I don’t think I’ve ever suggested somebody bring a blindfold when sightseeing, but then I’d never made it to the Huntington Beach Central Library until a few weeks ago. The library, a spectacular work by Richard Neutra and his son Dion, completed in 1975, is a hidden gem of sorts that is also the latest selection for our series on the world’s most beautiful libraries. The final project before the iconic architect’s death, he envisioned it as his crowning achievement.
The blindfold (and a guide, I suppose) are necessary because when you pull up to the library, you might question why you’re here at all. Like all things in life that must be tolerated to reach something better, here you must endure a 1990s addition to the front entrance. The Neutra journey really begins inside at a helical ramp with elongated kraters that once functioned as fountains. This used to be an exterior entrance to the library–extravagant staircases seem to be one of those few frills International Style architects allowed themselves–and from there one enters what must be one of the more unique libraries in existence.
Unique because while there are numerous concrete libraries around the country–especially on college campuses–that we lump in together derisively as brutalist, to glance at Neutra’s work and say the same would be a grave misreading. In this space there is whimsy, perhaps too much, and softness. It is, in fact, a considerate building. Neutra was a proponent of an architectural style he called biorealism. Without getting too in the weeds, let’s just say that Neutra was obsessed with the idea that the built environment, i.e. houses, offices, etc., had serious effects on one’s mental and physical health. As a result, every architect owed it to their clients to design spaces with that immense responsibility in mind.
Neutra was born in Vienna in 1892 and grew up in a family that hung around Freud and Klimt, and he studied under Loos. He was famous for having clients submit to a questionnaire before designing a space for them. Having your clients detail their daily habits and so on before designing them a house might seem normal now, but it wasn’t then. So, too, does it seem unremarkable for an architect to be focused on bringing as much of nature into the built environment as possible, but Neutra was ahead of this curve because in his research and experience, time spent with nature was good for one’s health.
“Our living space should not be separated too much or too long from the green world of the organic!” he said.
The two things one likely notices first when wandering the Huntington Beach Central Library are the plants and the water–lots of plants and lots of water. There are whole trees, planted when the library was built, towering in the reading areas. The great windows also look out past the reflecting pools that no longer reflect (more on that later) to the leafy environs of Central Park. There are also pools aplenty–the sound of water throughout the building in Neutra’s design would be relaxing and also meant that children wouldn’t need to be hushed.
“I hate it when you go into a library, ‘Ssshhh, you have to be quiet.’ It is very unnatural for kids,” Dion Neutra explained years later. “So I put in a bunch of interior fountains so the noise level is high enough and natural so that when the kids walk in, they can talk in a normal tone.”
It also is good for the books, which need a little humidity. The inside pools today all have railings, but they originally were unprotected–perilous for those who walk and read.
There are four levels of stacks at the core of the library, which, coupled with the different platforms for reading, give the whole space an Escher-like quality. Spending hours wandering through library bookshelves is a sure path to serendipity, and here I’d imagine a kid really feels like they’re exploring these stacks. There are a number of little unique touches if you look closely–there is a mesh cage elevator, which I can’t recall ever seeing in a library before; much of the space is naturally lit by both the large windows and skylights; and those wooden lathes on the ceiling are actually metal and have never had to be replaced. (They were originally supposed to be teak.)
“I introduced a lot of skylights so that you have changing light conditions while you are studying,” Neutra told the Los Angeles Times in 2001. “You won’t fall asleep or get bored, as you would under artificial light. Humans thrive on a dynamic environment. Whenever you can make change happen, that is going to invigorate you. So you get subtle changes with skylights.”
Nearly all of the building’s exterior flair comes from the wraparound crenelated fascia and the copper-tinted windows. Copper-tinted windows are now largely seen as a misguided tangent from the 1970s and ’80s, but the Neutras saw it as another way to bring nature to the building–the extra reflective glass would capture the surrounding trees and landscape. On a sunny day, walk down to the lake, and you can see it as those who first saw it unveiled nearly 50 years ago saw it, sparkling and reflecting everything around it–a pavilion of glass and concrete on a hill.
