July 1, 2012
An elegantly restored research library at UCLA brings the analog and digital worlds together.
In 1950, the late Ray Bradbury—a dedicated autodidact who spent three days a week at libraries in lieu of enrolling in college—entered the typewriter-rental room in the basement of UCLA’s Powell Library. With a roll of dimes and the kernel of a story, he holed up in front of a Royal typewriter and pounded out Fahrenheit 451, the cri de coeur for the importance of books that launched his long career. All it took was nine days and 98 dimes.
If the celebrated science-fiction writer were starting out today, he could have saved his cash. Now, at the newly renovated Young Research Library on the same campus, budding novelists can check out one of a hundred laptops that are available for loan to students, free of charge. That’s not the only difference. Instead of hunching over typewriters in a dark basement, students sprawl across futuristic furniture pods, with coffee and snacks in plain sight. Gone are the days of the library as a monkish hideaway, the province of sunlight-deprived grad students hunkered down in carrels deep in the stacks.
As part of Perkins+Will’s (P+W) update of the classic 1964 Charles E. Young building, which was designed by A. Quincy Jones and Frederick E. Emmons, a Bradbury quote was painted in a much-traveled stairwell: “Without libraries, what have we? We have no past, and no future.” The question posed by this renovation is not much different: How can a library remember its past, yet look toward the future?
The university librarians knew that they needed to foster a more inclusive, engaging environment, one that simultaneously affirmed the value of the written word and embraced the ways that digital technologies have impacted scholarship. “Our not-so-secret desire is to get faculty to come in,” says Susan Parker, the deputy university librarian who, alongside university librarian Gary Strong, consulted the Los Angeles office of P+W and the firm’s Chicago-based Branded Environments team. “We were not doing that. Before, we were more like a 7-Eleven, where you get a quart of milk and a book, and then you run out. We might as well have been a storehouse.”
Although P+W had worked on five other campus research libraries around the country, the project’s senior designer, James Kerrigan, was a library neophyte. “I was not encumbered by the usual concept of ‘this is how you design a library,’ which was helpful,” Kerrigan says. He worked with design principal Jo Carmen to push and give shape to the librarians’ forward thinking.
The result is a bright, lively floor that functions as much as a town square as it does a repository of knowledge. Though the library was state-of-the-art when it first opened in 1964, a series of ad hoc updates muddied the space, leading to a lonely, ascetic atmosphere. In the late 1990s, a donor earmarked $7 million to renovate the building, but after a design study, the school determined that there wasn’t enough money for a wholesale reimagining of the space, so plans were put on hold. That move probably helped preserve the building, which wasn’t recognized as a modernist icon until the twenty-first century. This time around, the decision was made to concentrate on the more visible main floor, using it as a proving ground for the design team’s theories about the increasingly collaborative nature of scholarship.
Legacy libraries might be one of the best places to witness the evolution of technology. When the Young was built 48 years ago, the foyer was dominated by a massive set of card catalogs. Those vestiges of the analog age gave way to reference desks where librarians manned computers, and then to standing computers where patrons could look up information on their own. In our laptop-dominated information age, the foyer now holds a semi-enclosed gallery area fronted by a giant welcome sign. Inside its curved screens there is space to show current collections, as well as a video display that can highlight programs and events. There is even a café, named Café 451, after Bradbury’s seminal work, which stays open throughout library hours and acts as another work space for students and staff.
Welcome seems to be the key word in this reenvisioning. The library is located in the northwest corner of the university’s 410-acre campus, where it is bordered by a new arts center and an impressive sculpture garden that contains works by Calder, Noguchi, and Rodin. While the entrance of the library was once a forbidding dark tunnel, it now has a handsome white-tile portico that befits its surroundings. Parker and UCLA’s project manager, Eric T. Heggen, look on triumphantly as a university tour group walks in. “That never would have happened before,” Heggen says. “They would have just walked on by.” Use of the library has increased by 200 percent, far exceeding projections—this is, in part, attributed to the fact that the area from the information desk to the reading room is visible from the exterior, signaling that this is an inviting space.
