Wednesday, April 4, 2012

A Reflection on Louis I. Kahn's Exeter Library at 40

It has been nearly 20 years since I first visited Louis Kahn's masterwork at Phillips Exeter Academy, and now, at the building's 40-year anniversary (1967-1972), the experience was equally awe-inspiring.  Much has been written about the Library over the decades, but I was pleased to see that there are also several excellent short films available including the breathtakingly well-lit and photographed piece by Alex Roman, which is posted below.

If possible, the Library struck me as even more monumental and timelessly classical than I had remembered from that first visit. This may be due to my own changing interest in architecture over time, seeking an ever simpler, reductivist yet harmonious style. Perhaps it may be that the materials, concept, the embrace of the printed word and the celebration of both private space (study carrels which ring the upper perimeter) and quiet gathering space corresponds to my own needs and interest over time. To reflect on the core of Kahn's library with its soaring almost √Čtienne-Louis Boull√©e-like interior is symbolic of allowing one's intellectual curiosity to fill the expanse.

 Once protected within, with light filtering through various openings, diffuse and warm, the building radiated welcome despite the hard surfaces – concrete and brick- due to the honey tones of the wood throughout.  One instinctively lowers one’s voice as one would in a Library. And yet, on this Sunday, there was plenty of activity within the building. Small groups of students occupied the first floor reading rooms, the library reference student staff chatted, a librarian asked if my colleagues and I had any questions. We were allowed to wander freely - no doubt gawking visitors walking around the building is a common occurrence.

While the function of a "traditional" library has altered much in the last decade, Kahn's Library has not lost its purpose, remaining true to its function.  While I do not know what current faculty and students think about the library and possible (technological?) shortcomings, it would nonetheless appear that the Library is conducive to thinking, learning and concentrating in many formats, whether from a book, laptop, iPad, or other device.

If you have not visited recently or ever, you may want to put the Exeter Library on your architectural “pilgrimage” list. The Academy has been excellent stewards.

As noted by Paul Heyer in American Architecture: Ideas and Ideologies in the Late Twentieth Century. (279.)

"Elemental in its contemporary directness and built also with the sense and durability of the great monuments of history is the Library at Philips Exeter Academy. In the spirit of the grand, classical tradition of the focal organizing space, the reading room is a central hall encircled by balconies containing the stacks and study alcoves. It is a space diagonally overlooked through giant circular openings in the interior screen walls that define the central area. In keeping with the campus tradition, the exterior of the building is a repetition of brick piers, wider as they approach the ground where the book loads are greater, cut back at all four corners to subtly articulate the building's exterior square form. The perimeter study carrels are illuminated from windows above the reader's eye level; smaller windows at eye level afford views to the campus or conversely can be closed by a sliding wooden shutter for privacy and concentration. There is contact with and building upon origins in both the library and the [Kimbell] museum. They span time as an architecture of basic fact and of progression as we move onward, aware of both where we have come form and where we are."

The Library received the American Institute of Architects 25 Year Award in 1997

A Film by Alex Roman:

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting blog, introduced by a thought-provoking photo. The unusual wall painting of the dwellings is also a strangely modern interpretation. Something like this hieroglyphic view of a park by Swiss painter Paul Klee,
    The image can be seen at who can supply you with a canvas print of it.