When it was completed in 1975 (at a cost of $5 million), the library was lauded by critics.
In the local Daily Pilot, an editorial opined that “A lot has been written and said about the new Huntington Beach central library, but one word sums it up—beautiful. It is the finest library in Orange County and may well be the prettiest in the country.” In the Orange County Illustrated, the reporter breathlessly declared, “The result is magnificent. The building, simply as a building, is a work of art.”
In the Times, a columnist wrote at the time “that trying to describe subjectively the feeling I got when I first visited the new Huntington Beach Public Library would be like trying to write about a great musical composition which must be heard to appreciated .. It has an eloquence all its own.” None other than Leland Cooley gave it the ultimate in Southern California endorsements—“It’s got great vibes.”
But the author also noted that “you might think you’d feel like you’re in an empty barn." The the stacks were empty, because in fact when it opened 90 percent of them had no books! Rather than a temporary obstacle, it was a sign of many of the indignities this fantastic work would face.
Richard and Dion Neutra won the project in 1970 based on preliminary sketches and ideas, but two weeks before the signing Richard died. (Among the other firms beaten for this project was that of William Pereira, who designed the spaceship-looking Geisel Library.) It was his third library, and in fact one of his previous library clients, Simpson College in Iowa, wrote to Huntington Beach’s librarian.
“May I offer my congratulations and my sympathy on your choice of Richard Neutra as the architect for your new library,” the letter reads. “I have the greatest respect for Mr. Neutra, both as an individual and as a creative artist, and I feel he did an outstanding job on our library. However, I still tend to cringe a bit when his name comes up in conversation … Our greatest difficulties came from his lack of knowledge about libraries … he had a tendency to make assumptions based on other types of buildings.”
Another letter the library’s archivist kindly shared with me came from the Library Director of Los Angeles Public Libraries who reeled off a number of issues with the heart of Neutra’s design–the tiered stacks of books in the library's core. Frank would be an understatement of its tone. “Patrons will be confused,” they wrote, and then really unloading he declared, “Tiered stacks are not aesthetically pleasing. Shelves are hardware. Working librarians are going to resent this building from the day the doors open.”
The final plans and the project’s final result were the work of his son and close partner Dion, who was one of those rare sons who seemed quite content in his father’s shadow rather than trying to escape it. But Dion had his own flair–for example, he had a microwave relay tower installed at the library. (The clocks on the wall near the reference desk are a remnant of that plan.)
In a letter to the committee picking the winning bid, Richard and Dion wrote, “We well see in it a crowning achievement of our life’s work that has always fused landscape work with architecture.”
Despite the fanfare, just a year after opening, its budget was already being slashed. “Everybody likes the library, but nobody wants to pay for it,” said one city councilwoman. Proposition 13, which passed in 1978, hit municipal budgets hard, and the library was no exemption. Its reflective ponds and fountains were turned off. In 1980, Dion Neutra even wrote in to the Los Angeles Times pleading for the water to be turned back on. Unfortunately, today, the outdoor water features remain drained.
As the 1980s came to a close, it was determined the library needed an expansion. In what was reportedly a very bitter defeat, Dion Neutra lost out on the bid to do an expansion that would preserve the vision of his family. While many lessons have been learned in the decades since (see, for example, the relatively humble expansions completed by Rafael Moneo at Cranbrook or Frank Gehry at the Philadelphia Museum of Art), the 1990s addition to Huntington Beach Central Library was anything but humble.
“I haven’t been able to sleep several nights” the head of the city’s Historic Resources Board told a local paper. “The library is a cultural and architectural landmark” and the new design smack in the front of it “obliterates” Neutra’s design. “It will really be wrecked,” she sighed.
Unfortunate, yes. But, wrecked? From the perspective of the patrons of the library, that’s clearly not the case, and that is what matters most. And for those of us who love libraries and Neutra and architectural tourism, the addition is no deterrent. It’s just an exercise in something we’ve all gotten a little out of practice with in this age of on demand–delayed gratification.