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San Juan Librarian Likens Building to 'Tour Through History'

November 07, 1987

The San Juan Capistrano Regional Library's post - modern building has drawn international attention, an army of volunteer workers, busloads of visitors and endowment grants normally afforded to big-city libraries. But no one is in greater thrall of the award-winning building designed by Michael Graves than principal librarian Emily Jackson. The 38-year-old Los Angeles native, reared in Mexico City and Rome, has finally found an environment that rivals the historic buildings she lived in abroad. She credits Graves' talent and philosophy for a workplace that is as comfortable as a private home and as inviting as an outdoor garden. She only wonders why it has taken so long for people to expect buildings that make them "feel good." After all, Jackson says, when Graves was criticized for his failure to follow the "form follows function" rule of architecture in a public building that blends fantasy and history , the architect explained: One of the functions of a building is to be beautiful. Below are observations by Jackson taken from an interview by Times staff writer Nancy Reed at the library .

Right before we opened (December, 1983), we were just putting books on the shelves and a lady knocked on the door and asked to come in. "I have been dying to see the inside," she said.

And in she came and burst into tears. This building just feels so good.

Usually libraries are wide open--they don't have intimate rooms where you can spend time quietly--which is easy for the librarian because they can supervise the interior better.

But anyone who is a real reader, and we were lucky that the architect is a reader, knows that you just can't concentrate unless you feel protected.

So this library is broken down into small rooms. It feels private. Many libraries are designed to encourage people to come in, get the books and leave.

This building makes people very comfortable. And it reminds people of the history of their own civilization.

It refers to periods in the past--from Egypt to Peru to classical Greece to early Italian Renaissance to Frank Lloyd Wright.

Michael Graves was doing sketches of Mayan ruins when he was preparing for this building. So it traces the history of our culture from its roots in Europe through Central America up through Mexico and into the United States.

So it's kind of like taking a tour through history.

It is easy for me to forget how different this building looked at first--to be any color besides brown or tan. There are 26 different colors. So it was kind of shocking; until recently, I think people were starved for beauty in buildings, for warmth and for color.

I don't know that much about organizational psychology, but the natural light and the scale--it is scaled to human proportions--seems to make a difference. Many of us have noticed we are not as tired at the end of the day as one is inclined to get in other branches.

In those great big movie theaters with the lights dangling down, the ceiling is so high you feel like you are in a huge space station; you are not reassured by your environment.

Some people objected to this building because it was modern, because it didn't have arches. . . . Of course, all old buildings don't have arches. I think some people have restaurant-chain interpretations of Spanish architecture.

The outside is more austere. But I think that is kind of neat because the outside sort of balances the gentleness of the inside, so it's not too sweet and it's not too harsh.

The architect said it was only 80% done, that it won't be 100% done until it has a more overgrown look that typifies San Juan buildings. There are bougainvillea, jasmine, juniper and German trumpet vines growing.

Japanese architects come straight here from Los Angeles International Airport. Visitors come from Germany, France, Spain, South America. It's like working next door to the United Nations, and the next best thing to traveling.

We didn't expect the kind of response we got. We are having to replace our carpet, as it wore out in the first couple of years. We just didn't know how many people would use this building.

When I lived in Mexico City, I lived in a very old region, next door to a great Mexican muralist amidst all these beautiful old colonial buildings. And in Rome you have so many layers of history depicted by wonderful buildings.

When I came to the United States, to Los Angeles, it felt as if I were being deprived of something very necessary.

It took a big chunk out of my happiness, just my basic daily day-to-day feeling of well-being--just because of the environment. When I saw this building going up, I thought, at last, I will be in that environment again. To me, it is the most beautiful building I have seen in the United States--and I get to work in it.

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