The Phillips Exeter Academy Library is a library serving Phillips Exeter Academy, a private boarding school in Exeter, New Hampshire, United States. It also holds the record for being the world’s largest secondary school library.
Initially, the first library at the Phillips Exeter Academy in 1883 was only a single room. They called it then the Davis Library. Ralph Adams Cram designed the Davis Library. Secondly, in 1905, the library had only 2 rooms and 2000 volumes. Finally, in the 1950s, Phillips Exeter Academy’s trustees and faculty committee decided to build a new library.
“To foresee the Academy’s demands for the next 25 years and create an exterior that would ‘fit in with our lovely Georgian buildings,” the trustees charged this project.
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Louis Kahn as the chosen Architect
The Academy also gave specifications about the type of structure they wanted: a brick outside to match the school’s Georgian buildings and an interior that provided the optimum learning atmosphere. From the earliest concepts for the new library to its ultimate form, the designs for the library also took over 15 years to develop.
O’Connor & Kilham, the architecture firm commissioned several libraries and were also to build the new library by the mid-1960s. They had also produced drawings with conventional architecture. Similarly, at least three separate initiatives to plan for the library were attempted, with the outcomes of the first two have no relation to the Phillips Exeter Academy Library that we currently know. Because these were dismissed, the school’s building committee began to find a new architect. The members of the committee took an interest in Louis Kahn initially, but they also interviewed other prominent architects, such as Paul Rudolph, I. M. Pei, Philip Johnson, and Edward Larrabee Barnes.
In 1965, the committee chose Ar. Louis Kahn to design the new library and completed it in 1971. They also renamed the library the ‘Class of 1945 Library’ in 1995 to honor Dr. Lewis Perry, Exeter’s eighth principal, who served from 1914 until 1946.
Architecture of Phillips Exeter Academy Library
Each of the library’s four sides is 111 feet (33 meters) broad and 80 feet (24 meters) tall, giving it a nearly cubical form. Subsequently, it is built in three concentric sections. However, Kahn refers to them as “doughnuts.” In the words of Robert McCarter, author of Louis I. Kahn, “From the very beginning of the design process, Kahn conceived of the three types of spaces as if they were three buildings constructed of different materials and of different scales – buildings-within-buildings”.
The committee specified to have the new library be “unpretentious, though in a handsome, inviting contemporary style.” Owing to the project brief and the client’s expectations, Louis Kahn made the building undramatic and suitable for the small New England town. The building is also located in an environment in which neo-Georgian buildings dominate the surroundings.
Firstly, in the outer area are the reading carrels, and are made of brick. Secondly, the middle area contains the book stacks, which are made of reinforced concrete. Finally, the inner area is the atrium. Also, known as ‘plate walls, the façade is primarily in brick with teakwood panels. Most importantly, the bricks are load-bearing. This demonstrates Louis Kahn’s commitment to his concept of following the nature of the material. When viewed in context, it is possible to conclude that Louis Kahn intended for the library to fit in with the surrounding by employing bricks and displaying its weight. Often known as the ‘outer doughnut’, the chamfered corners of the building further allow spectators to see the outside framework of the building. Moreover, the library has entrances on all four sides, demonstrating its welcoming attitude, which is appropriate for its role.
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Inside, there is a travertine-faced circular double staircase and it is in concrete. The visitor enters a spectacular center hall with large circular apertures that expose many stories of book stacks at the top of the stairs.
At the top of the atrium, there are 2 massive concrete crossbeams that diffuse the light entering from the clerestory windows. The dimensions of the central hall are 52ft (15.8m) high and 32ft (9.8m) wide. Above all, these dimensions also give the room its Golden Ratio.
The library building does prove to be a marvel in architecture. In other words, there is a drama with the combination of the circle and the square in the atrium. Ancient Roman Architect Vitruvius considered also them as paradigmatic geometric units. Kahn believed that the exterior brick walls’ massiveness contributes to the cloistered ambiance and are appropriate for the library carrels. The arcade, which connects the façade to the entrances, offers a transition between interior and outdoor areas, which also contributes to the library’s welcoming atmosphere.
The Phillips Exeter Academy Library receives a wide variety of critics because many architectural experts sometimes differ in their interpretations of Kahn’s design.
Recognition and Awards
The building won the ‘Twenty-five Year Award’ in 1997 from the American Institute of Architects which recognizes architecture of enduring significance that is given to no more than one building per year.
In 2005, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp that recognized the library as one of the 12 masterworks of Modern American Architecture.
In 2007, the building got a rank #80 on the ‘List of America’s favorite Architecture’ by the American Institute of Architects.
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At a glance, the elevations of the library may seem the same but as one takes a closer look, one can see the distinct appearances between each individual elevations. Completed in 1972, the Class of 1945 Library is acknowledged to be among Louis Kahn’s most successful buildings. Similarly. the beauty in the architecture of the first floor is what gives the Exeter library its fame. As said by David Rhinehart, “For Lou, every building was a temple…Exeter was a temple of learning” (Wisemann 2007).
Academy, P. E. (n.d.). Design of the Academy. Retrieved from Phillips Exeter Academy: https://www.exeter.edu/academics/library/about/design-library
Perez, A. (2010, June 9). AD Classics: Exeter Library (Class of 1945 Library) / Louis Kahn. Retrieved from ArchDaily: https://www.archdaily.com/63683/ad-classics-exeter-library-class-of-1945-library-louis-kahn
Phillips Exeter Academy Library. (n.d.). Retrieved from wikiarquitectura.com: https://en.wikiarquitectura.com/building/phillips-exeter-academy-library/
Phillips Exeter Academy Library / Louis Kahn. (2020, May 29). Retrieved from ArchEyes: https://archeyes.com/phillips-exeter-academy-library-louis-kahn/?_ga=2.195746479.203906760.1629090404-1935674919.1629090404
Phillips Exeter Academy Library. (2021, July 12). Retrieved from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phillips_Exeter_Academy_Library#mw-head
Tarmizi, A. Z. (n.d.). Philip Exeter Academy Library by Louis Kahn: The thoughtful making of spaces. Retrieved from Rethinking the Future: https://www.re-thinkingthefuture.com/case-studies/a3321-philip-exeter-academy-library-by-louis-kahn-the-thoughtful-making-of-spaces/