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BEYOND TACO BELL : San Juan Capistrano's New Library Makes The Leap From Red Tile Roofs

October 27, 1985|SAM HALL KAPLAN | Sam Hall Kaplan is The Times' design critic.

With its pleasant pastiche of pastel walls, red-tile-topped mini-towers, playful, pyramidal turrets and neoclassical columns--an engaging blend of Spanish Colonial and Princeton Post-Modern architectural styles--the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library has garnered various coveted design awards.

Molly and Emmy White did not know about the awards, which included this year's top honors from the American Institute of Architects. And when told about them recently as they struggled with an armful of children's books at the library, just north of the historic mission from which the Orange County town takes its name, the sisters did not seem to care.

All that 10-year-old Molly and 7-year-old Emmy wanted to do was to find an empty padded bench in one of the quaint, quiet towers and curl up with their new books. "It's a fun place to read--really neat," Molly murmured, with Emmy chiming in a shy echo.

"They just love it here," their mother, Sally, explained. "That's why we drive here from our home in Laguna Niguel instead of to a library there. This one is so much more exciting."

Gathering up two of her children after a story hour in the children's wing, Suzanne Luke observed that the library has "a happy feeling" that makes her entire family look forward to using the diverse facility. In addition to the adult and children's sections and the usual reference rooms and foyers, you'll find a comfortable lounge, a bookstore and a multipurpose room used for art exhibits, lectures, receptions, concerts and films. All that and nearly a dozen delightful little nooks and crannies off the reading rooms and courtyard combine to make the 26,000-square-foot complex much more than merely a library. "It has become a real community center--a place people here both use and take pride in," declared Emily Jackson, the principal librarian. She noted that attendance and circulation in the new library in its first year of operation, compared to that of the former facility, had doubled, to about 250 people a day and 300,000 books and magazines a year. Story-hour attendance also had more than doubled, to about 360 a month, and volunteer hours were up seven times, to about 500 a month.

Jackson called the growth "amazing" and attributed it in large part to the playhouse quality of the architecture. "We didn't think it would make that much of a difference," she said, "but it did."

The design of the library grew out of an architectural competition sponsored by the city and county. Of 43 firms that competed, three--Moore Ruble Yudell, Robert A. M. Stern and Michael Graves--were commissioned to produce schemes consistent with the Spanish Colonial motif that is preferred in such thematic communities as San Juan Capistrano. The motif is also known as the Taco Bell syndrome.

Instead of reviving or mimicking the style, however, Graves interpreted it, selecting Spanish Colonial elements (the beige stucco walls, the red tile roofs) and combining or decorating them with other historical motifs (Grecian columns, a Gothic gallery, Art Deco fixtures and pre-Columbian stenciling). The resulting submission was a dazzling display of the Princeton, N.J., architect's idiosyncratic blend of history and fantasy--an eclectic Post-Modernism that gave a polite nod to the adjacent mission but did not bow to it.

Although a few jurors were worried that if Graves got the commission for the $1.6-million library he might overdesign it--he has done so elsewhere--they chose his submission and crossed their collective fingers. At first there was some strong protest from the relatively conservative surrounding community, but as the complex slowly took shape and Graves' abstractions became realities, the furor died down. And when the library was completed to a chorus of accolades in popular and professional publications, residents realized that the town had another landmark. Embracing the library, they found that they liked it.

"Frankly, we weren't sure what to expect," said Bob Phillips, who with his wife, Hilary, is a member of the Friends of the Library and mans the bookstore every Wednesday. "But once we saw it, we couldn't believe our eyes," Hilary interjected as she arranged some books. "It's just a marvelous library, and we're very proud of it."

"Very exotic," Bob added.

"Yes," Hilary said, "but there are some problems that make housekeeping impossible--such as the ceilings being so high that you can't reach the cobwebs." (There also were complaints that the lighting fixtures designed by Graves don't work well, but library officials say that those are being modified.)

"I like the high ceilings," said Luis Escalante, who had been browsing in the bookstore. "They give you the feeling of space, even though the room is very small." Identifying himself as the manager of civil and structural engineering for the Los Angeles Department of Public Works, Escalante said that he had heard about the library and was taking a day off to look at it.

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