Michael Graves is a good architect. That might be a truism to some, and a statement of radical revisionism to others, but the reality is that he has designed some buildings whose spaces, imagery, and relationship to their surroundings make sense, and that also delight and amaze us. It is true he has, as most architects with a large office have, created quite a few mediocre designs. It is also without a doubt that his way of making buildings is not only distinctive, but also is so strong as to elicit reactions that are not always positive. But when he is on top of his game, he can make magic.

I was reminded of this when a small group of us visited the San Juan Capistrano Library in California almost 30 years after it was completed. Truth be told, I was the only person in our coterie who really liked the building. One of our troupe, an architect who now works for the government, thought the building was horrible. Another felt it was cramped and limited in its achievements. A third welcomed its achievements, but felt its style overwhelmed the spaces it created. To me, the rooms and forms were stirring. 

Sited on a small rise adjacent to the Mission’s church, whose larger size and diagonal placement overwhelm the sea of parking in which it is now marooned, it takes the shapes of that neo-Spanish architecture and breaks them down to the scale and aggregation of forms that make up the residential neighborhood to the north. 

It faces the Mission with its off-center entrance, marked by a turret, and a square-mullioned window that has become a standard of thousands of other buildings. That is part of the library’s problem: its individual pieces have been copied so often. What nobody has achieved is the march of the boxes and towers that make it into a building that is both civic and domestic. They articulate the structure, relate it to the institution’s larger neighbor, and make it part of both a historic and spatial line. 

Inside, the library is cramped. Its scale is, like so many buildings, much smaller in reality than what you remember from the first time you see it. It consists of rooms, rather than spaces, each with a frame, a scale, and a place in a sequence all its own. None of them are large, and some are intimate, such as the reading nook all the way at the end, where a solitary reader had cozied up to the fireplace above which Graves, in a moment of bravura or narcissism, placed a reproduction of his sketchbook with images of his design over the mantle. There is no grand space of gathering, only a long and exceedingly narrow corridor whose ending in a fire escape door is either one of Postmodernism’s greatest witticisms or one of its greatest failings. 

The reading room is a pleasant space, coffered and contained by its buttresses, but the library’s strength is really exactly the variety and sequence of small rooms, which somehow seemed very American on this trip, as it provides everybody their own private nook, even in a public institution. The only place of gathering, a courtyard of supremely perfect proportions, was empty on this cold winter day, and showed few signs of occupation in general. 

The former editor-cynic among us pointed out that the library has no way to expand, other than to build an addition. The government-employed architect dismissed the immense amount of articulation as pure waste, and the modernist aesthete complained of the fussiness, but I felt completely at home in this warren of retreats and dens, tied together by wood beams and decorative stencils, surrounded by the sheltering walls of stucco that mimicked the ways in which the first Western inhabitants of California protected themselves against the weather and the unknown. 

If you are going to make a civic space that feels intimate, that connects to at least one part of our history, and that provides a sequence and variety of rooms that are comfortable and comforting, look to the San Juan Capistrano Library. After all these years, it is the built equivalent of a well-worn armchair, the kind of place that makes you one with the learning our culture has stored up and that should surround us.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.