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Los Angeles Central Library

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Picture of Central Library exterior Picture of Central Library floor and card catalog Picture of rotunda in Central Library Photo of rotunda chandelier Picture of sphinxes at the Los Angeles Central Library Picture of painted ceiling Photo of Statue of Civilization Picture of Statue of Civilization

The Richard Riordan Central Library almost seems an anomalous anachronism amid the glass towers in the Financial District of Downtown Los Angeles. Its full official name is a tribute to Mayor Richard J. Riordan, who served from 1993 to 2001. But most people simply call it the “Central Library,” the name it had when it opened in 1926. The Lonely Planet guidebook for Los Angeles proclaims it Downtown’s most interesting building. While I can’t fully assess the veracity of that claim, its diverse collection of art and architecture spanning much of the twentieth century makes it a fascinating place.

The Central Library building was a collaboration between the architect Bertram Goodhue and the architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie, with other artists contributing murals and painted ceilings. In California, Bertram Goodhue is most associated with the 1915 Panama-California International Exposition in San Diego’s Balboa Park, for which he designed the exposition grounds and the buildings that remain as popular museums. Those buildings, inspired by the adobe mission architecture of Spanish California and also drawing on elements from the later Mexican period, started the Spanish Colonial Revival craze that peaked in the 1920s and 1930s, but continues to influence architecture throughout California.

Spanish Colonial Revival architecture was practically obligatory for major public buildings in the 1920s. But surprisingly, the Central Library is not a mission-style adobe. One of Goodhue’s last works— he died in 1924— it reflects his more typical concrete neo-Gothic style, as well as early Art Deco and the Egyptian Revival fad inspired by the discovery of Tutankhamen’s well-preserved tomb in 1922.

There may also be echoes of the City Beautiful movement that was fashionable when Goodhue began his career at the end of the nineteenth century. City Beautiful embodied the Victorian notion that imbuing public buildings with impressive architecture and edifying art would inspire decorum, morality, and perhaps a desire for self-improvement in the common folk who beheld them. Visitors to the Central Library enter an elaborately painted rotunda 20 meters high, from which hangs Lee Lawrie’s astronomically-themed chandelier. The walls under the rotunda are painted with murals depicting California history.

The Egyptian influence is plainly visible on a stairway leading from a gallery off the main rotunda, which contains three of Lee Lawrie’s statues. On both sides of the stairway are black sphinxes, symbols of riddles and mysteries and guardians of the “Statue of Civilization” that occupies a painted niche in the wall.

This marble statue personifies the Central Library as a repository of the collected wisdom of human civilizations. A book in her right hand contains quotations in five languages extolling knowledge. The front of her elongated skirt displays eleven carved panels symbolizing various ancient and modern civilizations, plus a blank one representing “the unknown ages of man.” Her head is crowned with a miniature rendering of the Library building. Surrounding the library building are two angels representing Los Angeles; atop the building is a grizzly bear and star, representing California (these symbols are on the state flag). The serene but stern expression on her face just might have been intended to remind library visitors to keep respectfully quiet.
Picture of new Central Library atrium Photo of new Central Library atrium Photo of Illumination sculpture Picture of chandeliers in the new Central Library atrium Picture of lantern sculpture in the new Central Library atrium Photo of lantern sculpture

Two arson fires in 1986 damaged the building and destroyed 20% of the Library’s books. Many of the surviving books suffered smoke and water damage. But that disaster offered an opportunity to enrich the Library with a new wing showcasing contemporary architecture and artwork, while restoring the original building.

Mayor Tom Bradley and Lodwrick Cook, then CEO of the oil company ARCO, co-chaired the $10 million fund-raising drive to repair and replace the books that were damaged or destroyed. Their “Save the Books” campaign is commemorated with the renaming of the main rotunda for Cook, and the modern wing for Mayor Bradley. The sale of the Library’s “air rights” to the developer of the 310-meter-high Library Tower (now called the U.S. Bank Tower) across the street contributed significantly to the $216 million cost of the building renovation.

