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Style: Architecture : Grandeur Central

October 03, 1993|JOSEPH GIOVANNINI | New York writer - architect Giovannini last wrote about Manhattan's Holocaust Museum for this magazine

Now, for the first time in nearly 25 years, visitors can approach the library as it was originally designed, walking past flights of stairs and terraced fountains to a triumphant, vaguely Assyrian portal decorated with two horsemen representing Eastern and Western civilizations passing the torch of knowledge. The Latin inscription translates, "Like runners passing on the lamp of light."

The west door and other entries lead to a rotunda with a shallow, brilliantly stenciled dome that redirects visitors to a double marble staircase rising past two carved sphinxes and the statue of Civilization. Beyond a low-ceilinged corridor, visitors arrive in a vast explosion of space--the Lodwrick M. Cook rotunda, its dome stenciled in a radiant sunburst. A magnificent zodiac chandelier hovers above the marble floors.

The rotunda's heroic murals, sooted during the fire, have been restored, lighter perhaps but luminous. The great reading room beyond, with murals about the history of California, has been converted into the children's library. From the rotunda, escalators lead east to the new addition--the Tom Bradley Wing--where the floors fall away in a vast spatial surprise. What appears on the outside to be a four-story addition east of the Goodhue library in fact includes four basement stories, and the view from the balcony of the original library overlooks an eight-story terraced interior courtyard telescopically deep. A procession of oversize terra-cotta columns runs along one side, their massiveness echoing the notions of antiquity that saturate the main library.

This wing, designed by Norman Pfeiffer, posed the most difficult and complex problem: how to add a massive amount of new space without letting the tail wag the dog. By excavating and burying four floors, the architects lowered the addition's profile so that it plays a supporting role to the main architectural event. The support is also aesthetic. The sobriety of the strong, plain Goodhue building (and critical pressure from the vigilant preservation community) inspired and imposed a sobriety on the addition, which behaves like a model citizen, echoing the block-like massing of the main library, paying homage to its decoration, fronting Grand Street with a strong but varied urban wall.

With Italian cypress and 150-year-old olive trees, the elemental simplicity of the Maguire Gardens masks the fact that the gardens rest on a 940-car underground garage. The 180 parts of L.A. artist Jud Fine's environmental piece "Spine" extend the textual content of the Goodhue Building into the garden with inscriptions and sculptural allusions, including a bronze relief map of the world that locates the sites of history's great library fires and book burnings and an eerie stainless-steel head of a woman turned to the sky, water flowing from her mouth and nose.

The Central Library is, ultimately, a monument where it counts. Downtown is still the only ranking public space, besides the beaches and a few parks, that all Angelenos can actively share. This historically significant building restores pride of place to a downtown that for years has struggled, amid fierce economic and social problems, to live up to its name and role.

Twenty-five years ago, New York tore down Pennsylvania Station, and the wound still festers. Thanks to the help of a few individuals and the concerted follow-through of many more, Los Angeles has kept its public library--and its cultural integrity.

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