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Behind Grand New Library, a Distinct Vision

Architect Rob Quigley considers the legacy of San Diego’s new monument to knowledge.

Architect Rob Wellington Quigley’s buildings are a bit like the full name he likes to use — a blend of casual, refined and quirky.

Now, his architectural style is on display for everyone to see. San Diego’s new Central Library, which he designed, opened last week and is already an instant icon of downtown.

The building is a concrete monolith with an industrial flavor, built to be durable and on the cheaper side. But friendly touches like the quasi-dome, a cozy reading room and fantastic views turn it into a place where you won’t mind staying a while.

What went through Quigley’s mind as he designed the library? I asked him to describe the choices he made and ponder the legacy of a building that’s likely to outlive us all.

Is this a distinctly San Diego building?

Yes, because it’s not an uptight, formal building. Most contemporary architecture is very abstract and minimalist, and it could be built anywhere. I don’t think you could imagine this being in some European city or the East Coast or even Los Angeles.

Somebody said it feels like it’s already been here in a strange kind of way, and that was the ultimate compliment. It has a resonance.

How did you figure out how much to reflect the existing cityscape — the Mission architecture that’s so prominent here and the Spanish colonial architecture of Balboa Park?

When we were first hired 17 years ago, I asked the city for a couple of things. One was to hold a series of meetings so I could understand the community’s value system.

I quite clearly remember a directive that “we would like you to design a building that respects our past but looks to our future.” As for the past, they said it’s represented by Balboa Park. That’s what they think our cultural heritage is, more than a Craftsman style or some other residential style.

A lot of it is incorporated into the new building, like the lattice work of the dome, which is inspired by Balboa Park’s botanical gardens. And the California Tower played a major part. But what wasn’t transferred was literal detail.

My mom says the dome reminds her of a cathedral. Do you think of the building as a cathedral to knowledge?

I love that comparison.

The dome is really important as a symbol. It distinguishes this from the other buildings around it, the office towers and condominiums, neither of which would ever have a dome. And it’s a clear way to signal to the public that this is their building.

I can’t tell you how many hundreds of hours we spent on the dome. To me it is a metaphor for what happens in the library, an icon and symbol of our commitment to literary and learning.

Photo by Sam Hodgson

Photo by Sam Hodgson

What else does the dome say?

It’s designed to look incomplete. Its intent is to be in the perpetual act of becoming something greater than it is. That’s the metaphor for what happens inside the library.

People may not notice at first that the dome isn’t actually a dome. Could you explain how it works?

Imagine you cut an orange in half and put one half flat onto a table. That’s a dome. What we did was slice from the top into eight different segments, and each of those is independent. That gave us a real structural freedom: The dome could become a non-dome, a sculpture in the general shape of a dome.

Does the dome serve purposes other than looking pretty?

The lattice on the dome is a sunshade. From a purely functional standpoint, it shades the reading room. The sun is very carefully shaded and you get a dappled light like being under an oak tree.

The library has outdoor areas that you need to go through to get places. That’s a bit unusual even in San Diego. What’s behind that decision?

We live in the most benign climate in the nation. You might get wet when it rains, but is that worth insulating your experience from San Diego?

City Hall, the new Hall of Justice — they’re all civic buildings, but they isolate you from the experience of San Diego. For the library to be a San Diego building, it had to be an indoor and outdoor building. It was an important for a cultural reason, but it also made sense in terms of climate and budget.

Not too long ago, I stumbled across an amazing panoramic photo of San Diego’s skyline that a photographer shot from the top of a downtown hotel in 1914. 

When you enlarge the photo you can see how many buildings and structures in the photo still exist, like the U.S. Grant Hotel, Balboa Park’s Cabrillo Bridge and many more. Some have lost their grandeur amid the skyscrapers, but they remain a part of the fabric of the city.

Was the library’s permanence on your mind as you designed it?

Definitely, although I wasn’t thinking it would be here for 100 years because of the profoundness of the design. It’s because San Diego doesn’t build many civic buildings. This one may need to last for 100 years.

In fact, it’s actually built to last that long. That’s one of the reason I liked using concrete: I had a feeling that we’d better make this permanent. Compared to wood frame and stucco buildings that have to be replaced, concrete is a material that weathers and lasts forever.

How did the library’s permanence fit into its design?

Part of the secret of making a building last is building one that patinas gracefully, that as the material ages it gets nicer instead of looking shoddy. Concrete has that quality.

And the roof on the auditorium is lead-coated copper, which they use in cathedrals. As it weathers, its gets more beautiful. It will be more beautiful 20 years from now than today.

We also used as little paint as possible on the building, partly because the city never has money to maintain its buildings, and because unpainted steel weathers into a nice gray color and it just looks good.

What do you hope the library’s legacy will be 100 years from now when people look at it?

I’d hope that people would look at that building and think, “Wow, somewhere in our past there were San Diegans who had great pride in their city and thought about the future of their children.” That’s what I would want.

This building was built without city funds, and that’s absolutely remarkable and unprecedented. That’s not something to be proud of on one level. But I’m immensely proud that individual San Diegans rose to the challenge.

San Diegans did it. It’s an incredible story.

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