Overseen by principal architect Norman Pfeiffer, the Tom Bradley wing is built around an eight-story atrium. Each floor is devoted to a subject department of the library. The blend of architecture and sculpture refracts Goodhue and Lawrie’s original concept through a 1980s prism.

The escalators and walkways at each level provide different perspectives on the atrium, and on three chandeliers decorated with a rather enigmatic collection of objects and figures. Each chandelier contains a ton of aluminum and fiberglass. They’re the work of Therman Statom, an artist primarily known for his work with sheet glass. They echo Lee Lawrie’s astronomical chandelier in the main rotunda, and represent (respectively) the natural world, the artificial world, and the spiritual world.

On three escalator landings on the atrium’s lower floors is an Illumination, a “functional sculpture” by Anne Preston. These four-meter-high lanterns represent “light, understanding, and books.” They’re circular arrays of aluminum vanes, the top of which is shaped like an upside-down human profile.
Picture of steps in Maguire Guardens Picture of the Clear Fountain in Maguire Guardens Photo of skeleton in the Bright Fountain at Maguire Gardens Picture of skeleton in the Bright Fountain at Maguire Gardens Picture of newt in the Lucid Fountain at Maguire Gardens Library Tower reflected in Bright Pool Picture of Library reflected in Lucid Pool at dusk Photo of west entrance to Central Library, with Library Tower Picture of grotto fountain detail in Maguire Gardens

Picture of grotto fountain in Maguire Gardens Picture of step fountain in Maguire Gardens

The Los Angeles Central Library renovation project also included what was originally a lawn on the west side of the building. Landscape architect Lawrence Halprin transformed it into a park filled with installation art. The park was named Maguire Gardens to honor real estate developer Robert F. Maguire III, who championed and raised funds for the project.

Jud Fine’s Spine is the most extensive and diverse of the sculptural installations. It augments Bertram Goodhue’s original walkway, steps, and reflecting pools that lead to the Library’s west entrance with a collection of sculptures, inscriptions, and fountains. The work’s name alludes to the spinal column as the cornerstone of both the skeleton and the nervous system of vertebrate animals, as well as to the spine that binds and identifies a book.

A genre originating in the 1970s, installation art transforms an interior or exterior environment into an “immersive” work that encourages visitors to actively “experience” the art rather than passively viewing it. Accordingly, Fine designed Spine to be “read” like an open book as a visitor enters Maguire Gardens from Flower Street and walks east toward the library entrance.

The themes of the Spine “book” include vertebrate evolution, human intellectual progress, and the continuous flow of time, as expressed in diverse media and type fonts. A full explanation of all the themes, elements, and symbols in Spine would fill a book. Fine and his associate Harry Reese have indeed written such a volume, which is conveniently available for purchase in the Library’s store.

The existence of this guidebook perhaps illustrates an inherent problem with Spine, and also with much of contemporary art. Each of the various elements of Spine is intriguing to look at (and to photograph) on its own. But I question whether anyone could discern the intended meaning and symbolism of those elements, or of the work as a whole, without reading the book. Or without at least reviewing the excerpts and explanations available from the Library, and on other Web sites. Arguably, Lee Lawrie’s sculptures inside the Library might pose the same problem; but their older representational style at least makes the message more readily accessible.

However, the Grotto Fountain of Democratic Principles, a collaboration of Lawrence Halprin and Jud Fine, requires little explanation to understand its message. It’s engraved with quotations from Fredrick Douglass and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, a reminder of the constitutional rule of law that distinguishes the United States from the authoritarian regimes of many other countries. (Ratified in 1868 after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment enshrines the right of citizenship and guarantees due process and equal protection under the law.)

The fountain was built in 1993. But it takes on new significance in this Age of Terror, when so many fearful Americans are willing to unhesitatingly and unquestioningly surrender their civil liberties to politicians, bureaucrats, and officers who too often regard the Bill of Rights as an expendable inconvenience or a worthless impediment to “security.”

For many of the details about the Central Library’s art and artists described here, I’m indebted to Ruth Wallach’s very informative Web pages about Central Library (part of her fascinating site devoted to public art in Los Angeles), as well as to the Library’s own Web site.

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