Exeter Library

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On a cold Friday evening, the 29th of January in 2010, I had the great opportunity to finally visit the Exeter Library. The official title of the building is the Class of 1945 Library, but everyone who knows the work of architect Louis Kahn calls it Exeter Library.

Arriving late in the evening, I only had about 45 minutes to spend absorbing the magnificent spaces in the building. Being 2010, I took these photos on my BlackBerry phone and they are not very good, but aside from memories, it's all I have. I was in the area for the baptism of a friend's child. My friend is a graduate of Exeter Academy and he drove me to the campus straight from the airport.

From the exterior, it appears like an over-sized 4 story building. I once read that the campus master plan dictated 4 stories as the maximum allowable height, but the building is actually 8 floors on the interior. Through the use of large exterior windows and suspended mezzanines at alternate levels, the true nature of the design is disguised. Built with brick, the library fits into the context of the existing campus architecture.

"Kahn's Exeter Library in New Hampshire is a quintessential New England Building. It is subtle, chaste, and reserved on the outside. It is demure, even acquiescent, in its context. Its taut red brick skin, its simple stereometric volume, its regular repetitive pattern of wood windows - even its vertical hierarchy from heavy at the bottom to open and diminished at the top - all place it easily within longstanding New England building traditions."

Lawrence W. Speck 'Regionalism and Invention'

The interior is where the real drama lies. The floors of the library trace around a large cubic void in the center. Columns and walls of concrete are pierced with large circular openings revealing the book stacks. In his later work, Louis Kahn strove to design modern buildings with power and sense of timelessness from ancient ruins. Pure geometry and materials with simple adornment were the tools to achieve this goal.

I have visited old castles and cathedrals in England and Wales, Mayan cities in the jungles of the Yucatan, and Anasazi settlements in New Mexico. Emptied of people, food, fabrics, and the energy of everyday life, the bare walls and long shadows condense our emotional response. The majesty and awe we feel when experiencing ruins, mysteries from a long lost culture, inspire us to think about our own place in the history of mankind. This type of deep meditative reflection is also appropriate for libraries, museums, synagogues and other institutional projects that Kahn is famous for.

Two other masterworks by Louis Kahn, the Kimbell Art Museum in Forth Worth, Texas and the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California are buildings I have been fortunate to visit on numerous occasions. I don't know when I will be back in New Hampshire, but I hope it won't take another ten years to get there.

Phillips Exeter Academy Library by Louis I. Kahn (1972). Published in Manual of Section by Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki, and David J. Lewis published by Princeton Architectural Press (2016). Image © LTL Architects

Phillips Exeter Academy Library by Louis I. Kahn (1972). Published in Manual of Section by Paul Lewis, Marc Tsurumaki, and David J. Lewis published by Princeton Architectural Press (2016). Image © LTL Architects