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  • Andy

Cathedrals of Knowledge - Classical Architecture in Libraries

To me, a library can be an expression of two paradoxical dispositions of the human mind: on one hand a library can be an accumulation of objects, coming from the passionate need for ownership, importance, and power, and on the other hand a no-less-passionate desire for communicating, giving, or sharing in order to make a better world. But the people who spend the most time in libraries are scholars and intellectuals who pursue the pure pleasure of knowledge within their area of expertise, which draws them on a daily basis to the temples where the objects of their worship are the books lined in such an orderly manner on the shelves.

When I attended architecture school many decades ago, classicism was practically nonexistent, only taught in history classes. We worshiped the cult of Le Corbusier. The only columns that existed were the very thin “pilotis.” I believed in the International Style of Modernism but I was also fascinated by classical architectural treasures of mesmerizing beauty that appeared before my eyes throughout the Western world. One day I made an about-turn: I decided to decipher the codes of classicism and to make them mine. I studied classical texts for months, day after day. Like all neophytes, I became an absolute purist and a worshiper of classicism. I marveled at the possibility of creating new and beautiful buildings with the codes that had existed for two millennia.

The first architectural book I ever owned was Graphic Standards, given to me by my uncle Joe on my thirteenth birthday. There were a few architects in the family and I knew even then that I would be an architect, and that I would use that book all my life. My library spans from ancient Greece to the neoclassical architecture of the twenty-first century. I own a thousand books and can never stop carefully selecting new ones to purchase. I love them all. Historical precedent is a huge part of my design process. Sometimes I refer to just one book and it sings in my ear like the music of a soloist. Sometimes I refer to a half a dozen books at a time and they sound like a chamber orchestra.

One of the first known collections of documents was found in Nineveh, Assyria: it is a series of clay tablets on which some orderly king probably wished to keep a record of the activities in his palace. The Egyptians, whose taste for documentation is famous, had public libraries of papyri. The frail scrolls were easily damaged but funding ensured that they could be continually replaced. Wealthy Romans liked to have a library next to their living room, much as we do. When elected to public office it was tradition for a politician to make an offer of a gift to the people. Some gave circus games and others gave libraries. At the beginning of our era there were three important public libraries in Rome.

Imagine the frenzy of delight that went through the minds of many people when printing was invented in 1454. Printed material would soon be accessible to the common man. Early libraries contained a fixed number of handwritten manuscripts that were the collections of princes and the privileged. A library of printed books could easily grow.

We worship our libraries and have mourned their loss to fires or natural disasters for centuries. But libraries are also subject to hatred and revenge. Wars have often led to the destruction or the looting of the objects that are the symbol of the pride of the enemy, whether books or artifacts. Nevertheless, generous collectors continue to donate their precious collections to libraries, and writers are still proud when libraries accept their books and the documents of their research. As long as we cherish our libraries they will thrive. Libraries represent an aspect of our humanity that is often overlooked: fraternity.

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