Beyond Buildings


West Hollywood Library: Potential Peels Off

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Image: Courtesy Johnson/Favaro Architects


Rarely have I been more disappointed in a new building than I was when I finally saw the new West Hollywood Public Library last week. Designed by the talented firm Johnson/Favaro for a prominent site and a progressive community that has been a model of good planning and architecture patronage, it was the result of a process of rethinking West Hollywood’s civic core that dates back almost three decades. Though it is hard to judge the final merits of what all the results will be when the whole civic park is finished, the tearing down of the original, Edward Fickett-designed library, about which I blogged a few weeks ago, together with the construction of this banal, placeless block make me feel as if a great deal of talent and community concern have gone to waste.


You get a sense of what the architect wanted to achieve if you look at the renderings published when the building broke ground. The building was meant to be a modernist iceberg whose cool lines would evoke the monumental traditions of civic structures clad in stone, while responding both to the geometric behemoths of the Cesar Pelli-designed Pacific Design Center across the street as well as the curve of San Vicente Boulevard and the rise of the ground to the hills that begin just a few blocks to the north.


WEho Library 2

Image: Aaron Betsky


As built, the Library is a stucco block whose skin appears to be peeling off. These modulations might evoke something, but I am not clear what it is beyond the inevitable destiny of this pasted-on façade. A long window on the second floor shows off the structure’s only major spatial contribution, a narrow reading room that is not at the Library’s core, but at its edge, making you think that perhaps reading is less important than watching the passing parade.


The architects found themselves in a difficult situation because most of their $60 million budget actually was used to create a parking garage serving both the civic center and the nearby West Hollywood shopping district and bar area that is the community’s true core, as well as the site improvements meant to tie that area, to the north on Santa Monica Boulevard, to the civic center’s southeastern corner. A fragment of spilling stairs meant to evoke, I assume, the Spanish steps, is the only gesture of civic connection Johnson/Favaro wrested out of all that infrastructure. What is left is strip mall architecture made bigger.


On the inside, you do get a nice staircase with a skylight, hemmed in by books and back-office space, as well as the aforementioned reading slot. The paces are low-ceilinged and the library accoutrements standard. On the ground floor you can find a vestige of Johnson/Favaro’s Postmodern training in a playful recreation of Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library as a children’s theater (why do the kids always get to have all the fun in libraries?). If only the whole building could restage memories of great places of learning with as much success.


Art ameliorates the lack of great space, image, or form elsewhere, from a baroque wood ceiling to a colorful mural on the parking garage. You can only wish the architects had been as exuberant as the one percent creatives who embellished their building.


WeHo Library 1

Image: Aaron Betsky


Don’t get me wrong: I am glad that West Hollywood finally has a library. The building will do little harm, and helps improve the spatial relations of the whole area. Some of the amenities are perfectly nice. I only regret that the Library could have been so much better, and that it necessitated the destruction of a much better building.



Comments (3 Total)

  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 10:49 AM Thursday, November 10, 2011

    If only this project were in Rotterdam then Betsky would be giving it a rave !

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  • Posted by: Anonymous | Time: 5:46 PM Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    Horrifically dull, tasteless building; an example of the decline of human creativity.

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  • Posted by: Fabio Pradarelli | Time: 5:28 PM Tuesday, October 25, 2011

    No words thanks Aaron to be always present.

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.