San Juan Capistrano Regional Library

Project: San Juan Capistrano Regional Library
Architect: Michael Graves
Date Built: 1983
Style: Post Modern

Address: 31495 El Camino Real San Juan Capistrano
Date Visited: August 31st 2014
Time: 11:30 am – 1:00 pm
Camera: Nikon J1

From the San Juan Capistrano web site:

Designed by Michael Graves, the library has received a prestigious honor award from the AIA (American Institute of Architects), and has been called the first authentic post modern masterpiece.

My relationship with this building starts much earlier than 2014, back when I was still in Boston studying architecture. My first introduction to this library came when I was in graduate school. I knew not what project the professor was referring to or that I would happen to stumble across it (quite literally) years later. The comment from the instructor concerned the nature of people and how the design of a building – its style and program – had to take into account the less than pure nature of the human condition. Simply put, a design that includes multiple hidden areas can be problematic to a building where all sections of the population were allowed to enter.

From the exterior, large primitive shapes create a strong statement at the rise of a sloped road. Approaching the library from across the street these shapes appear massive and accentuate a left and right side of the front facade. To the left the exterior fenestration is five large perfectly square windows. The center window is given special prominence as it is flanked by two pilasters that are composed of hemispherical and rectilinear shapes. Above the roof line a large lantern extends skyward flanked on four corners by large geometric shapes. It is on first sight, a castle on a chess board, and anchors the building firmly on the hill.

A horizontal roof line traverses the first story up the hill, where a colonnade identifies the entrance and separates the facade. To the right of the colonnade a loggia is defined by large rectangular columns. The loggia obscures the facade of the building here but identifies the path that leads around the side of the building to the box office. Take special note of the how the columns are not separated equally and are actually paired together. This allows one to see the box office from the street, but also activates the facade subtlety. This motif is seen again in the treatment of the columns inside the library as well.

Entering the building via the colonnade, the entrance is compressed and narrow – the effect is quite like being squeezed through into a very small aperture (think Charlie and the Chocolate Factory/Alice in Wonderland). Here the ceiling is so low, one can almost reach up and touch it. An uncomfortable feeling of slight claustrophobia begins to take hold. This low ceiling continues into the building. The first respite is found in the children’s section where the ceiling now raises to a much higher level, but what is gained in height seems to be lost in a narrowing of the space. Here light from the courtyard pours in between the stacks which are spaced closely together. My claustrophobia mitigated with the sun light and view to the outside. I quickly leave this interior to investigate the courtyard.

Once again on the outside I am at ease and settled in the open space. Again the simplified square columns that surround the exterior loggia convey a sense of strength and stability. From here I explore the upper and lower courtyard and photograph the exterior of the building.


I reenter the building from the courtyard at a different area and walk to a long, narrow corridor that begins at book check and extends the length of the library. The double height hallway is narrow and flanked by columns. At the left are book stacks with aisles branching off every other column. The stacks to one side are illuminated by fluorescent lamps with the flat ceiling being brought down to level of the first floor. Walking through the stacks quickly brings an uneasiness coupled with the institutional pallor guaranteed by florescent fixtures.


To other side of this central spine is a reading area where the ceiling angles up to the shape of the lantern that sits above. Natural and incandescent light create an area that offers recovery and draws the individual like a magnet. It is in these areas that visitors are found reading and working. Again each area of refuge was accessible at intervals between column spacing. Walking back away from the central area the number of people diminished and the quiet became deafening. The furthest room from the center of the library was occupied by one woman and on entering the space there was a sense of trespassing her sacred space. She looked as though she were reading in her living room and her oblivion to my entrance left me uneasy. I briefly looked in but quickly returned to the circulation spine tracing my steps back to a more socially active area.

From here I departed the building.

Final thoughts:

I hope to return to the library again in the future - preferably in the morning or end of day as I want to see how the sun reflects off the facade and shadows fall on the ground. I wish to enter the library at the time of day when natural light is less. I theorize that lack of natural light will amplify the affect of comfort or lack thereof on one's senses.