Monday, March 25, 2019

Rotunda Resonances in the San Francisco Main Library

The circle is a basic form and a common design element.  As we have seen in the previous blog post, a core architectural element of the San Francisco Public Library's Main Library is its atrium.  Inspiration for the library's atrium came to architect James Ingo Freed from the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany.

Plans for the Altes Museum rotunda and the ground floor of the Main Library side-by-side

If one looks carefully at the Main Library's building plans, then one comes begins to see that the rotunda (Latin word for round) and circles permeate the building's design in many, many ways.  Once you start looking for circles in the Main Library, you begin to find them everywhere.

On the Library's ground floor plan, the circular atrium occupies a central space, but there is also a smaller circle below the atrium, slightly to the right.  On the plans this space is called a vestibule (according to the Historical Architecture Sourcebook it's "an anteroom or small foyer leading into a large space"). 

From the interior of the vestibule, the granite wall extends to the outside gate. Seen from outside the vestibule is a windowed space with a linear passage space with automatic doors.

Below the vestibule is the cafe on the Lower Level.

An upward view shows the windowed vestibule chamber supported by round, almost like a capital at the top of a column.
The vestibule is actually set atop two pillars above the cafe.  The ceiling about the cafe has a silver circle that surrounds the lighting.

The cafe floor has a central circle and radiating spokes that are a mirroring of the atrium's floor.  These expanding spoked circles directly beneath the vestibule.

source: The San Francisco Main Library: Space Planning, Design Development

The pattern is more evident on the paving plan of the Lower Level from the building's sketches.

The first floor also has a hidden structural round space that can be seen at the bottom center of the floor plan above (below the atrium, to the right of the vestibule).

This is a circular closet for the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library bookstore.

For regular visitors to the San Francisco Public Library Main Library building, the most frequently encountered round spaces are the affinity centers on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th floors.

The Steve Silver Music Center is typical of the rounded affinity centers on the 3rd, 4th and 5th floors.  The rooms have rounded light fixtures and a circular carpet; each room has two floor to ceiling windows

The Children's Storytelling Room on the 2nd floor is another good example of these round rooms.  The wooden walls follow a circular pattern as does a ring of lights, a wooden ceiling and a central circular light.  The carpet below incorporates blue circles that are intersect by crimson rectangle that incorporates the effect that the 5th floor reading room has upon the atrium's ceiling.

The reference desk of the Fisher Children's Center and the suspended glass sign are also rounded.

The book display space in the Center takes the form of a circle as well.

The opposite side of the library, at the Larkin Street entrance is shaped as a semi-circle.

Inside the library's atrium there are other circles on display.

The spiral staircase connecting the Larkin Street entrance to the Grove Street entrance is formed by concentric circles.  At the base of the staircase's railing there is a granite circle with a rectangle removed from it (again, like the carpet in the Children's Storytelling Room suggesting the newspaper reading room jutting into the atrium on the 5th floor).

The boundaries of concentric circles create the space taken by self-check out machines and the 1st floor information desk.

The double circle continues to extend into the floor plan of the upper floors.

It continues to be a design element on the third floor with a railing above the outer circle and an other white circle inside.  At the top left hand corner of the photograph there is a portion of a smaller ring is a component of the nautilus at the top of the atrium.

Although the circle is a rather ordinary design element, it appears in many other contexts in the library.

The sign directing visitors up the stairs from the 1st floor to the Fisher Children's Center is a circular.  Above it to the left, a semi-circle is used to mark the elevators and which floors they travel to.

Even the elevator call button itself is a circle.

Then there is the lighting.  The pillars surrounding the atrium have round fixtures with parallel glass circles projected outward.

The hanging lamp fixtures on the 2nd, 3rd, 4th 5th floors and 6th are also circular.

Finally there are the circular structural columns that extend upward from the Lower Level to the 6th floor at the east and west sides of the atrium.

Alice Aycock's site-specific artworks commissioned for the Main Library also grow out of the circle, but they will be discussed on their own later.

The circle only plays a small role in the building's external design.

There are four metallic ornamental columns above the Library's Larkin Street entrance. 

Another difficult to spot detail are the antefixes high atop the ridge of the rooftop on the Larkin and Hyde Street sides of the building that are formed from a pair of circle bisecting each other.  Joseph Giovannini, in his otherwise appreciate review of the Main Library, faults these antefixes as "little doodads, vetigial Roman decoration too slight to read from Marshall Square."

