For 50 years, nationally recognized architect Norman Pfeiffer has applied creativity, innovation, and technical proficiency to an impressive portfolio of outstanding renovations and additions to library and arts buildings throughout the country. While he has said that architecture is a static art that doesn’t bend easily, his work defies that rubric, especially in our very own Tom Bradley Wing.
“We were highly motivated by Bertram Goodhue’s vision,” said Pfeiffer. “I believe he was one of the first modern architects in the United States. His departure from the more classical and Beaux Arts influences and the way he integrated words and art into the library architecture was certainly non-traditional for that time.”
The Bradley Wing opened in 1993; Photo Courtesy Pfeiffer Architects
To avoid the new wing’s height exceeding that of the original building, the Pfeiffer’s team decided to go underground. The challenge was how to build those four floors without creating a cave-like atmosphere. The solution was constructing an eight-story atrium bringing natural light down to the lowest level. Interior windows on all floors opened into this light-filled void, orienting patrons to where they were and also allowing light to filter into the deepest floor levels.
Goodhue’s 1926 building plan is a perfect square divided into four quadrants created by a north, south and east, west axis which provided circulation throughout.
Goodhue's original quadrant design promoted circulation throughout the building
The continuation of Goodhue’s east, west axis into Pfieffer's new wing provided access to all subject departments located there. Cascading escalators brought patrons down into the four lower levels.
Pfeiffer used conventional steel columns to support the eight floors, but since those columns would appear to be too thin, he added a creative touch, encasing them in teal-colored terra cotta that add a majestic weight that balances the expansiveness of the interior atrium wall. The columns also serve as canvasses for Goodhue’s signature chevron design motif at the base of each column.
The magnificent atrium columns envelop steel posts with glazed terra cotta, accented by the ubiquitous chevrons. The design was inspired by Julian Garnsey's rotunda ceiling
Garnsey's Rotunda ceiling features repeated chevrons
Green chevrons appear on the rotunda ceiling, and Pfeiffer added them to most librarian and service desks; they also appear on the original 1993 library card design.
Pfeiffer has kept the library card presented to him in 1993 featuring the chevron design.
“I treasure it,” he said.
Preparing for the excavation on the Grand Avenue side for the Bradley Wing brought one unexpected challenge: the dirt was contaminated with methane gas, and had to be de-contaminated before it could be distributed. Where it finally “landed,” is a fact lost to the ages, but we do know that officials from the city of Los Angeles were vigilant throughout the removal. The city has strict hauling route rules and each day’s dirt removal, hauling, decontamination, and final distribution was supervised, a task requiring several weeks, as the area contained 2 ½ million cubic feet of earth.
2 ½ million cubic feet of earth were removed for the Bradley Wing.
William Reagh Collection/Los Angeles Public Library
Pfeiffer's Eye for Incorporating Detail
“The Children’s Literature department is the place where we could follow Goodhue’s incorporation of art and sculpture specifically in new ways,” Pfeiffer explains. “When I looked at the art in the original building, I realized that most of it was on the ceiling. I thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could dump it all upside down onto the floor? That was our inspiration for the carpet. We began the design in our New York office, which had long hallways. We rolled out butcher paper down these hallways and, using markers and chalk, recreated the symbols we had chosen for the carpet. We then had the final designs, which were full-sized, digitized. Then we found a weaver in England who could create the design using computerized looms which used the digital files to weave what is now the carpet."
Pfeiffer designed the carpet in Children's as a whimsical homage to images in the Rotunda, including outlines of figures in Dean Cornwell's murals.
Pfeiffer also designed the upholstery for the seats in the Taper Auditorium Photo; Courtesy Pfeiffer Architects
"Goodhue’s building is concrete, and we used the classic twisted iron reinforcing bars that hold concrete in place as inspiration for the twisted legs of the tables in the children’s room. The legs were made hollow to contain the electrical wires for the lamps placed in the center of the tables."
“We tried to save as many artifacts as possible,” Pfeiffer comments, “which is why the entry and doors of the old children’s room were used as the entry to the Mark Taper Auditorium. Part of the original children’s room remains, which is now used as a language lab adjacent to the International Languages Department, placed on the first floor to reflect the fact that so many languages are spoken in Los Angeles.”
Although Pfeiffer plans officially to retire in 2020, the architect shows no inclination to slow down his work schedule. He and his firm are busy designing the Library’s Digital Commons cul-de-sac for Lower Level 3. It will be about 600 square feet, with a flexible floor plan, tables that can be reconfigured, and moveable chairs, plus an entire wall of counter top with stools for people to use their own computers. “This project reflects the flexibility and changes that are ongoing with library systems and libraries themselves as they address the balance of providing patrons with the latest in e-media products and hardware with traditional print media,” he added.
Pfeiffer had originally wanted to use all the spaces on either side of the escalators for patron use, but the fire department was concerned that loose furniture might inhibit traffic flow and hinder adequate safety. Fortunately, the LAFD has given its conceptual approval for the Digital Commons design and the city permit process is under way.
While he still maintains a New York office, Pfeiffer has lived and worked primarily in Los Angeles since 1986 and marvels at the changes in downtown Los Angeles. “It was kind of a wasteland back then,” he said. “People would arrive in their cars, go up the elevators to work, and never go far beyond their offices. Today, downtown is an exciting place, and the Library and the Maguire Gardens have served as a catalyst for many of the changes to the area.”
Other Pfeiffer work downtown can be seen in both phases of the Colburn Colman School of Performing Arts and Music Conservatory on Grand Avenue and the recently opened Glorya Kaufman International Dance Center at USC. Other well-known Los Angeles projects include additions to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Griffith Park Observatory and, upcoming, the new Middle School building for the Brentwood School at Sunset and Barrington.
“Our firm has become nationally known for designing renovations or additions to arts and library buildings,” Pfeiffer said. “We’re very familiar with how to attach something new to an existing structure.” Among Pfeiffer’s other library projects are the Tutt Library at Colorado College, UCSD’s BioMedical Library, and the Lemieux Library & McGoldrick Learning Commons on the Seattle University campus.
As docents, we can attest that his familiarity and enthusiasm, for incorporating so many of the elements of the original Goodhue building, made his design for the Tom Bradley Wing one that is as refreshing and appealing today as it was nearly a quarter of a century ago.
To learn more about the historic 1926 Goodhue Building and Pfeiffer's 1993 Bradley Wing, we invite you to take a docent led tour.
Written by LAPL Docent Diana Rosen with the generous cooperation and support of Norman Pfeiffer and Pamela Mosher of Pfeiffer Architects.
Uncredited photos courtesy of Diana Rosen.