As an unfortunate start to 2012, the City of Berkeley will be accepting bids on January 17th for the demolition and replacement of the South Branch Library. The library was designed by local Berkeley architect John Hans Ostwald and built in 1961. It was Ostwald’s first major non-residential commission and it was a project that would cause him to think more deeply about the place of the library in the community at large and indeed his own involvement in the Berkeley community.
The building is a quintessential expression of Ostwald’s unique Bay Region aesthetic. Masses of masonry support low-slung roofs with enormous overhangs. The roof structures themselves appear almost to float over a continuous row of clerestory windows that circumnavigate the structure. Inside, the spaces were originally filled with exposed redwood paneling befitting a library in the City that Maybeck and Wurster called home.
The building was an immediate success when it was completed. It was published in both Architectural Record and Architecture West in 1963, and received a Community Award from the Berkeley Civic Art Commission in 1965 and an Award of Merit from the American Institute of Architects and American Library Association in 1966. It was particularly revered for its use of modernist forms to create an intimate environment conducive to reading.
Ostwald would go on to write a number of articles about library design and build a few other libraries around the Bay Area, but the Berkeley South Branch would always remain important to him as a turning point in his career – a point at which all of the knowledge that he had amassed from designing homes could be put to use to create relatively novel library form that retained the comfort and informality of a residence.
Go see it if you have a chance before it is razed. The building has not been maintained in a manner that befits its stature or values its unique design elements, but it is still a great example of Bay Region mid-century design and is worth checking out before it is gone. It is located at 1901 Russell Street off of MLK.