t want to get tarred and feathered by the Little League people. So we purchased the piece of property where it is now [near the east end of Mira Mesa mall].

“We narrowed it down to a design we liked, one with a roof we thought was very attractive. But the community group didn’t like it: they thought it looked like a Quonset hut. I explained that it would look like one of the curved roofs at Horton Plaza, not a cheap design at all. They couldn’t see it. We had to modify, and it even held us back four or five months until we finally got their approval.”

Most of the branch libraries appear labyrinthine when you first enter. Under closer examination, the buildings disassemble into one or two big rooms opening onto asymmetrical wings and nooks. Marching ranks of bookshelves surround scattered archipelagos of chairs, lamps, and tables. Floor plans are united by librarians’ need to see most reaches of the facility without moving from the central desk (libraries today are notoriously understaffed). The subtlety with which an architect accomplishes this feat is part of the magic.

At the Linda Vista branch (2160 Ulric Street), architect Rob Quigley, FAIA, had a notion of how to deal with the flexibility needed in a branch library, yet not have it look like a warehouse.

“We created a rotunda,” he said, “so collections can migrate toward that space. It acts as an overflow valve to absorb them. Or they can contract into more defined rooms.”

This was especially important at Linda Vista, where a very large Southeast Asian community placed an unusual demand on the branch from the start for Hmong, Lao, Chinese, and Cambodian books and videos. Libraries aren’t dealing with the usual simple “fiction” and “nonfiction” sections anymore. And book collections are bolstered by swelling ranks of CDUs, music listening stations, videotapes, and computers.

Quigley feels he learned a great deal from his Linda Vista design (which won the highest statewide architectural honor yet bestowed on a San Diego public building), and he’s hoping to get a chance to “put some of that knowledge back into another project.”

Aside from lighting considerations and materials, Quigley said, “The other thing I learned is that you cannot overestimate the sort of violence these buildings have to endure. How do you create a bullet-proof, prisonlike building from a maintenance point of view that doesn’t have those connotations aesthetically and emotionally? I was just in Chile and Argentina and saw very public buildings, very vulnerable situations, where there is nothing like our kind of abuse.

“I spent a lot of time addressing that issue,” he continued, “and it cannot be a Band-Aid or afterthought. [Even still] I couldn’t imagine the intensity of it. People with pencils ripping apart overstuffed chairs. Break-ins at night where nothing is taken — someone just wanting to see if they can get in. It’s a question that goes way beyond libraries.”

Once the visitor is aware of how a building must anticipate abuse, many of the design decisions (especially the choice of materials like metal and concrete instead of wood and plaster) are easier to understand.

Walls are one answer. Security elements, yes, needed because our climate allows moist of the new branch libraries to have courtyards or “outdoor rooms.” But a wall is more than a way to keep people out or people (and books) in. As Ada Louise Huxtable once wrote in the New York Times, “The wall is the sleeper of the environment. There is nothing more infinitely expressive than its receptive expanse: It establishes style and setting, creates mood as well as enclosure, defines time and place. The wall is an environmental event.”

Most of the branches use walls as important design elements, but three, especially, turn them into “events.”

At Scripps Ranch (10301 Scripps Lake Drive), walls create a large Mission Revival courtyard. Designed by Dick Bundy, FAIA, this is one of the most historically comforting and design-accessible branches. It even incorporates fragments from a ranch house that was on the site. The building and the site have a beauty that will mature well.

At Rancho Peñasquitos (13330 Salmon River Road), a wall designed by CLEO of San Diego and architect Gene Ciperoni is like a Roman aqueduct bisecting the ridge of the building, then plunging to ground to create the entrance corridor. Broken by a grid pattern and several large gaps, it is also analogous to the ruined mission walls of California. The building is powerful and successful as a symbol of community pride, seeming to shun romance.

The Malcolm X branch (5148 Market Street) is where the wall finally approaches its potential as a powerful library design tool. Here architect Manuel Oncina echoes the surrounding hills with three curvilinear, egg-shaped wings to hold a performing arts auditorium, central administration, and a READ/San Diego literacy center for adults. (A side note: Oncina gave the literacy area its own entrance because interviews with users indicated that they did not want to reach it by walking past readers in the other areas.)

Now under construction and scheduled to open this fall, the Malcolm X branch library will be San Diego’s response to an increased local interest in modern Latin design approaches. An exuberant use of color is desperately needed in more of our buildings.

“I wanted to be responsible to the site first,” said Oncina. “And to the community. I felt the library didn’t need to be an authoritarian building. It could be feminine. I also have an undeniable respect for other cultures....”

His chosen shapes can be seen on any continent, but especially in America’s Southwest and the earthen homes and granaries of Africa’s arid regions. When complete, the Malcolm X branch may join the new South Chula Vista Library, designed by Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, as multicultural landmarks that draw visitors from around the county.

In the last decade, 13 new libraries have been built, are in plan, or are now under construction. The improvement or replacement of 12 more branch libraries is planned as part of Proposition N, the $119.5 million bond issue slated for the September 1995 special election ballot.

This boomlet of baby libraries has energized the civic architecture of San Diego like nothing else in recent memory, and it's happened mostly on a grassroots level. Branches open in their communities with the kind of instant appeal and acceptance that might be accorded a popular new restaurant or shopping complex. All are far busier than any video store or arcade. Almost every branch has a community meeting room that is busy every night, for many of San Diego’s neighborhoods don’t have public meeting halls or other cultural resources.

Yet as long as anyone can remember, the drum beat in San Diego has been “when are we going to get a new central library?” It has overshadowed the astonishing things happening at the branches. Sannwald began his career in San Diego because he thought he’d address the issue soon.

“The possibility of building a new main library first attracted me to San Diego,” said Sannwald. “The deputy city manager who hired me said, ‘Well, we’re going to build a new central library. It’s probably not going to happen right away, but by the time you’ve been here for 10 years, you’ll be in the new building.’ ” Sannwald is now a 16-year veteran of the department.

Ironically, one might wonder if the tremendous success of these new branches might lead to the question, Do we need a new central library at all?

Sannwald argues vigorously in favor of the idea, citing the trend that even more space is required for electronic storage systems than for books. A law library in Washington, D C., for example, recently converted to electronic storage that required 50 percent more space than traditional bound-volume storage.

Sharon Griswold, San Diego Public Library’s capital improvement project analyst, says that children are using libraries more than ever before, creating a new generation of users that may be more at home in libraries than their boomer parents.

“As we designed the new branches,” said Griswold, “we put in areas for children’s story hours. It used to be that we’d get 15 children. Now we might have 200. Why? Because we have outstanding storytellers? Not necessarily true at every branch. There have been times when we’ve had to issue tickets.”

A new San Diego Central Library may join new central libraries in other Western cities (Los Angeles, Denver, Dallas, Phoenix) as a powerful symbol of civic commitment to learning, research, history, and the fundamental right to read, fudging by the branches already awaiting a revitalized central trunk, it has a good chance of being an extraordinary building.

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