Because this is an A. Quincy Jones building, the question of preservation loomed large. “This was not a ‘sensitive’ renovation,” Kerrigan says. “This was a major update.” While the team retained the signature open staircase that runs through three floors of the building, they also added an irreverent ticker whose continuously scrolling text reminds users that there are floors above and below to explore. The original load-bearing concrete columns, which are spaced every 20 feet, were stripped of paint in order to expose the imprint of wood forms. “We wanted to show that there was a patina of age,” Kerrigan says.
Some additions are reminiscent of the era in which the building was erected. In the large Research Commons, cork flooring provides a practical throwback to the 1960s, while vibrant tangerine, avocado, and turquoise furniture suggests a swinging airport lounge, or maybe the new offices of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. P+W’s first proposed color scheme, a rich red and gold, was immediately nixed by UCLA’s campus architect, who is careful to guard against the use of crosstown rival USC’s colors. (In a twist, Jones was dean of USC’s architecture school when he designed the Young Research Library.) The most important attraction of the Commons, which dominates the main floor, is the innovative furniture, which enables groups of students to gather around a central screen that can be used as an external display for their laptops. The specs for the furniture system were derived from librarians’ requests, but luckily, just as the interiors were being completed, Steelcase released a line called media:scape, with prewired, circular seating that met their requirements.
Some innovations may be a step ahead of the students themselves. Whenever I visited the library, none of the screens were in use, despite the groups of people gathered around them. But even if the students haven’t embraced every aspect of the design group’s conception of studying in the twenty-first century, UCLA’s staff seems to be enjoying the library’s new capabilities. At the back of the Research Commons is an open space for the Digital Cultural Heritage Laboratory, where faculty and graduate students conduct research using a huge presen-tation screen; students in that department can often be seen examining both a digitized version of an artifact and the original. Next to that is a closed door with a small sign: “Room 11630L—Experimental.” Any teacher in the humanities department can sign up to work in that space, but some, like a classics teacher, opt to conduct their sessions out in the open. “We offered to find her a private space, but she said that she wanted students to know that we have a classics department,” Parker says.
Even professors who have been skeptical of the interactive new library have gradually come around, teaching classes in the building’s large lecture hall and leading breakout sessions in the media:scape areas. Just as the workplace has become increasingly dependent on collaboration, so has the university. Parker and Strong’s goal was to put scholarship on display, making it more accessible.
This transparency has been given a nice symbolic twist with a series of cases, along the east-west axis of the building, which have a video screen on one side and books on the other. The video side highlights elements of the library’s existing collections and ongoing scholarship; it lines an area called The Street, which helps visitors to orient themselves, and is part of a trend of bringing urban planning ideas into workplaces and institutions. The book side lines the interior of the Reading Room, a cozy, living room–like take on the more traditional lounge-type university reading room. Students huddle over their laptops but are surrounded by thousands of reference books, which range from Russian encyclopedias to U.S. Census reports. “For a lot of people, books equal library,” Parker says. “Books represent the totality of human knowledge. We really care about preserving the written word.” This quietly grand room is meant to be a visual representation of that reverence. Still, if everything can be digitized, why preserve the written word? According to the librarians, it’s about both authenticity and access. “Google has hundreds of millions of books digitized, but only half of them are accessible, because of copyright,” Parker says, adding, “In the latter half of the twenty-first century, authenticity is going to be one of the biggest challenges this society faces.” Access to original documents will be paramount to responsible scholarship.
The digital landscape has already changed dramatically since the renovations began in 2007. P+W tried to anticipate some of these changes by, for example, installing raised floors that can accommodate later generations of wiring for new forms of interactive workspaces—the feature was designed before networks became increasingly wireless. No design team can predict every turn of technology. Even the new video screens will eventually, inevitably, follow the card catalog and the standing computer terminals into oblivion and be replaced by something unimaginable and new. Yet our human impulse to study and preserve will survive.