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Where High Tech and History Meet

UCLA's Renovated Powell Library Melds State-of-the-Art Systems With Architectural Preservation


With gargoyles and griffins staring down from overhead, the Powell Library Building at UCLA appears more suitable for medieval monks than cyber-savvy college students.

But the nearly 70-year-old building is far from being an obsolete architectural relic. After a four-year, $35-million renovation, the historic structure--one of the four original buildings on the Westwood campus--opened this past summer as a state-of-the-art library designed to handle the challenges of the information age.

"We shoved the building into the 21st century," said Gregory B. Morrison, an electrical engineer.

The team of librarians, engineers and architects that worked on Powell struggled over how to bring the building up to date without losing the unique and quirky characteristics that have made it an endearing landmark. Complicating matters were rapid advances in computer technology as well as the January 1994 Northridge earthquake, which heavily damaged an ornate plaster ceiling and set back the reopening of the library by two years.

The struggle between preserving the old and accommodating the new has intensified as historical preservation efforts have spread, and the rapid pace of technological change threatens to make even 20-year-old buildings obsolete. The renovation of many other Southern California landmarks, ranging from Riverside's Mission Inn to the former Bullocks Wilshire department store, which will soon reopen as the library for the Southwestern University School of Law, has run into the same challenges.

"A building needs to change. . . . A building needs to have a life so that it can continue to serve a community over time," said Michael de Villiers, the architect for the Powell project.

Of course, historic preservation efforts don't come cheap. Protecting Powell's historic character--instead of simply gutting the building--significantly boosted the price and duration of the project, said Morrison, who notes that large, new college libraries have been built for about the same price as the renovation. However, the $35 million spent on the project is a fraction of what it would take to replicate the Powell building.

"You can't really build a library like Powell with that kind of artistry and craftsmanship at that price," said Morrison.

A quick tour of the Powell building, which houses the main undergraduate library, reveals some of the contrasts between the high tech and the historic:

* In what was formerly a reserve book room on the first floor, students line up to use one of more than 90 desktop computers in the Computer Commons to read e-mail, use the Internet to research papers or check a professor's online syllabus. The room is lined with the original and now mostly empty mahogany book shelves that "we almost consider wall paneling," De Villiers said.

* On the main floor, under the soaring, hand-painted plaster ceiling of the library's Reference Room, custom-made study tables and study carrels conceal "raceways" where students can hook up portable computers for electrical power and an Internet link. The library has more than 400 ports to handle portables computers.

* Upstairs, in a former warren of offices, students and teachers make multimedia presentations in high-tech classrooms. Students don't need to take notes, because the blackboards can electronically transmit their professors' scribblings to desktop computer printers. Teachers, in turn, will soon be able to pluck off whatever appears on a student's computer screen and display it to the entire class on television monitors.


What's invisible to the eye are the miles of fiber-optic cables and electrical wiring that tie together the hundreds of computers and other pieces of electronic equipment. Also hidden are new, seismically strengthened walls of steel-reinforced concrete designed to withstand powerful earthquakes.

Based on the designs of numerous Italian Renaissance churches, the Powell Library Building and its rotundas and towers have served as a center for campus life since opening in 1929, when UCLA moved to its current location. Throngs of UCLA students have climbed up the worn clay tile stairs, passed under Moorish-style arches and taken a seat at the long tables in the Reference Room--a dramatic, cathedral-like space where sunlight pours in through arched windows.

Despite numerous alterations and additions, it was clear by the 1980s that the Powell building--named after former librarian Lawrence Clark Powell--was in need of substantial renovation.

The methods, standards and cost of overhauling historically significant and prominent buildings such as Powell varies dramatically.

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