An introduction to the American architect named Louis Kahn is probably not needed in today’s time. He views architecture without the need to follow any style, in his words describing the nature of architecture: “It is the spirit of architecture which says that architecture does not exist at all… that’s what the spirit says. It knows no style, no method. It is ready for anything,” (Kahn, 1998). 

It could be seen that he approaches a problem as if it is the first time it’s emerged and there are no other precedents to be referred to. This also applies to the realisation of Phillips Exeter Academy Library located in Exeter, New Hampshire where he sees it as “a place where the librarian can lay out the books, open especially to selected pages to seduce the readers,” (Wiggins, 1997). The concepts of “destination” and “from” spaces are applicable to this work. Both the exterior and interior appearances of the library were carefully considered by Louis Kahn.

Watching the library from the local context, we could say that Louis Kahn intended to blend into the surrounding by using bricks and showing off its heavy nature. The surrounding has buildings of the same nature and he has shown his appreciation towards it by the decision of using bricks. Using bricks as load-bearing structures show how he sticks true to his philosophy that we must follow the nature of a material. 

As the bricks are laid higher and less load they take, they get narrower gradually; and this is also evident in the arches above the windows. At a glance, the elevations of the library may seem the same but as we take a closer look, we could see the distinct appearances between the different elevations as well as in each individual elevations. Each is carefully considered and designed following the needs of the library. 

Coming from any side of the library, we could find entrances on all sides which show the inviting nature of the library, fitting for its purpose. The arcade, which connects the façade to the entrances, creates a transition between indoor and outdoor which adds to the inviting nature of the library. One could take a break in their journey at the arcade or perhaps take shelter from rain or harsh sunlight even when they don’t intend on entering the library.

 

Philip Exeter Academy Library by Louis Kahn: The thoughtful making of spaces - Sheet1
Peter Exeter academy Library ©Xavier de Jauréguiberry

Upon entering the library and reaching the centre hall, users’ attention is set towards the large circular opening on all sides of the central hall. Louis Kahn’s ingenious design decisions could be seen through these circular openings as they redirect the focus of the users towards the bookshelves lined up perpendicularly to the openings on each upper floor. 

Apart from adding up to the inviting nature of the library, the implementation of these openings may be a way to seduce the readers as intended by Louis Kahn. After accepting the library’s invitation to the books, users will then move towards the respective upper floors where they could find the books that interest them. 

Artificial lighting shines in between the bookshelves, enhancing the appearance of the books in the aisle to further seduce the readers. There are no sitting areas at the aisles as the shelves are merely a “from” space where the journey of the readers in gaining more knowledge is just beginning. 

At the top of the central hall exists a huge concrete cross-beam that reflects and diffuses natural lighting into that space. Known for his “poetry of light”, there could be more than just structural and dramatic effects intended by Louis Kahn through this cross-beam as it also complements the said circular openings.

Philip Exeter Academy Library by Louis Kahn: The thoughtful making of spaces - Sheet2
Peter Exeter academy Library ©Xavier de Jauréguiberry

The users will then move towards the perimeter of the library where they will find individual study carrels and rows of tables for study groups. Contrary to the artificially lit, mysterious-but-inviting atmosphere that the central hall and aisles of bookshelves may give, the study areas are warm and welcoming with adequate sunlight illuminating the spaces. The study carrels are attached under the big windows of the library. 

Each carrel is then provided with its own smaller windows that not just provide adequate lighting but also to create a sense of privacy for the readers as they work on their studies and embark on the journey in knowledge. With the smaller windows providing for the individual carrels, the bigger fixed window above then provides for the rest of the area including the study group tables located not far from the said study carrels. 

If the book aisles are “from” spaces, these study areas are the “destination” spaces as readers will finally sit down and spend time with the resources that they have chosen to utilise from the library. The mysterious sense given to the books when shone by the light fittings, could be a manifestation of how mysterious knowledge can be before we actually delve into them. 

Meanwhile, the warm and welcoming sense created in the study areas is a manifestation of how we are enlightened and liberated with the acquired knowledge from the books.

Philip Exeter Academy Library by Louis Kahn: The thoughtful making of spaces - Sheet3
Peter Exeter academy Library ©Xavier de Jauréguiberry

There is more to read into Louis Kahn’s Philip Exeter Academy Library than can be written in this article. The library could be one of the best manifestations of Kahn’s philosophical thoughts which is evident from the journey of a user that sees the exterior until they finally reach the end of the journey at a study area. It was ahead of its time and although Louis Kahn started engaging the problem as if it is the first of its kind. He did it with thoughtful considerations. 

The best ending to a magnificent work such as this would be a quote that embraces it and David Rineheart has said it: “for Lou, every building was a temple. […] Exeter was a temple for learning.” (Wiseman, 2007)

References

Kahn, L. I., 1998. Conversations With Students. Texas: Rice University School of Architecture.

Wiggins, G. E., 1997. Louis I. Kahn: The Library at Philips Exeter Academy. Hong Kong: International Thomson Publishing Company.

Wiseman, C., 2007. Louis I. Kahn: Beyond Time and Style. New York: Norton Architecture.

Author

Aiman Zafran is a Malaysian architectural assistant who graduated with BA (Hons) Architecture from the Manchester School of Architecture. With interests in computational design, technology & psychology, he’s always curious about how far we could stretch the limits of architecture & improve the lives of people. For him, thinking through words is as useful as drawings when it comes to understanding architecture.

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