FROM its light-filled asymmetrical atrium to the high-tech grid beneath its floors, San Francisco's new library is a stunning piece of architecture.
The flooding natural light and open balconies mark a decisive departure from the imposing libraries that were symbols of great cities of the past.
"This is a library that was made to be friendly from the beginning," says James Ingo Freed, principal designer of the library, which opens April 18.
The New Main Library is also the centerpiece of a cultural building boom in this West Coast city. Beginning with the opening last year of the new Museum of Modern Art, there has been a series of events signifying a renewed commitment to the arts, and to city life in general.
Some urban planners see what is happening here as the leading edge of a growing countertrend to the seemingly relentless force of suburban sprawl that has left many of America's cities hollowed out and lifeless at their core.
In cities like Portland, Denver, and Cleveland, there has been a revival of downtown areas, driven in part by new cultural centers, even new baseball parks and arenas.
"I think the flight from the city is pretty much over in most major cities," says Tom Iadala, an urban planner for San Jose, at the south end of San Francisco Bay. "The trend now is a return to downtown."
San Jose itself is a leading example of a trend some planners call "infill," a strategy of limiting outward growth in favor of "filling in" growth inside the city limits. The San Jose government is now promoting a "Greenline Initiative" aimed at fixing a long-term boundary around the city beyond which urban development cannot go.
San Jose, along with other cities, has pursued a strategy of public support for building new civic institutions, including a sports arena, theater complexes, parks, and museums. "If you're going to make the place attractive to move back downtown, you have to have that stuff," Mr. Iadala says.
Beautifying city by the bay
Still, the scale of activity in San Francisco is noteworthy. "Most other cities are deserting the center," says Mr. Freed, of the prestigious New York firm Pei Cobb Freed. "San Francisco is occupying the center."
In the past year alone, the Palace of the Legion of Honor - the graceful neoclassical museum perched on the headlands above the Pacific Ocean - has been restored; the quake-damaged historic Geary Theater was reopened; and last month the museum of the California Historical Society debuted as part of the complex of cultural buildings emerging in the Yerba Buena development.
Also under way is the post-quake restoration of City Hall - the Beaux Arts masterpiece that anchors one end of the city's classical Civic Center. The Opera House, which stands behind City Hall is also being extensively renovated, while plans are under way to move the city's Asian Art Museum into the old main library building.
"This is the moment of the public realm in San Francisco," says Cathy Simon, the San Francisco architect who collaborated with Mr. Freed to design the city's New Main Library.
The need to rebuild after the massive 1989 earthquake has been one key impetus for this burst of cultural architecture. Ms. Simon also cites the deep recession as a cause. "Energy was not going into building office buildings," she points out.
Source of civic pride
But driving all of this is the tremendous support in San Francisco for public life, as evidenced by the 78 percent voter approval in 1988 for the $109 million bond measure to build the New Main Library and renovate the city's branch libraries.
"San Francisco has a sense of pride in its architecture and a character which marks it off from most other American cities where the public realm has languished," says Michael Webb, the author of numerous books on architecture and urban design.
"The library is part of this energy, and a really crucial part," says Simon. This was reflected in the campaign launched in 1991 by the Library Foundation to raise some $30 million needed to complete the interior of the building (by law, public funds could not be used for this purpose).
Competing with fund-raising for the Modern Art Museum, the campaign leveled off at $16 million, until the organizers decided to try to involve the city's diverse communities in the effort to drum up cash.
"A lot of those communities - African-Americans, Latinos - said they had never been asked before," recounts Charlotte Mailliard Swig, who along with her late husband lead the effort. Those groups raised more than $8 million, "and that giving and that participation will not end," Ms. Swig says.
These contributions were partly used to build cultural centers within the library - beautiful wood-paneled study rooms that anchor the corners of several floors. Among them are centers dedicated to African-Americans, Chinese, gays and lesbians (who alone gave more than $2.5 million), Filipinos, children, and the environment.
The state-of-the art library completes the ensemble of buildings that form the Civic Center, rebuilt a decade after the devastating 1906 earthquake. In what Freed terms "hybrid architecture," the exterior of the two sides of the building facing the Civic Center - including the old library across the street - contain features of the classical Beaux Arts style, while those facing the modern commercial buildings on Market Street are more stark and geometric in character.
"We wanted to somehow express the idea of a 21st century library taking a very active part, architecturally, in a late 19th/early 20th century Civic Center," says Simon, whose firm specializes in designing libraries across the country.
The interior of the seven-story building is decidedly next century. With the encouragement of City Librarian Ken Dowlin, the library is built with an infrastructure designed to accommodate the technological changes of the future. It boasts hundreds of computer terminals - providing access to computerized catalogues - as well as data terminals that allow users to plug directly and freely into the Internet.
"I don't think there is a library that can hold a candle to this electronically," Simon says.