A modern vision cladded in stone, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is said to be one of the largest buildings to house a vast collection of rare books and manuscripts; from the Gutenberg Bible to the original Audubon bird prints. This bold design was manifested in the 1960s by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) architects and was once the subject of contempt and ridicule due to its unconventional style which was a complete contrast to the revivalist style of the Yale campus it was situated in. However, it is now a subject of marvel as it remains relevant to the present day and age and proves its timelessness. It is a design that was way ahead of its time.

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library by SOM: Tower within a Building - Sheet1
A Two-point perspective view of the structure from the outer walkway surrounding it_©newmanarchitects.com

Diffused Natural Lighting

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library by SOM: Tower within a Building - Sheet2
An image from November 1962 during the construction of the library_© collections.library.yale.edu.com

This structure by SOM took 3 years to rise from the ground and take shape due to its structural advancements that required careful monitoring during construction. A steel skeleton was put in place as the outer shell on which granite was cladded with translucent Vermont marble panels forming an outer skin to the building. 

The use of grey veined white marbles was a unique feature of this building providing controlled ambient lighting without direct exposure to sunlight. Architect Gordon Bunshaft proposed the use of these panels with a rough thickness of 3cm so that it gave off a fascinating amber glow to the interior of the building, almost like that of artificial light. This was possible only due to the thin profile of this unique material as It was able to filter light in without the harmful rays of sunlight as control of light was the main concern in the functionality of this space.

This requirement was challenging to attain as it required light to aid the study that would take place in the library whilst there was a need to protect the books from the same medium. Hence, there was a conflict in requirement and these marble panels proved to become an efficient solution. Natural light enters the basement levels through a sunken court reminiscent of a cloistered scriptorium.  

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library by SOM: Tower within a Building - Sheet3
The inner mezzanine floor basking in the faint light shining in through the marble panes_©Ezra Stoller

A Timeless Design

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library by SOM: Tower within a Building - Sheet4
The Inner sculpture courtyard_©Ezra Stoller

The modernist style of this building proves to be everlasting while the grey granite replicates the rough concrete facades that characterize modern architecture. SOM architects have always been known to create magnificent buildings that are significant in their building style and pull off structural strength. Therefore, in the 1960s, this building was revolutionary, competing with the revivalist style that the rest of the Yale campus projected. This is what architecture should be capable of; it should be timeless in the sense that the design and functioning should remain relevant so that the building ceases to age.

A Cathedral for Books

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library by SOM: Tower within a Building - Sheet5
A view that defines the scale of the building_©Ezra Stoller

Gordon Bunshaft of the architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), envisioned a cathedral-like structure that would become a sacred space of knowledge for people visiting. This ideology can be seen in the scale of the structure that is 6 storey high but due to its monolithic cubic form seems to overshadow people and make them seem even smaller in comparison. It tries to mimic the pantheon with its massive scale.

The structural attributes of the structure consist of a system of prefabricated steel trusses that transfer the weight of the façade to the four enormous concrete piers that stand at each of its four corners, allowing for the ground floor lobby to be almost entirely glazed. Entry is through revolving doors at the ground level. Two stairways lead to either side of the mezzanine level; from where the most valued glass tower of books can be viewed. Two basement floors house more of such prized collections and can only be assessed with special permission. 

The Library can hold a total of 180,000 books in the central tower and more than 600,000 in the underground book stacks. The building stands tall on a plaza of 200 feet by 350 feet with 2 floors beneath. These floors encompass spaces that include working areas like offices and classrooms and the reading room adjacent to which there is an open courtyard with sculptures by Isamu Noguchi that evoke the mind. The glazed entrance lobby reveals a vast exhibition space and twin staircases lead to the library. On entry into the space, a six stories high book stack looms above with sheer magnificence. 

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library by SOM: Tower within a Building - Sheet6
The central glass tower displays and protects the rare books_©Ezra Stoller


The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library by SOM: Tower within a Building - Sheet7
The renovated book stacks_©newmanarchitects.com

The structure required an expansion to facilitate new activities that were being introduced for the students and to accommodate an expanding group of people that visited the library. Keeping the structure up to date was also of prime importance in the preservation of these written documents. Hence all the mechanical and electrical fittings were carefully replaced making sure to keep the original essence of the building intact. 

Sectional Diagrams_©newmanarchitects.com

Newer technology was adopted that promoted energy efficiency and adhered to the needs of the space. The building was assessed in every avenue to make sure that it was in good shape after half a century of use. This renovation that took place in 2016 was crucial to ensure that the building was properly maintained.


  • November 1962. (1962). [Photographic prints, Photographs, Snapshots]. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2037647.
  • Stoller, E. (0 C.E.). [Photograph of sculpture courtyard at the Beinecke] [Photographic prints, Photographs]. https://collections.library.yale.edu/catalog/2037717.
  • Luke Fiederer / ArchDaily. (2017). AD Classics: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library / SOM. [online] Available at: https://www.archdaily.com/65987/ad-classics-beinecke-rare-book-and-manuscript-library-skidmore-owings-merrill.
  • Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. (2018). About the Building. [online] Available at: https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/about/history-architecture/about-building.
  • Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. (2018). Beinecke Library Construction Photographs, 1961-1963. [online] Available at: https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/collections/highlights/beinecke-library-construction-photographs-1961-1963.
  • Newman Architects. ‌Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. [Photograph] www.newmanarchitects.com/projects/beinecke-rare-book-manuscript-library.
  • Ezra Stoller / Esto. (1960). [Photograph] 

Mary is a final year B.Arch. student eager to find her place in the multiverse that is architecture. She believes that words have a hidden ability to inspire, providing an in-depth perception. Deeply passionate about preserving the natural world and its heritage, she also finds solace in penning down her thoughts, travelling and enjoys being cooped up with a good book.

Write A Comment