Is There a Place For the New Silver Lake Library?
Passing drivers and nearby residents have no doubt pondered the curious building now under construction on the corner of Silver Lake and Glendale Boulevards. Looming aluminum and steel beams create a daunting skeletal edifice on the site of a former gas station, with the hope of providing a long-desired public space in Silver Lake. The long-time sandlot will shortly become the new Silver Lake branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, slated to open in June 2009.
Public libraries have historically played a central role in the development of Los Angeles neighborhoods, as far back as the Lincoln Heights branch of the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL). That large white Italian Renaissance–style building was constructed in 1916 with backing from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, one of three L.A. branches underwritten by the Gilded Age millionaire.
At the dawn of the 20th Century, libraries were essentially book repositories, the public’s main source of information in a world where the printed word remained vital to the dissemination of knowledge. It’s become increasingly obvious that bound volumes and yellowing dust-stained newspapers are going the way of the dinosaur. Information now flows through binary code and digital media. Blogs, news aggregators like The Huffington Post, and streaming YouTube videos form the new information triad. With that in mind, the LAPL recognized the need for the library to adapt to the burgeoning Internet age.
Juliana Cheng, LAPL Director of Library Facilities, oversees the construction of new library branches. She feels optimistic about the future of the Silver Lake branch, and the Los Angeles Public Library as a whole. “The role of the library never changed,” says Cheng. “Yes, there are still books, but now they are on CD. There are magazines, computers, access to the Internet. There will be storytelling for children, computer training for older people, and free online database access for everyone. The library is still about free, accessible information. It’s just the medium and method of delivery that is different.”
In 1998, Angeleno voters approved Proposition DD, a $178 million bond for the purpose of renovating 28 existing public library branches, as well as building four new branches around the City of Los Angeles from the ground up. Cost savings produced a surplus of funds, allowing for four additional branches. In early 2000, the LAPL decided to plant a library branch on the aforementioned street corner near the Silver Lake Reservoir. In order to generate local support for the branch, the LAPL organized a number of community meetings to generate feedback about its plan.
The library regularly conducts such meetings before a branch’s development. “We brought the community along so that they were aware of the site,” says Cheng. “Some were happy and some were not, but everyone wants a library on their block.”
The principal architect for the branch was 25-year Silver Lake resident Barry Milofsky, a partner at M2A Architects. LAPL commissioned M2A on a number of previous rehabilitation projects, including an update of the John C. Fremont branch in Hancock Park, which dates to 1927. Milofsky’s concept for the Silver Lake Library was based on his prior library experience, his experience living in Silver Lake and his know-ledge of the area’s unique context.
Milofsky is soft-spoken, but his passion for this branch is clear: “Silver Lake is a unique community of creative people. But there isn’t any civic space for the community to gather. The public library has always been about creating public spaces.” Milofsky’s design for this branch hints at a remedy.
The defining design element of the library will be the large glass colonnade enclosing the public square at the front of the building. The “towering spine,” as Milofsky calls it, will not only encompass the entrance to the library and embrace the tiered plaza down below, but will also blur the boundary between the inside of the library and outside. The arresting interplay of light will make this apparent, as sunlight delicately illuminates the interior of the library by day and the interior light glows dramatically into the plaza by night. Milofsky hopes that transparency facilitates the library’s connection with the surrounding community.
Inside the library, visitors will be able to view a pleasing frame of treetops, local hills, and sky. From the outside, passersby can see people in the reading room. Subterranean parking hides parked cars and maximizes the lot’s smaller area. A multi-purpose area with a 60-person capacity can accommodate local meetings and events. The branch’s architectural design transcends the traditional library role as a mere book storage space, creating interplay between the outside community and the access to knowledge and information inside.
The building earned a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) designation, the world standard for sustainable building and development practices. The library’s photo-voltaic panels, use of recycled materials, and overall “green” operational features such as environmentally friendly cleaning agents and showers for employees who cycle to the library have qualified for the second highest status of Gold certification, another feather in the cap for Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, whose long-term goal is to make L.A. “the biggest green city in America.”
Silver Lakers have generally been positive about the new library. Randy Clement, one of the charismatic owners of Silverlake Wine and a Silver Lake Library enthusiast, says, “I think it’s great. Some people think it’s not the best way to spend money, but I credit [local councilman] Eric Garcetti for having a vision for the area. I think it will be an anchor for the area. Since there isn’t much public space in L.A., a library is really something that we needed.”
Jarret Rice, another Silver Lake resident, is cooler to the idea, saying, “I don’t really use the library. But I don’t really see why we need one here since there’s one nearby on Sunset,” referring to the recently built Edendale Branch.
A public library in these times seems an unusual community investment in light of technological development and changing consumer trends in finding information. It’s become more of a gathering place where free information, thought, and ideas can flow. Though the core service of books and information remains the same, the library can be a capstone and anchor of public space in Silver Lake.