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].

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