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Dreams of a Dream Library


SOME THINK Rob Wellington Quigley is asking for trouble. He hopes to pull off the design of a major city library and, at the same time, allow all kinds of kibitzing from the citizenry. He even invites it.

Quigley, whose firm has won the right to team-design San Diego’s new central library downtown, has offered to open up the second floor of his Beaumont Building on Cedar Street as a meeting place where people with ideas about the new library can voice their thoughts. He’ll welcome city officials, residents, students—anybody who’s a library user—to his second-floor think tank.

“It would be a wonderful way to get input. From the mayor to library users—they’d be able to view models, working drawings, everything. Of course, if so many people drop in that I don’t get my work done,” he laughs, “I might have to limit the hours.”

But it’s clear the amiable, articulate Quigley looks forward to hearing the ideas of the community. It’s the way he designed other San Diego projects: the Sherman Heights Community Center at Island and 22nd, the Linda Vista branch library, the Solana Beach Amtrak station and the single-room-occupancy projects that earned him a national reputation for designing housing for the working poor.

The think tank would also serve as a collaborative site for the three architectural firms involved in the library project, two from San Diego and one from San Francisco, collectively known as Quigley/SMWM Collaboration with Tucker, Sadler & Associates. The well-established local firm of Tucker, Sadler & Associates produced the Arco Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista and is designing the San Diego Convention Center expansion. Simon Martin-Vegue Winkelstein Moris, a 70-person San Francisco firm, assisted in the design of the new San Francisco main library. SMWM will be represented by the respected San Francisco architect Cathy Simon.

When Rob Quigley was designated as one of the lead architects for the $62 million library, in competition with three out-of-town firms, cheers went up for the hometown boy. In 1984, Esquire magazine featured Quigley among the “Best of the New Generation” of men and women under 40 who are changing America. The sole San Diegan, Quigley was in headycompany. Also honored: Meryl Streep and Steven Spielberg. Global Architecture, an international journal, devoted 40 pages to Quigley’s San Diego projects.

He won a nod from Time magazine for his latest single-room-occupancy hotel: 202 Island Inn, one of Quigley’s four SRO projects for downtown working people. “Rob Wellington Quigley has done more than fret and attend symposiums about affordable housing,” Time says. Rizzoli, an international publishing firm, has just released an extensive hardcover book featuring Quigley’s works.

Quigley, a native Californian, served in Chile as a Peace Corps architect after his graduation from the University of Utah in 1969. He has been active with his own firm here since 1974. We see his work downtown at 600 Front Street, the apartment complex near Horton Plaza with the whimsical white pyramids on the roof. And at his four SROs: Baltic Inn, 202 Island Inn, La Pensione and the J Street Inn. His Beaumont Building at Cedar and Columbia sports a gray-brown façade, plenty of glass and smokestack-like cylinders on the roof. (They emitted clouds of fake smoke to celebrate Quigley’s appointment as a member of the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows in 1991.)

Farther afield, check out his Solana Beach Amtrak station, where the domed roof is modeled on the flower sheds and Quonset huts in neighboring fields. Esquire says Quigley is “alone in taking the youthful spirit of sunny California and making it the basis for a new style of architecture.”

NOW COMES THE OPPORTUNITY of a lifetime —to create major change in San Diego with the new downtown library, a project accorded almost as much urgency among city planners as the need for a new airport. And a favorite dream of mayors past and present. Former Mayor Maureen O’Connor offered a personal contribution of $1 million for a new central library on the old Lane Field site at the foot of Broadway, but that project never flew.

Funding has been arranged, approval has been given, and Quigley and friends are moving full speed ahead. The new site is space “in the backyard,” Quigley says, of One America Plaza and across Kettner from the Santa Fe Depot. A difficult site from an architectural viewpoint. The lot is seriously hemmed in by existing structures—and structures of widely varying architectural design. The Santa Fe Depot is Spanish Colonial—“probably the best Spanish Colonial architecture in the city,” says Quigley. One America Plaza is corporate modern and, as Quigley puts it, “dropped out of the sky. It does not respect the Santa Fe Depot. It slaps it in the face. But we also have to relate to that building.”

The real architectural dilemma, according to Quigley, is that a major civic building—especially one he dreams could be the hub of a civic center—should face Broadway. “Downtown San Diego has no compelling civic space,” he says. “If the president came to speak, where would he stand so large groups of people could hear him? All great cities have great public spaces.” He admires the new Hall of Justice, a stone’s throw away. “It’s a better example of fit,” says Quigley, whose definition of architecture is that “it tells us who we are.”

Then who are we, with so many architectural motifs fighting each other in our central downtown area?

“Oh, this is not necessarily bad,” says Quigley, whose genial nature sees opportunities in everything. “You don’t want to hire a pessimistic architect,” he quips. “A pessimistic banker, maybe, but not an architect.” Never one to drop a building out of the sky simply to fit a lot, Quigley then proceeds to analyze the immediate surroundings and list all the features of the area.

The trolley terminal is a strong plus. “People riding the trolley will suddenly become aware of many things as they pass the library. They’ll see speaker announcements, posters of books, maybe a huge TV screen like the one just outside Horton Plaza during the convention. As they pass on the trolley, they’ll become aware of what’s happening in their city. Then there’s the Museum of Contemporary Art, lending dignity to the area. And upstairs in the One America tower, UCSD Extension classes—those are students we can capture.”

