The City of Santa Monica first approached Koning Eizenberg Architecture (KEA) about their new branch library back in 2008. The city hadn’t inaugurated a new branch library building since the 1960s, and they came to the award-winning Santa Monica architects’ office with a goal to develop a new kind of inclusive and informal library for the surrounding community in Virginia Avenue Park on Pico Boulevard. The library would need to sit among and connect the incongruous infrastructural pieces of the 9.5-acre park: the open plaza that supports a Saturday farmers market, the senior center building where yoga classes are held, the “splash pad” spouting fountain where kids frolic in the summers, as well as basketball courts, a playground, picnic areas, and parking. It was a lot to ask of any 8,400-square-foot structure, but it was ultimately a project that KEA was well-suited to design and execute.
Inside, the plan is a departure from the traditional Carnegie library model—think dark wood paneling and a librarian shushing idle chatter from a centralized desk. The new model for the Pico branch library has a flexible, free plan without much compartmentalization; access to technology, digital commons, and computer stations are what draw the public into a library these days. KEA surmised that a free plan would be adaptable to changes over time, and might also allow the staff and end users to adapt the space to their needs, hopefully allowing park patrons to feel like they could take ownership as well.
Outside, the building expands park-ward in all directions with canopies, graphic elements, and textures (many derived from the topography of the park) that blur and stretch the intention of use, activity, and occupation.
The rectangular building sits at the site’s center, oriented to harness optimal daylight. The library’s community room—for meetings and after-school study programs—sits under the same roof structure but is detached and pulled to the other side of the mandatory fire truck lane that bisects the site south from Pico Boulevard to the north parking lot. The two volumes sit apart but remain connected by the steel framed canopy between that serves as support for photovoltaic panels as it casts a shadow pattern onto what has unintentionally become a skateboard ramp. This kind of fortunate serendipity happens frequently at the new Pico library branch; architectural elements serve multiple functions in an easy orchestration that even KEA principal and lead designer Nathan Bishop hadn’t anticipated.
“Our approach to [the library’s] architectural image was about making sure it was something that people can make their own. It should feel easy, informal, and welcoming while still exhibiting a sense of exuberance and wonder,” said Bishop. “It doesn’t have to be executed with heavy handed architecture. If it just seems like an art object, then it won’t have a resonance with the community in which it belongs, and no one would ever feel like it’s theirs.”
If the library building serves as an urban unifier of the park, the roof structure is the unifying architectural form in the design scheme. Up to 20 feet deep in some areas, the roof is geared for performance, providing the surface area for a significant, LEED-platinum-worthy rainwater catchment system. The depth also accommodates the interior return air plenum. This keeps the ceiling free of grilles and allowed KEA to develop a formal language of inverted ridges and valleys that give the different spaces below a cohesive field of visual reference. The ceiling’s angular gestures also allow for an even modulation between the plentiful afternoon daylight that spills into the library’s south side and the light from fixtures for tasks and reading.
The east side of the library points toward the park’s vast lawn, where a smallish area of stacks is a tidy reminder that modern libraries are less about the book depository and more about the lending out of technology (DVDs, not books, are the items most in demand at the Pico branch). A central seating area outside of the stacks flows into the south corner where sunlit perimeter seating is perched under an up-arching wing of the roof overhang. Here, views expand from the library out to the main lawn through desktop-to-ceiling height windows.
“At the library’s edges we wanted it to feel participatory instead of like a boundary,” Bishop explained. “At each edge we tried to pull the activity of the park into the library and vice versa. It’s a continuous public space in a lot of ways.”
Pico Boulevard is the dividing line of the city of Santa Monica. North toward Interstate 10, the housing stock is mostly multifamily apartment homes for moderate-income families. South of the park and of Pico Boulevard, single-family homes sell for over two million dollars. KEA made sure that the Pico library branch didn’t privilege one side of the park over the other, and its experiment in neighborhood connectivity is most significant in this spirit of quiet assertion—that a building can possess a multitude of functions, but is only successful in doing so if it remains a place of enjoyment and discovery for everyone.