Among the first buildings on Exeter’s campus noticed by new and returning students alike is the library. Officially known as the Class of 1945 Library, it is the largest secondary school library in the world, and has been a hallmark of the campus ever since it was built.
Coming to Exeter as an architecture student, I did some research on this particular building. Though the beauty of the library is that one need not know anything about it to appreciate it, I found that even some basic knowledge greatly enhanced the experience of visiting this architectural marvel for the first time. Subsequent visits only deepened my understanding of the special role the library has in Exeter’s campus, and our experiences within it.
Celebrated architect Louis I. Kahn designed the library in 1964 during the height of his career. At the time, some of his buildings were simply famous due to their association with him. But even though the adjacent dining hall also shares that distinction, it no longer inspires the same degree of awe which has transformed the library into such a timeless structure.
Few visitors to the library are able to fully explore the complexities which lay hidden behind its simple design. Those who choose to venture beyond the ground floor will find the bright, well-lit reading spaces arranged in an outer ring around the building. The ample furnishings and natural sunlight create an environment which literally “enlightens” both casual readers and serious scholars, promoting a sense of productivity. But that is not the only aspect of the library worth exploring.
Exeter is an environment which facilitates experiences with an intensity like none other. As someone who constantly processes thoughts and feelings, coming to many realizations in leaps and bounds, it is difficult to find the right time or place for quiet contemplation. The library offers an ideal environment for this as well, for beyond the outer walls lies the inner world of the atrium. Located in the heart of the library, it is a space known for the silence it inspires in those who are willing to stop and listen.
Staring up at the massive hollow portholes and the morning light filtering through windows high above, I had the feeling that despite the heavy concrete forms that define the inner ring, there is no sense of oppression or deadening of thought. Rather, there was a feeling of deep inspiration, as if in the absence of human speech, the library itself spoke to the mind and heart. By incorporating both outward light and inner silence, it becomes a building where the wealth of the world’s knowledge, contained within countless bookshelves, still leaves room for each person’s inner thoughts.
As one of the most complex structures I have ever seen, the library is the embodiment of Louis Kahn’s belief in the interaction between silence and light. Such a dynamic exists everywhere around us—even at the Harkness table, where both expression and reflection serve distinct roles. Achieving a balance between them may very well be the secret to a fulfilling existence.
While few of us may ever set foot in the library again after this summer, the lessons we can learn will transcend time and place. Thus, I challenge each of us to enrich our experience here by finding both the silence—and the light—in our lives.