Perhaps all of these circles are not worthy of special note.  But they occur with such frequency that they must be more than coincidental.  While they result in a degree of formal consistency and elegance, the circles create some difficulty for library users.  On the upper floors, the rotunda shaped atrium disorients the public looking for a point of reference to navigate from.  The round pillars on the east and west sides of the atrium are treated decoratively instead of being incorporated into a wall, thus blocking sight lines and proving to be an obstacle when arranging desks or shelving.


Giovannini, Joseph, "Civic Readings," Architecture (July 1996), 80-91.

Historic Architecture Sourcebook, edited by Cyril M. Harris (McGraw-Hill, 1977).

The San Francisco Main Library: Space Planning, Design Development, April 25, 1991 (Pei Cobb Freed & Partners; Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Morris, 1991). [part of the San Francisco History Center archival collection].

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

The Altes Museum and the Main Library

Responding to a question from Commissioner Sanger, Mr. Freed cited the Altes Museum in East Berlin (the "Old Museum," Berlin's oldest and Germany's second oldest museum, erected 1824-1830) as having partly inspired the atrium design.
This April 16, 1991 exchange between the late preservationist and San Francisco Library Commissioner Ellen Ramsey Sanger and architect James Ingo Freed reveals an important design inspiration for San Francisco Public Library's Main Library (completed in 1996).

Karl Friedrich Schinkel's Altes Museum, which according to Great Museums of Europe is one of the "finest examples of late Neoclassical architecture in Germany," is indeed a very lofty inspiration.  Schinkel is considered to have been the greatest German architect of the first half of the 19th century.

Like Freed's Main Library, the Altes Museum features a large circular open space in the building's center.

In the case of Schinkel's building this space is called the Rotunde, or rotunda.  Rotunda, the Latin word for round, means "a circular hall in a large building, esp. one covered by a cupola" -- a domed roof (see the Historic Architecture Sourcebook).

Google Streetview provides a virtual tour of the Altes Museum that starts at one of the entrances to the rotunda.

The view can be maneuvered upward to view the round glass dome / skylight at the summit of the building.  The attraction of a glass covered open space is the abundant natural light.

The central rotunda-like space at the Main Library is known as the atrium, a probably more accurate term since our space is not precisely capped by a dome.  Historically, an atrium is an open court to let in rain in a classical Roman house, but nowadays it means a vertical open space that connects multiple floors in a building.  (Unfortunately, sometimes during more intense El Niño storms our atrium has been known to let in rainwater).

Freed utilizes one of the significant feature's of Schinkel's rotunda -- linear spokes that radiate from a central circle into expanding circles.

This view from above shows Freed's central circle two steps above the plane of the rest of the Library's first floor, directly in front of the security gates at the bottom left of this photograph.

source: The San Francisco Main Library: Space Planning, Design Development

The Main Floor Paving Plan from the building's schematic drawings show this pattern much more clearly.  The center of the radiating spokes and circles is considerable distance from the atrium's center (in the photograph above, the center is the darker circle in the middle of the atrium).

This is significant because this shifted succession of circles is reflected at the atrium's top with the so-called nautilus.  (A subject for discussion in a later entry).

One distinct feature of Schinkel's Altes Museum that is absent from the Main Library is the gallery of classical statues at the rotunda's edge, looking into the central, open space.

This lack in the Main Library's atrium was remedied for a moment immortalized in film when movie stars Meg Ryan and Nicholas Cage visited our building.

In 1997, the feature film City of Angels, mostly set and filmed in Los Angeles, employed the then newly-opened Main Library as a location.  This movie is set in a world where there are invisible, silent angels who co-inhabit the human realm.  Nicolas Cage's character is an angel who has crossed over into the human world.  The gallery of dark human figures are angels who would be invisible to the mortal eye.

Fittingly, City of Angels is an English language remake of Wim Wenders' 1987 film Himmel über Berlin (literally, Heaven Over Berlin), released in the United States as Wings of Desire.  In this subtle way City of Angels brings the original Berlin connection full circle.

Speaking of circles, the rotunda / atrium form is integrated into the Main Library building in many ways that will be described in a later entry.

Great Museums of Europe: The Dream of the Universal Museum (Rizzoli International, 2002).

Historic Architecture Sourcebook, edited by Cyril M. Harris (McGraw-Hill, 1977).

Public Library Commission, Meeting Minutes (City and County of San Francisco, April 16, 1991).

Sammlung architektonischer Entwürfe enthaltend theils Werke welche Ausgeführt sind: theils Gegenstände deren Ausführung beabsichtigt Wurde von Carl Friedrich Schinkel (Ernst & Korn, 1858).

The San Francisco Main Library: Space Planning, Design Development, April 25, 1991 (Pei Cobb Freed & Partners; Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Morris, 1991). [part of the San Francisco History Center archival collection].