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Feature Article
The Geisel Library: Concrete Expressionism

by Jacob Schoenly

photo: David Westphal

The tower is an established form in the history of architecture. Subverting traditional notions of the tower's appearance, however, is a college library at the southern end of California designed by William L. Pereira Associates. Geisel Library, the main library on the campus of the University of California in San Diego, is a highly sculptural building constructed of reinforced concrete and glass, materials closely associated with much of Pereira's work. Although the architect is perhaps best known for the design of the later Transamerica Building, the pyramid-shaped tower that pierces the skyline of San Francisco, Geisel Library is considered by many architecture fans to be an even more striking structure.
Pereira honed his architectural skills in practice with Charles Luckman, as Pereira and Luckman Associates. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the duo designed many large buildings throughout Southern California, including the Firestone Plant in Los Angeles in 1958, the offices and laboratories of General Atomic in San Diego in 1959, and the futuristic Theme Building at Los Angeles International Airport in 1961 (in conjunction with Welton Beckett and Associates and Paul R. Williams). Pereira and Luckman, known for their concrete buildings, employed architect Frank Gehry before he started his own practice and became famous for creating curvy buildings in other materials such as titanium. Differences in materials aside, however, Gehry surely was influenced by the brazen forms brought into being by his earlier employer.

photo: U.S. Navy, LRO 1235-04-89

After Pereira and Luckman parted ways, the University of California commissioned Pereira's new firm to design the library for the San Diego campus in the late 1960s. After spending well over four million dollars on construction, the university took occupancy of the building in 1970. Since that time, UCSD students have gathered inside this structure in the middle of campus to do research and study for classes, while enthusiastic architecture and design aficionados have flocked to the exterior of the building, clearly awed by its otherworldly form.

photo: UCSD University Publications

The library consists of a two-story, block-like concrete structure set into the head of a canyon, topped by a six-story, stepped tower of reinforced concrete and glass. The two seemingly separate structures are in fact linked, with the lower section forming a pedestal for the upper tower. While the pedestal looks like a massive fortress, punctured on the sides only by small strips of windows, the tower dramatically opens up to the sky, revealing huge walls of glazed windows on all sides. The lower two stories house service desks and work areas for the library's staff, and the upper six stories contain books and study spaces for students. From their perches within the tower, which rises 110 feet above ground at the highest point, students are able to look out across huge expanses of the campus and beyond.

photo: Jacob Schoenly

Containing 17,000 cubic yards of concrete, the building is an imposing work of architecture. Cradling the cantilevered tower and its 38,000 square feet of plate glass are sixteen huge cast-in-place columns (four on each side of the building). Each column angles upward at 45 degrees to the sixth level of the building, where it attaches to the column on the opposite side via hundreds of steel rods. These columns, in conjunction with the tower's pedestal, make the library appear rooted firmly to the earth, but the mirrored coating on the windows, though quite functional, provides a more ethereal quality; depending on both the weather and the time of day, the appearance of the window walls changes as the color morphs from metallic silver to dull copper to bright blue.

Although not visible in many photos of the library, a major addition designed by Gunnar Birkets and Associates was finished in 1993. Intended to complement, rather than compete with, the strong forms of the original structure, the addition is set underground, surrounding the rectangular pedestal of the tower on three sides. Since the pedestal of Pereira's building occupies much of the space of the canyon where it is sited, the later addition attempts to metaphorically recreate the canyon by forming what the architects call "daylight canyons" between the pedestal and the underground structure. These canyons allow daylight to penetrate the lower areas of the addition.

photos: Jacob Schoenly

Geisel Library originally was known simply as The University Library Building. In late 1995, however, the University renamed the library after Theodor Seuss and Audrey S. Geisel, the creator of the series of Dr. Seuss children's books and his wife, in honor of the couple's contributions to the library and their efforts to improve literacy. The linking of such a beloved author to the building is a fitting testament to the strength of Pereira's work. Geisel Library compels those who come into contact with its strong forms to reflect on the potential of a creative mind at work.

photo: Creative Concepts

photo: Michael Breitner

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Special thanks to Jacob Schoenly!

copyright 2000 Joe Kunkel and Jetset - Designs for Modern Living and Jacob Schoenly. All Rights Reserved.
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