Johnson Favaro and Diane Lam Design Eschew the Expected for the Riverside Main Library in California
America’s postwar suburbanization has not been kind to its downtowns. But some U.S. city centers are staging a quiet comeback. In a certain Southern California city with a population of 326,000, the new Riverside Main Library by Johnson Favaro is catalyzing the turnaround of a downtown now aimed at more business, greater walkability, and increasing residents in more sustainably designed buildings.
The handsome, sculptural library, its squared mass raised two stories over a public plaza, is the first part of a 2½-acre, mixed-use development with high-rise housing and retail stores, all of which the firm master planned after winning a 2017 competition. At the turn of the last century, the City Beautiful movement used beaux arts buildings to shape dignified public spaces; now Johnson Favaro is using modernist design to create comparably grand structures to dignify the civic environment.
Just down the street, Riverside already boasted the sprawling Mission Inn, an extravaganza of Spanish revival styles built over several decades in the early 20th century. The imaginative building, a designated national historic landmark, elevated expectations for the 38,670-square-foot library. “But the city had seen enough knock-offs, so we emphasized the need for something authentic that would contribute a statement of our time and could match the stature of the buildings they love,” notes principal Steve Johnson, who met co-principal Jim Favaro when they were both students at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design.
The full-block site, occupied by an old police station and parking lots, had deteriorated. “There was no there there,” Johnson observes. “We sought to make a downtown neighborhood.” To integrate the library and mixed-use buildings into the adjacent business and Mission Inn areas, Johnson Favaro proposed a paseo running down the middle of the development, connecting the avenues on either side. A shaded plaza under the elevated library would serve as a general event space for a farmer’s market, book and food fairs, and festivals. The ensemble would become a destination for the entire town.
The architects maximized the library’s presence by designing the front facade as a bold, declarative block surfaced in porcelain tile printed like marble, all lifted on blocklike concrete cores housing the building systems. They wrapped the blocks with smaller structures—aluminum-and-glass boxes or red metal–clad rectangular prisms containing a friends-of-the-library bookstore, the city archives, a community room, and other complementary facilities.
The 50-foot-high, 200-foot-long facade acts like an Old West storefront behind which the building transforms into arching prows that scoop out a wide, landscaped terrace and a long balcony overlooking the future paseo. The squared, straight-edged facade, centered on a distorted, parabolic view window, is a foil and datum for the scalloped rear facade, which reads as a monumental piece of public art pedestalized on its base like an elevated Henry Moore sculpture.
A glass-enclosed elevator takes visitors from the plaza to the library entrance on the balcony. The adult reading section occupies the upper floor of the lifted volume, and the children’s and young adult section, the lower. A generous, open interior staircase connects the levels, domesticating the interior as if it were a two-story house. Traditionally, libraries are organized around a large reading room, but Johnson Favaro turned the interior inside out, like a sock, placing seating and study carrels in the double-height perimeter for viewing the spectacular San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and Box Spring mountains to the north, and Mt. Rubidoux to the west.
Because libraries no longer simply warehouse books but also act as community centers, the firm broke up the stacks into a landscape of neighborhoods devoted to different activities for various age groups. That suggested different approaches for each of the spaces to Diane Lam, principal of her eponymous studio specializing in library design, a frequent collaborator who led the interiors team. “I looked at each room individually,” Lam says. “I placed tangerine Panton chairs at the end of the visual corridor in the children’s area to complement the explosion of orange, yellow, blue, and green in that whimsical space. In the entrance ‘marketplace,’ the white shells of the lounge chairs echo the soft curves of the window and the white exterior. Furnishings that picked out architectural details made the spaces feel more complete.”
The handsomely designed stacks are generously scaled with wide corridors, some furnished. The clean detailing of the white, gently vaulted upper-floor ceiling sails over the space, unifying sections. The lower-floor ceiling is painted with rectangles of bright colors that refer to the different cultures of Riverside’s diverse constituencies. The architects and the designer have fused form and program inside and out to coalesce a sense of community and urbanize the library with activity. The programming and physical placement on the site help create a connective social and urban tissue with nearby Market Street and the Mission Inn.
“The challenge was to design a building of stature that still adheres to a public budget—to defend things like double-height spaces and porcelain tiles against value engineering,” Favaro observes. “Our goal was to accomplish something as good as those old beaux arts buildings, but in a modern vocabulary.”
To see more about the design process from planning to opening, watch the full video.
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