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ART : This Project Isn't by the Book : The Central Library revitalization enlists 11 Los Angeles-based artists to help restore its soul and spirit

July 25, 1993|SUZANNE MUCHNIC | Suzanne Muchnic is The Times' art writer

Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, the architect of Los Angeles' Central Library, liked to think of himself as a team player. At work in the early 1920s on the pyramid-topped building that would become one of downtown's most treasured landmarks, he called himself a member of a "designing triumvirate." The architect's duty, he wrote in a letter to librarian Everett R. Perry, was "to make a good plan with a good mass and then entrust the ornament just as far as possible to other able and artistic intelligences--sculptor or sculptors, painter or painters, who will work in harmony with him and have a thorough understanding and appreciation of what they are doing."

Goodhue died in 1924, before the Central Library was completed. If he could see his Los Angeles masterpiece today--in final stages of a $213.9-million renovation and expansion financed with about $35 million in city funds as well as a variety of private contributions--he would surely be gratified by the restoration of the historic structure and its vintage artworks damaged by two fires in 1986. In these days of fiscal pain, conservators have lavished as much care as budgets allow on the centerpiece of the Los Angeles Public Library system.

Andrea Rothe, paintings conservator at the J. Paul Getty Museum, has served as a volunteer consultant, while independent conservators Tatyana Thompson, Rosamond Westmoreland, Tony Heinsbergen and Scott Haskins have cleaned smoke and years of soil from murals and painted ceilings. Glenn Wharton and Jim Grant, who are supervising the project to ensure that conservation work meets national preservation standards, have enlisted professional help to clean and repair sculptural elements, including tiled drinking fountains, glazed railings and iron gates.

Conservators have removed acidic soot, old surface coatings and well-aged wads of bubble gum from sculptures, including a pair of marble and bronze sphinxes and a massive figure of "Civilization" on the north stairway. Wax coating will protect the sculptures' surfaces, while new maintenance manuals will enhance the future of all the historic artworks.

The library is getting respect. It is also acquiring a new wing, which descends deep into the ground on the east side of the old building. Goodhue's reaction to the gleaming new addition is anybody's guess, but he would surely be pleased that the collaborative spirit he advocated is alive in 1993--with a little help from a city requirement that 1% of the construction budgets of new public buildings be spent on the arts.

The library's new architect, Norman Pfeiffer, a partner in the firm of Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer Associates, is working with 11 Los Angeles-based artists to extend Goodhue's vision into the realm of contemporary art and architecture. Five artists--David Bunn, Ries Niemi, Renee Petropoulos, Ann Preston and Therman Statom--are producing artworks that are expected to be in place for the building's opening on Oct. 3.

About $548,000 has been spent so far on new artworks, funded by the Community Redevelopment Agency, a city bond issue and developers. A portion of that sum has paid for the design of works by six other artists--Ralph Bacerra, Susan Mogul, Stephen Prina, Buzz Spector, Mitchell Syrop and John Valadez--who are awaiting an additional $675,000 in funds to be raised privately by the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. Their works will be produced and installed as money becomes available.

"From the beginning we have tried to stay in sympathy with the architectural collaboration in the original building," Pfeiffer said. "The geometry of the spaces, the colors, the form and symbolism of the zodiac chandelier in the rotunda and many other elements provided underlying criteria," he said. "The clues (to new design) were already in place in this project. Bertram Goodhue put them there. We didn't have to invent a metaphor. We had the metaphor of the building, and we let it tell us what to do."

The metaphor contains a rich mix of styles, images and inscriptions that has offered the artists dozens of choices in their quest to create works relevant to the library and, in many cases, functional. Goodhue combined Mediterranean, Roman, Hellenistic, Byzantine, Islamic and Egyptian influences in a fortresslike edifice enriched by decorative elements. Sculptor Lee Lawrie, who worked closely with Goodhue, produced a stunning array of reliefs and free-standing works including a historical panorama of poets, prophets, philosophers and teachers, and a multicultural parade of scribes.

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