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A Balloon of a Building

By Mary Daily

Published Jul 1, 2018 8:00 AM

Powell Library was once relocated for five years to a futuristic structure named Temporary Powell, known as “Towell.”


The periodicals room, in the foreground, had a skin of corrugated, translucent fiberglass. Photos courtesy of Hodgetts + Fung.

In 1992, UCLA faced the daunting necessity of closing and emptying Powell Library for five years for seismic retrofitting. Where would the hundreds of thousands of books go? Where would undergraduates gather to study and conduct research?

University administrators considered several options: off-site storage (but students needed access), trailers (but where to put them?) and Parking Structure 3 (but the books are heavier than the cars — not structurally sound).

Then, driving to campus one morning along Pacific Coast Highway, campus architect Charles “Duke” Oakley got an idea as he passed the Cirque du Soleil setup on the beach: How about a tent?

To execute his solution, Oakley turned to architects within the Bruin community: the husband-and-wife team of UCLA Associate Professor Craig Hodgetts and alumna Hsinming Fung M.Arch. ’80. The Culver City–based team of Hodgetts + Fung had designed the UCLA gateway, the campus entrance at Westwood Boulevard and Le Conte Avenue. “We had won the trust of the administration,” Hodgetts says. They had also designed a temporary theater, so they were knowledgeable about impermanent construction.

For the Powell project, the couple worked under severe time constraints. “It was an emergency-type schedule,” says Hodgetts. Over 14 months, they created a two-story structure using aluminum, canvas and exposed cables and fasteners, at a cost of $3.5 million. It sat between the Men’s Gym (now the Student Activities Center) and the Dance Building (now Glorya Kaufman Hall) at the bottom of Janss Steps. Its name: Temporary Powell Staging Facility. Before long, to the campus community, it became simply “Towell.”

The nickname was apropos of the surprising, free-form edifice that seemed to marry circus tent with space station. Because the building was temporary, the university allowed the architects freedom in design; they were unconstrained by the already established look of the campus.

“Freedom was in the air,” remembers Hodgetts. “The administration was relaxed about the whole thing.” He says the librarians loved working in the cool, new tent, too — liberated from the confines of a typical library. Gloria Werner, who was UCLA’s chief librarian then, told the Los Angeles Times: “The solution was extraordinarily innovative and creative, and it was done on a very tight budget.”

Towell, with only 36,000 square feet — down from Powell’s 100,000 — consisted of four tents of varying shapes and sizes with skins of woven blue, white and gold polyester stretched over aluminum frames. The open floor plan provided visitors on the first level a view of books on the second. The rose-colored, cinder-block base was stained to match UCLA’s signature red brick. Windows were made of plexiglass. Inside were study areas for 500 students, a main hall and two reading rooms, plus book stacks and computer labs. A cylindrical tent housed the staff.

A library relocation company hired students to help move roughly 200,000 volumes into the new library; the rest of Powell’s holdings went into storage.


The interior of the periodicals room featured an inverted doughnut form to provide for drainage.

Hodgetts and Fung say their design was “largely founded on observations of student life, which convinced us that it was important to maintain traditional library values in a ‘temporary’ building, even if time and budget constraints placed the emphasis on ‘practical’ issues.” Fung says she wanted to preserve all the proper functions of a library but avoid a trailer-home atmosphere.

The odd-looking creation garnered awards and rave reviews within architectural circles and even made the cover of Architectural Record Magazine. New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp, who called it “a bright balloon of a building,” wrote: “With its playful air of spontaneity bolted down by innate rigor, the Temporary Powell revives informality as an architectural ideal.”

Muschamp added that Towell’s artful placement of metal brackets, structural ribs and air-conditioning ducts appeared to hold the complex together, giving it a laced-up look.

According to Hodgetts, Towell was exactly in line with architectural thinking at the time, which was celebrating temporary designs. “It was an immediate hit,” he says.

Powell reopened in September 1996, and Towell briefly became classrooms and an ASUCLA retail space before eventually being dismantled and removed. Students hated to see it go. One said at the time, “I think it’s a real asset to the campus.” In May 1997, Daily Bruin writer Brent Eldridge ’99 composed an ode to Towell’s demise, which ended with these lines:

With these undying words I speak to thee:
Thou honored relic of retired towers,
Homage I paid thee hour by hour:
Myself never knowing that all the while
Thou were but a great aluminum pile.


For more photographs of Towell during its presence at UCLA, head over to the photo gallery found here.