SOM founded in 1936 by Louis Skidmore and Nathaniel Owings, is a global architectural, urban planning, and engineering firm. It works across a variety of scales and project types, providing services in Architecture, Building Services/MEP Engineering, Interior Design, Sustainable Design, and Urban Design & Planning.

Project: Billie Jean King Main Library
Location: Downtown Long Beach
Year: 2019
Area: 93500 sq ft

Billie Jean King Main Library is a traditional library cum a modern, technology-focused hub for the community acting as a vital part of SOM’s larger 22-acre Long Beach Civic Center Master Plan. It replaces an existing library dating back to the 1970s, which, like many civic landmarks from that era, lacked sufficient daylight or inviting community spaces. This pagoda-like structure in some ways harkens back to the firm’s high Modernist roots. The structure is named after the legendary tennis player who grew up there. Thus design form i.e a long, rectilinear framework of glass and reddish Douglas fir offers a homage to the athlete famed for the facility of her serves and therefore the efficiency of her groundstrokes and volleys.

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North façade of the library_©

This two-story timber building designed by SOM welcomes over one thousand visitors daily offering numerous activities that foster connection, learning, and collaboration. It houses a variety of amenity spaces, such as a family learning center, children’s reading room, veterans’ resource center, and multipurpose rooms. It also includes maker spaces powered for film editing, 3D printing, and robotics. Additionally, the visitors can peruse two floors of shelves holding quite 300,000 books. 

Planning and design

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Floorplans and sections_©
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At the entrance _© Benny Chan | Fotoworks.
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Atrium_© Benny Chan | Fotoworks
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At the entrance, a two-story light well opens to the sky and illuminates each floor_© Benny Chan | Fotoworks

Entering through a dramatic two-story, open to sky, light well, visitors are welcomed into a large central atrium. The atrium topped with a clerestory provides the interiors with abundant natural light and an enhanced sense of porosity. The space feels like an expansive pavilion, with extensive soft sight-lines illuminating the adjacent reading rooms, studios, and book stacks. It transforms over the day, accommodating workshops, social gatherings, exhibits, and public events. The main level also features substantial open spaces dedicated to children’s literature. Each space is meant for social interaction, play, and learning.

The second level comprises computers, book collections, and quiet reading areas. Dispersed around the floor plate’s exterior perimeter are lounge spaces with unobstructed views of Lincoln Park and the surrounding neighborhood. Along with staff offices and a dedicated teen space, the second floor also offers a graphics studio, film studio, and makerspace with a 3D workshop.


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Reading spaces_© Benny Chan | Fotoworks

The interior presents a welcoming and flexible atmosphere. All the spaces are organized into distinct areas that maximize the square footage and enhance accessibility for both staff and visitors. Working with a decent budget, the open interiors incorporate multi use, flexible spaces that allow visitors of all ages to participate in solo as well as collaborative activities. Moreover, the central atrium enhances the open interior by drawing in ample natural light. The exposed building services merged with timber finishes reflect both functionality and aesthetics, creating a warm, and visually stimulating interior environment.


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Construction phase_©
Billie Jean King Main Library by SOM: A Flexible Environment - Sheet9
Construction phase_©

For SOM, simplifying the library’s design and structure was important for both, to maintain a restrained aesthetic and keeping the project delivery on time and budget. This idea resulted in utilizing mostly repetitive members that would be prefabricated and then installed on-site with minimal wastage of material and time. Furthermore, this approach is very sustainable regarding conserving material and mitigating waste generated within the field during construction. The superstructure consists of exposed-glue, laminated, heavy timber members. Timber was selected for its lightweight, architectural warmth, and character.

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V-shaped steel supports in the lobby_© Benny Chan | Fotoworks

To resist lateral seismic movement, V-shaped steel supports were installed, aided by a grid of square steel columns crammed with concrete. In addition, on the west facade, there’s no overhang. Rather, the architects cut the solar load by making the curtain wall more opaque with the help of an aluminum vertical plank system, alternating with strips of glass. 

Image 11_The structural components were fabricated to include the routing for MEP systems_©

The routing of MEP systems through the library without disrupting the timber elements was a challenge for the design and engineering teams.


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Solar radiation and daylighting strategies_©
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Solar radiation and daylighting strategies_©

SOM has kept its signature vocabulary of modernist modular structures utilizing steel, concrete, and glass. At the same time, it is also working to address climate change by giving wood a prominent role in its architecture. Its goal has been to use timber as a main structural material to reduce a tower’s embodied carbon footprint.  The building’s envelope maximizes daylight, mitigating glare and solar radiation. And the 39-foot-high atrium with clerestory windows allows daylight sufficing the interior, thus reducing the amount of electric lighting needed.

Since Long Beach, a flourishing port city, receives abundant sun, the architects designed low-rise building’s flat roofs fitted out with a battery of 1,590 photovoltaic modules with deep overhangs for the expanses of glazed walls. 


The Billie Jean King library’s bold muscular framework, with its predominance of wood, continues the firm’s legacy while introducing a renewed vibrancy to their general neighborhood. It proves a building needn’t be a tower to be noticed. The way it responds to its surroundings, orientation, and programming has resulted in an elegant, restrained, thoughtful, intricate yet refined, warm, welcoming building that is “of its time”.


RTF | Rethinking The Future. 2021. 15 Library Design everyone should know about – RTF | Rethinking The Future. 2021.  Billie Jean King Main Library. 2021

ArchDaily. 2021. Billie Jean King Main Library / Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.

The Architect’s Newspaper. 2021. SOM blends mass timber and High Modernism with the pagoda-like Billie Jean King Library. 2021. Billie Jean King Main Library.

designboom | architecture & design magazine. 2021. SOM designs library as the first-ever heavy timber building in the city of long beach.

Architizer. 2021. Billie Jean King Main Library by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM).



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