AKA: San Francisco Main Library #6, Civic Center, San Francisco, CA

Structure Type: built works - social and civic buildings - libraries

Designers: Kwan Henmi (firm); Pei Cobb Freed and Partners (firm); Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris (SMWM) (firm); Henry Nichols Cobb (architect); James Ingo Freed (architect); Denis Henmi ; Sylvia Kwan ; Phyllis Martin-Vegue (interior designer); Lamberto Moris (architect); Ieoh Ming Pei (architect); Catherine J. Simon (architect); Jon Peter Winkelstein (architect)

Dates: constructed 1989-1995

6 stories, total floor area: 375,000 sq. ft.

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100 Larkin Street
Civic Center, San Francisco, CA 94102-4705

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Building History

Voters agreed to the allocation of $104.5 million in bonds and private donors provided an additional $22 million to complete the new library. New York-based architects Pei Freed and Partners won a competition staged for the library in 1989; James Ingo Freed (1930-2005) served as the Pei Freed and Partner's Partner-in-Charge for the library, collaborating with Cathy Simon of the San Francisco firm, Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein and Moris. The San Francisco Public Library's Main Library #3 contained approximately 375,000 square feet when built, twice the space of its predecessor, and opened to the public on 04/18/1996, the 90th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

Architects Pei Cobb Freed and Partners, with Freed Design-Partner-in-Charge, designed the facade to have facades done in different styles to integrate the Beaux-Arts Civic Center with its contemporary context. This variation of facade design did not satisfy some critics. A writer for Progressive Architecture (PA) (perhaps Sally Woodbridge, who PA's San Francisco correspondent at the time,) wrote: "The new library is designed to be a bridge between the past and the future and between the civic and the commercial districts of San Francisco. The result is a building that addresses too literally the diversity of its context and constituency. An L-shaped bar, which contains the open stacks and faces the Civic Center to the north and the west, is clad in a Neo-Classical curtain wall, reflecting the design and parti of the original library of 1919. In contrast, the south and east sides, which face the commercial part of the city and house the electronic functions of the library, are contemporary: the south side has a Post-Modern granite facade, its entrance marked by four large-scale windows; and the east side is a steel-clad assemblage with a curved roof. The only thread tying the facades together is a 3' x 3' grid; likewise, banners will be hung to mark the library's three entrances." The PA writer concluded: "While a densely packed interior (desinged by the architects [Pei, et al.,] the associated architects [Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris] and Kwan Hemi) and a multifaceded exterior, the new library succeeds in responding to the complexities of the contemporary city and the modern library, but, bowing to these competing forces, fails to provide a coherent common ground." (See "San Francisco Public Library: A Confused Symbol," Progressive Architecture, vol. 76, no. 10, 10/1995, p. 25.)

Building Notes

The library was clad in Sierra White granite, the same facing material sheathing the 1915 library it replaced. Reflective of the contextualism of the 1980s, the library had two different compositions on two facades. To harmonize with the Beaux-Arts architecture of Bakewell and Brown's City Hall and other buildings composing the Civic Center, Pei Freed and Partners gave this facade a classical character. The vertical and horizontal proportions of the library's bays reflect the elevations of neighboring buildings of the governmental ensemble. Its elevation retained the classical tripartite composition of a base, shaft and capital; the facade is symmetrical, and even has what look to be acroteria at the parapet line. Contextualism is also apparent on other facades. According to the library's web site, "The facade on Grove and Hyde streets has a more contemporary feel, compatible with the commercial activity on Market Street." (See San Francisco Public Library, "Architecture of the Main Library,"Accessed 06/12/2014.)

The building's five-story atrium, one of its most important architectural features, has been criticized as a tunnel allowing noise to echo and permeate each floor. At this time, many university libraries built around atria, were being retrofitted to enclose these spaces to reduce sound transmission, a notable example being the Meyer Library at Stanford University. The architects used the court to provide natural light into the building, and providing other light wells to do the same elsewhere.

PCAD id: 2112