The Library is one of my strongest early memories of “architecture”, closely paralleled over time by many architectonic forms associated with urban design and with other building types.
“Memory, specificity and the recognition of non-self”, a concept brought out of immunology by Aldo Rossi in “A Scientific Biography” (see Bibliography), and the connection to roots and framework for an intentional design methodology help explicate a relationship to a common language of building – that of humans building environments for their common usage. There should be no wonder that many buildings of dissimilar use have such great similarities in design.
As an example, the hierarchy of nature, city, building and component is analogously articulated in the “library”. Synonymously with human, anthropological development of agriculture, city, building and systems, there occurred the need to establish a framework of identity for a function distinct from other functions while processes remained quite similar, setting a comprehensible visual display for passerby and user alike. Again, anthropological because in successful designs the hierarchy of elements occurs similarly regardless of function, yet still designed around the specific needs of the particular function, in human use as developed over the millenia.
To stretch the point to the ridiculous or arcane, a bathroom in a Library has no need to be different from a bathroom in an airport.
Libraries, churches, museums, theaters, traditional schools, stations, institutional and governmental buildings are traditionally among the clearest working evidences of an applied design hierarchy. They fulfill this role because (until recently although perhaps only for a generation or two) their clients required a respect for content, function and ceremony to be evident in the physical design and construct of the buildings.
In plan, the Library IS the city and before that the farm, and before that the natural meadow and forest. It is the storehouse of knowledge in book form, and now in other media as well. It is also the container of the act of harvesting or gleaning from the stacks, or field and warehouse, by individual users of specific packets of knowledge, the crop. These are removed to the reading room (typically a Great Hall analogous to the Threshing Floor) for search, transcription, absorption, separating usable information from chaff – very much like threshing. Some packets of information, whether “books” or “crops”, are “checked out”, shipped for external consumption, shared and devoured at separate facilities, and the orts (hopefully still in good condition) returned for recycling.
The “Great Hall” or reading room is usually the most glorious architectural expression within the Library and evident from the exterior. Arrival is via the Lobby/Piazza where collateral community information is exchanged, orientation occurs, and the mood for accessing knowledge is established in transit, assisted by computer catalogs, card catalogs and reference desks. The Reading Room tables and private carrels are small houses (multifamily and private) where knowledge is consumed on-site. Traditionally, small roofs in the form of gabled reading lights were accompanied by walls dressed as temporary storage shelves or privacy screens. Those components are parallel to Rossi’s expression of confessionals – small houses in a church – or stage sets in a theater, kiosks in a station or mall, dioramas in museums, and the like.
In the Library, the book “stacks” are fields or warehouses accessible to the harvesters and restocked for renewed harvest in a system of “sustained yield” of knowledge, with row after row, segregated by the type of “crop”. Today, the stacks are usually very industrial in design, but still not threatening to the user anxious for knowledge. The books and other media are the overpowering visual stimulus. Expressed externally as a background mass whose memory remains after entrance to the more glorious Lobby/Piazza and Great Hall reading room, stacks have a solid sense mentally and visually.
Today, even a few commercial functions, for example the modern supermarket, are being designed in the same way. A lobby to meet in, receive community information, taste samples, acquire equipment for the coming “harvest” within. The “stacks” or field of product rows are ready for harvest, arranged in the Dewey Decimal system of grocers. Product, meat, bakery, other special sections are handled specially, not in a manner that is simply “more of the same”, in recognition of particular interest and value. Freshness is spotlighted, like the periodicals and new acquisitions in the Library. The queuing and checkout areas become like the checkout desk of the library.
Picture if you will Michael Graves’s design of the San Juan Capistrano Library in California refitted as a grocery store! Given the design, that would actually work, and could be a great shopping experience on the scale of a Trader Joe’s Market! The courtyard could become the coffee patio for the deli or pastry shop that now seems ubiquitous in the larger markets, with other “shops” clustered around it. No additional land is needed, exposure is good, marketing is enhanced. “Veggies in the Storytime Room”!
Please, do not suggest conversion to local bureaucrats in this cost-cutting, city budget fiasco era — they often routinely take the first pound of flesh from libraries and cultural activities anyway, to make the greatest impression upon their constituents.
Take a look at a well-used essential building type of your choice. Try to identify its edges, paths, nodes, landmarks and districts of use. Seek to pinpoint its cores, panels, enclosure, connectors and nodes. All are found in the well-designed Library. Again, the church, theater, museum, city hall, terminal and school all have a visible, anthropologically developed vocabulary for their functions and resultant forms that do apply to specific sets of often unconsidered but similar human processes.
Consider investigating “new” applications of specific typologies related to these core architectonic results arising from historical anthropological development, the dialect of each emerging in the application of the analogous words, applying the universal system – the needs of human sustenance and activity – to each design.
“Veggies in the Storytime Room”, you may chortle disdainfully. Well…
Some DO have copies of “Veggie Tales”!
(Thanks for visiting “RenaissanceRules”! This article is part of the “Crafting Places” series, which began on October 4, 2010, with a “Preface”, accessible on-line at http://wp.me/pVUDj-np. Other previously published posts in the series can be accessed from the “Urban Design” sub-page “Crafting Places” of this site.)