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STRUCTURES : Bricks and Books : Oxnard's new downtown library fuses past and present in an auspicious beginning for the future civic center.


It all began 13 years ago as a purely practical matter. In 1979, it was determined that the Oxnard downtown library was rapidly outgrowing its space.

"It got to the point where we had 50,000 books in storage," library director Gail Warner said. "It was really time to replace our 18,000-square-foot building. The new one is 72,000 square feet."

The Oxnard library, Warner says, is the oldest public system in Ventura County, dating from 1907.

By 1985, a new Civic Master Plan was drawn up and, by 1988, plans for a new library were approved, to be followed by a new civic center plaza.

Dedicated March 7, the new, improved library is an imposing, impressive structure consuming half a city block in downtown Oxnard. Originally designed by architect Brad Neal and finished by project architects Susan McDonald and Gary Samonski, the library is worth a look, from an architectural point of view as much as anything.

The library's celebration of brick resonates with the bounty of brick at the bus depot plaza across Oxnard Boulevard, and also with various other brick buildings around town. Brick has a warm, timeless quality, especially now when architects are borrowing ideas and materials from previous periods.

The long face of the structure stretches along A Street between 2nd and 3rd streets. But the new library wears its bulk well. Rather than giving the impression of a brick-walled monolith, variations of form and volume create a kind of fluid visual movement in the design.

A kinder, gentler postmodernism guides the design, with a healthy diversity of influences tastefully merging past and present. Still, the library is not strident or irreverent in its fusion of ideas.

Touches of classical formality appear. Small double columns punctuate the upper-story windows. Massive entrances from the street and the parking lot to the rear are announced by huge arches, radiating over the doorways.

The building's warmth and rhythm of form are in sharp contrast with the older Civic Center buildings in the plaza behind the library. Modernist rectilinearity has been the order of the property. In the library, however, a modulated arrangement of cubes forms a complex but symmetrical overall structure, with curved elevations on either end--again, softening the general mass of the library.

Even so, the structure reminds us of its symbolic and actual function as a repository of information and a community nucleus available to all. While making a bold presence on the block, it is not overwhelming, and visitors are implicitly invited in.

Once inside, you're swept into the lobby and up the central staircase, which leads to the dramatic arched window at the second-story landing. A tall vaulted ceiling defines the library's midpoint.

Inside, truncated columns, painted a deep rust color, are scattered throughout the library interior. Columns become an inside/outside motif, sometimes serving a functional purpose, sometimes a purely decorative one.

Apart from the lobby area, which integrates the exterior and interior, the library's inside spaces are much more utilitarian than the outer shell. A spacious feel is achieved despite necessarily low ceilings. A series of study rooms, meeting rooms and offices line the fringes of the space. Suspended lighting fixtures hang downstairs, with recessed lighting upstairs.

"We're really pleased," Warner said. "Not only does it look good, it's functional. It works. There is many a public building that doesn't. This seems to be real satisfactory in terms of traffic flow, and function as well as form."

Interestingly, a few blocks away sits the Carnegie Art Museum, originally built as part of the series of libraries commissioned by Andrew Carnegie. It's another one of the notable architectural showpieces in town.

At this point, the new library looks a bit lonely in its elegance. There it sits, a shiny new edifice that already seems like a proud part of a new landscape in the making. This is the first of the buildings slated for the new Oxnard Civic Center.

Call it an auspicious cornerstone of the new Oxnard.

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