Camarillo Brio

Camarillo is three legs of a 'z' from Upper Ojai: south east to Santa Paula, west to Ventura then east to Camarillo. After cascading down the 150 alongside the Santa Paula creek, the last two legs dodge around the west end of South Mountain and travel along Oxnard Plain - the old sea bed and now the richest agricultural land in the state.

Tucked into the eastern end of the plain, where it backs into the western tail of the Santa Monica mountains there is one last alluvial reach, beyond the Calleguas creek and almost surrounded by low rocky hills covered with antic drifts of cactus (Opuntia species). Here, in 1936, the largest mission revival complex in Ventura County was built to accommodate the Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

A Mexican land grant to Jose Pedro Ruiz created Rancho Calleguas in 1837, in the area that is now Camarillo. The town which sprang up in the early part of the twentieth century to serve the local farms grew to cater to the surrounding military and naval installations during World War II and then to support the area's largest employer, the mental hospital. In the 1950's it was split asunder by the 101 freeway leaving its north and south lobes forever isolated; remnants of 'old town' cling to either side of the freeway's embankments. In the mid 1990's work began on a huge outdoor suburban mall which now spreads over formerly agricultural land to the south of the freeway and includes acres of up-scale, designer outlets.

In 1996 Governor Pete Wilson announced plans to close the hospital and at first it appeared as though it would be converted to a prison - but with timely community activism and interest from the California State University system that fate was avoided, and in 2002 the first classes of the new Cal State Channel Islands (CSUCI) were held in the renovated buildings.

The campus maintains an exemplary stylistic cohesion thanks to its re-use of the mission revival buildings from the New Deal era, but at its heart is now a new three level 137,000 square foot library contiguous on three sides with the existing architecture and planted on the site of the hospital's mortuary.The library is, as one might expect from its architect Norman Foster, a bravura exercise in exquisitely engineered glassy minimalism.

A vast flat roof covers the building and, as in some steroidal gas station from the 1940's, it floats out to the west over the entry forecourt which is anchored by a large circular reflecting pool. Formally, the building is a donut, with three levels of offices and stacks surrounding a vast central space that is a reading room  illuminated from an extensive saw- tooth roof skylight system.

30 feet high, the space is reminiscent of a grand railway hall from the late nineteenth century or perhaps one of Foster's recent airports, but here there is calm and quiet with but the faintest of taps and beeps emanating from the students' lap-tops and a low sussuration from the air handling system buried in vertical metal ducting within the stacks.

Foster's design is in the British engineering tradition which stretches back to Paxton's 1850 Crystal Palace and beyond. Nurtured in the leaden skies of northern Europe, its practitioners remain obsessed with day-lighting and Foster has made a lucrative side-line of creating glass conservatory spaces to encase parts of the Reichstag, the British Museum and other monumental spaces.

Here, in southern California where the delightfully thick walled and small windowed mission revival style usefully shelters interior spaces from direct sun, such phototropism is massively inappropriate. Both Tom Mayne's glass skinned office block for Caltrans which sits behind a protective perforated steel skin and the massive wall architecture of Moneo's L.A. Cathedral (two recent architectural favorites) are appropriate to the harsh sun of southern California. Foster's building is blithely indifferent to the local climate - its genesis as a northern european design staggeringly evident as it sits on the edge of the sun washed Oxnard Plain.

Clearly impacted by budget, many of the service spaces are utiliarian in a typical institutional fashion but the building has the virtue of possessing a 'big idea' which survives un-compromised by value engineering. But despite its floating roof, etiolated steel columns, reflecting pool, and vast central hall surrounded by glassy 'servant' spaces, the John Spoore Bloome Library (named after a local rancher who provided the seed money and nominated the architect) is at best an average example of Foster's turn-of-the-century canon and one clearly beset by environmental challenges.

Yet nested into the glories of an intact campus of 1930's mission revival architecture it manages to become something quite extraordinary and a wonderful addition to the small collection of worthwhile contemporary architecture in Ventura County.

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