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Architecture Review: West Hollywood Library among top works

The new library across from the Pacific Design Center strikes an appealingly upbeat tone, borrowing from various architectural influences to become one of the most impressive public pieces in the region in a decade.

September 28, 2011|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic

The new West Hollywood Library, set to open to the public Saturday on a curving stretch of San Vicente Boulevard across from the Pacific Design Center, is a building that offers a freewheeling tour through centuries of architectural history. Explicitly or implicitly, it points back to the work of Charles Moore, Pierre Koenig, Frank Gehry and even Michelangelo.

The library includes long expanses of floor-to-ceiling glass, in the great California midcentury tradition, as well as bands of marble and generous helpings of architectural ornament. Along with computer terminals and shelves full of actual books, it incorporates a pair of parking garages, rooftop tennis courts, murals by the street artists Shepard Fairey and Kenny Scharf and new chambers for the West Hollywood City Council.

Whatever you want to call its style (the first local stirrings of a postmodern revival, maybe?), it sounds altogether too busy and too stuffed with architectural influences to succeed. And yet it does succeed — beautifully.

Designed by Steve Johnson and James Favaro of the Culver City firm Johnson Favaro, the library is one of the seven or eight most impressive pieces of public architecture to open in Southern California in a decade.

It certainly can't — and doesn't try to — match the virtuosity of Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall or the visceral power of Thom Mayne's Caltrans District Seven Headquarters, two buildings that belong near the top of any list of new L.A. landmarks. But it is tough to think of many civic projects that can match the upbeat, gregarious appeal of the library, which has managed to navigate the punishing low-bid, public-sector construction process without sacrificing its ambition or design personality.

The three-story building — the library fills the second and third floors — covers roughly 48,000 square feet, plus a whopping 168,000 square feet of garage space. Built for $35 million, it is the first part of a master plan by Johnson Favaro for the library site and an attached park to the north to be completed. The master plan envisions that visitors will eventually be able to walk from Santa Monica Boulevard through the park and directly to the library's front entrance, all without a significant change in grade. Ongoing debates over the fate of the old city library, however, a small, notable modern building from 1959 by the architect Edward Fickett, may slow work on the park.

The new building is among the first products of the Los Angeles County Library system's decade-long construction campaign to really grapple with the architectural implications of a denser, more crowded Southern California. The county still tends to build libraries in the suburban mold: single-story structures surrounded by spacious parking lots.

The Johnson Favaro design offers a clear rejection of that approach. It is essentially a two-story library lifted one story above street level, both to raise its main entrance to meet the park and to make room on its ground floor for the council chambers and connections to the parking garages behind.

The entire street-level facade was to be given over to retail, but that was before the city government, sensing that this might turn out to be the most significant public building to be built in West Hollywood for a generation, moved to take a section for its own use. A planned coffee bar between the council chambers and the street is the only remnant of that original retail plan.

The act of lifting the library into the air produces the design's lone awkward moments: the fact that its main entrance is largely invisible from the sidewalk out front, and that cars heading for the garage will have to share space with pedestrians using the building at ground level. (The architects decided the connection to the park was paramount.) But the gesture does manage to give the building some civic and architectural heft, allowing it to compete, as a piece of urban design, with Cesar Pelli's PDC across the street.

By giving the library the mass of a three-story building, they have allowed it to speak to the PDC almost as an equal. But they've also played against Pelli's glossy, reflective design. They've given the library's exterior — wrapped in two bands of glass sandwiched between curling, faintly baroque ribbons of plaster — a rather quiet mien.

The interior of the library is a different story: It is full of energy, splashes of color and natural light. The main entrance — reached from the sidewalk along San Vicente by a sizable curving staircase meant to operate as a gathering spot in its own right — opens onto a generously sized lobby.

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