Involvement. It’s all about involvement.

Quigley plans an open space between the library and One America Plaza that will connect with other open spaces, particularly the park-like patio fronting the Cabot-Forbes Building. Perhaps this outdoor space will provide the desired “civic center” for visiting presidents.

To Quigley, outside and inside are equally important. He works with interior designers and landscapers from the initial phase of any project to its integrated conclusion. Some architects just produce a shell, says Quigley, and leave the rest for others to provide. Not so this tuned-in citizen. Sensitivity to surroundings is one of the hallmarks of his art.

BUT WHAT DO YOU DO with a lot that snuggles up against a 40-story monolith? Especially when your building is only six to eight stories high?

A configuration in Balboa Park sticks in Quigley’s thoughts: the domed Museum of Man immediately adjacent to the California Tower, designed for the 1915-16 Panama-California International Exposition. One building squat, one tall. But see how they relate to one another, he says.

Does this mean the library will be domed, like the Museum of Man? Quigley isn’t ready to say, but if his Solana Beach Amtrak station is any clue, the possibility is certainly there. He loves steel and concrete, with odd angles softened by arches and domes. And filtered light. The top floor of the library, he dreams, might be a wonderful place for reading and thinking, with open escalators leading up to view spots that face the bay.

Quigley is searching for a regional style of architecture, one that fits the Southern California identity. In the book featuring his work, Rob Wellington Quigley: Buildings and Projects, he notes a bizarre paradox in our society:

“Southern California is a region of laid-back high-achievers. Suntanned stockbrokers head for the office in their convertibles at 3:30 in the morning. High- stress meetings take place around the pool. Casual and formal, driven and devil-may-care meet here every day. The architect’s challenge is to cling to the freedom and spontaneity possible in such a schizophrenic society.”

He sees San Diego as a hub of diverse cultures—including Hispanic and Pacific Rim—all to be integrated into an “honest and vibrant” architecture. He bemoans the fact that “clients ask for something new, original and untried—as long as the architect avoids the unknown and the result looks like what was built last time. Civic groups ask for Spanish style. More-sophisticated clients ask for less-clichéd, more-contemporary versions of the same.”

San Diegans will be watching to see what Quigley and the team of architectural firms design. The suspense will culminate in the release of conceptual drawings—an event that probably will not take place until mid-1997. Construction will begin in mid-1998, with completion of this “library for the millennium,” as it is being called, somewhere around the turn of the century.

Will he give us a clue about what materials are being considered? What will our new library look like? “The foundations are pre-laid, and we have to use lightweight materials,” he says.

We get the idea the library will be largely glass and metal, enclosing an immensely flexible area for information storage and dissemination. Flexible because despite huge advances in technology, nobody knows quite how much the library of the next century will be computerized and how much it will depend on books.

“It will be both. Books will not dissipate into digital matter,” Quigley believes. He has studied six recently built major libraries —in Vancouver, Phoenix, San Francisco, Denver, Austin and Chicago—all built at approximately the same time. “That group represents the first generation of modern libraries. San Diego is the first of the second generation, so we have an opportunity to learn.

“One of the things we’ve learned is that nobody has any idea what the computer usage will be. Those other libraries—they thought they were over-designing for electronic data.” But they weren’t. The only answer, he says, is flexibility.

But he does promise two things: a children’s library and a cafe area. Libraries must be family oriented. And comfortable.

IF ROB QUIGLEY IS DEEPLY IMMERSED in plans for the library, he is equally excited about a project he’s spearheading in Little Italy, the neighborhood where he works and resides. Quigley is a fan of neighborhoods. He keeps in touch with San Diego by walking, biking, driving its neighborhoods. And the one he especially favors at the moment is the area around India and Cedar, just north of downtown.

Called Little Italy because so many early inhabitants were Italian—and also because many small markets and restaurants are still owned by people of Italian descent—this neighborhood is getting lots of attention from downtown planners. Quigley has put together a family-oriented project (LIND, for Little Italy Neighborhood Developers) that will resemble a little city: townhouses, work-loft units and retail on the perimeter, with open spaces and courtyards inside.

Every developer and architect chosen for the project (there are three developers and seven architects involved) had to live downtown and “understand it to the toenails,” he says. “They needed to understand the paradox of the project: to be somewhat vulnerable, being downtown, but secure. The buildings have to withstand abuse—spray painting, people sleeping in your flower beds. The inner courtyard has to be a grassy spot where you can play with your kids. The way it is now, there’s no place around here to throw a Frisbee with my daughter. We have to go over to the lawn of the County Administration Building.”

With so much going for him in the downtown area, it’s a fair bet Rob Quigley won’t move out soon. He and his architect wife, Kathleen Hallahan, live above the shop; their 10-year-old daughter, Thea, practices gymnastics on a trapeze hanging from the dining room ceiling. Neighborhood programs for children keep Thea entertained. Ann Jarmusch, architecture critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune and a clear admirer, calls Quigley “a gregarious Irishman at home in Little Italy.”

In the hands of an affable guy known for listening, the new San Diego Central Library should be a reflection of many local opinions. Whether opening his offices to the public is a wise idea—well, Rob Wellington Quigley might be just one more gregarious fellow who made a nice-guy mistake.
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