March 22, 2018

San Diego Central Library | New Landmark Libraries 2015 Winner


A Modern Temple of Learning

San Diego Central Library | San Diego Public Library
ARCHITECT: Rob Wellington Quigley, FAIA/Tucker Sadler Architects


OPENED: 2013
TOTAL SQUARE FEET: 497,652; the library occupies 366,673
COST: $184.9 million
GOAL: LEED Silver Certification

Iconic. That word comes up again and again in descriptions of the soaring new San Diego Central Library. A lattice dome tops the warm wood and concrete nine-story structure, a striking presence in the city’s skyline. It is a fitting tribute to the 30 years of effort and almost unprecedented philanthropy from community members that went into creating the landscape-changing new library.

If this were a private building, the space inside that spiraling dome would likely be reserved for top-dollar condos or CEO suites. In the San Diego Central Library, every resident of the city’s diverse communities is a penthouse-worthy VIP.

The dome’s indoor-outdoor spaces are all public. The Helen Price Reading Room is flanked by gardens, meeting and program spaces, art, and special collections, all accessed from an open courtyard. Quiet study, group meetings, and events (22 weddings took place in the library in the first year alone) run side by side, energizing the space without intruding on one another. According to architect Rob Quigley, it is “considered by many to be the most exciting public space in San Diego.”

Physically, the open dome provides light and shade that shift throughout the day. Its innovative design and construction won recognition from the National Council of Structural Engineers. Symbolically, the dome’s latticed, unfinished look reminds viewers that learning is never complete, that we are all engaged in the “perpetual act of becoming,” says Quigley. At the same time, it keeps the structure from being so grand that it feels inaccessible. The dome is for everyone.

In sunny, dry San Diego, the new building means both an opportunity to embrace the outdoors and a responsibility to respect the environment. Patrons move seamlessly between indoors and outdoors throughout the space. On the ground floor, glass doors open onto a large courtyard shaded by mature trees. In this community gathering place, patrons can nibble on treats from the café, peruse the gift shop, or relax and read in lovely surroundings. The back wall of the adjacent auditorium folds away so that large events can spill out into this exterior room. Beyond the courtyard, gardens dot the entrances, and open terraces take advantage of city and bay views.


The climate that makes these indoor-outdoor spaces so enjoyable also requires careful stewardship. Conserving water was a particularly important concern in the planning. Thoughtful choices in the building and grounds resulted in a nearly 50 percent reduction in water use, and improved storm water runoff management. The design also considered the building’s energy consumption. Strategic selection of materials and placement of windows moderate the building’s light and temperature naturally. Furthermore, the library’s proximity to public transportation encourages its users to make sustainable choices when visiting.

With an iconic and sustainable design, it is little wonder that the library has become a hub for the community. Not only has it doubled the number of visitors, it invites innovative uses and partnerships. Among the most unique is its incorporation of e3 Civic High, a charter school that meets in its own dedicated section of the building and whose rent helps contribute to the library’s sustainable funding: the project incurred no public debt and includes a $10 million matching grant to cover operating costs for the first five years.

The new library’s capacity to bring people together to learn and create should stand as an inspiration in San Diego and beyond for years to come.—Audrey Barbakoff

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

The Latest Trends in Library Design
Hosted in partnership with Salt Lake County Library and The City Library—at SLCo’s Viridian Center—the newest installment of our library building and design event will let you dig deep with architects, librarians, and vendors to explore building, renovating, and retrofitting spaces to better engage your community.