Mira Mesa library
  • Mira Mesa library
  • Image by Peter Jensen
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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

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.

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