We can usually recognize when a government agency builds something and decides ahead of time that it is going to be special. They put thoughtfulness, care, and money into it, they hire the best architects, and the almost pre-determined results are generally good. The Air Force Academy Chapel in Colorado Springs or the Library of Birmingham in the UK come to mind. This is world-class architecture on a grand-investment scale. We have also seen the opposite, as when functionality, short-sightedness and an obsession with cutting corners can result in unimaginative, uninspiring, and downright ugly buildings. The Federal Building in Los Angeles (LA’s unofficial place to protest) and Boston City Hall (the very apotheosis of Brutalism, whose acceptance as a style comes and goes like so much fashion) come to mind, their iconic status and few passionate followers notwithstanding.
But sometimes great, imaginative architecture can emerge from a shoestring budget and the most basic of basic building materials. And we have a prime example right here in Fresno at the Woodward Park Regional Library, part of the Fresno County Public Library system. Here is a prime example of the difference that is made when a skillful architect is employed to overcome site challenges and red tape, and yet still deliver on making a building that can be enjoyed by the community. Unveiled in 2004, the Woodward Park Regional Library has remained popular, heavily used, and acclaimed for the duration of its existence.
Designed by Arthur Dyson and and Robert Siegrist of DKSJ Architects in Fresno, the edifice is strongly evocative, sculptural, and calming—especially calming given that it is only a few feet from the busy Champlain and Perrin intersection. The cars speeding by feel a world away. Expert landscape design by Susan Asadoor, a front facing pavilion, and rear dual entrances create the illusion that the building is set back further from the street than it actually is. Driving by, the curvilinear roofline is silhouetted against the sky and resembles a confident headsail at sea. Or, as befits a library, an unfurling scroll. Or something else. “That’s the beauty of good design. Everyone has a different interpretation of what they see in the building” explains Dyson.
Good design indeed. The building, which is superbly integrated with its site, is better experienced than explained. The elevation is an exercise in what artist Paul Klee called “taking a line for a walk.” The effect is almost sensuous. “It’s a more embracing space when you have a curve around you” Dyson explains, who was deliberate about wanting people to feel comfortable lingering in the building and feeling as comfortable as possible. Toward this end, the team deliberately allowed as much natural lighting into the interior space as possible, which gives it an inside-outside look. According to Dyson, the goal was to “build a bridge to nature” so that people felt connected both to the space and inspired by their surroundings. Everything that could connect people from the exterior to the interior of the library seems to serve this purpose very well. Even the disabled access ramp serves as a visual echo of the east facing wall, gracefully leading to a no-doubt-about-it and very formal main entrance.
The layout of the library provides additional nods to circularity and whimsy, reminding patrons that this is no ordinary biblioteca. There are curves everywhere, from the reception desk to the light fixtures, to the moldings atop the stack racks. The reading room is cool and elegant, with a delightful art feature, a great place to get lost for a few hours. Another surprise: the books receive generous light from custom fixtures mounted to the racks—an effect that keeps the focus on the books and reverses the cliché of the typical library with darkened corridors and forgotten titles. The bright and airy feel makes books (not ebooks, mind you—real books) feel fresh and new.
The highlight of the vaulted interior is a 120-foot mural that is anchored, mobile style, from the space’s high walls like a giant roll of film. Donated by the Hansen family, it was previously housed in the Fresno Art Museum, but was moved to the Woodward Park Library and, such is the quality of the installation, now feels as if were made specifically for it. Its images stylishly depict several Fresno-area motifs that are just abstract enough to make you stare at them for an extra second. It is marvelously executed and alone is worth the trip just to take it in.
A final praise: much good architecture, even if it is public architecture, tends to be a tad standoffish. People don’t tend to interact with high art; they tend to stare at it with their hands behind their backs. Not here. There is a vibrant, hands-on, community-minded feel to this space that keeps everyone engaged. Like so many public buildings, people constantly move in and out, workers work, and the space becomes a part of the life of the community. But unlike most public buildings, this is one in which people actually pause to notice it, live and move in it, and are inspired by it. They also become increasingly mindful of the gorgeous space they are inhabiting; every once in a while, the people look up from their books and, with appreciation, remember where they are. This is living art.
Special thanks to Deborah Janzen