Another building crossed off on the Lou Kahn’s Greatest Hits tour. Another building that exceeded my high expectations in every way. As with all Kahn buildings, a simple parti with extraordinary development and detailing. A visit to a Kahn building is always a sensual pleasure – light, materials, space – at the same time that is an intellectual satisfaction – your mind is racing as you see the relationships among the parts and the logic of the building drives all the smaller-scale elements.
The Exeter campus is in the standard Academic Georgian mode (we are seeing a lot of that these days), and it fits in beautifully, even though it is much taller, obviously modern, and has no pitched roof. It is a good illustration of Howard Davis’s idea that in order to fit in, a building needs to overlap 30% with its neighbors. (Howard now swears he said 50%, but I think he’s just getting more conservative in his advancing years.)
The colonnade on the ground floor causes the periodical room and other secondary spaces to be set back from the facade. This raises the main body of the library up to the piano nobile, and the voids of the colonnade mirror those of the attic story at the top, while the facade of the main floors is relatively planar.
This also helps the four walls read as brick planes, with the corners eroded and the screenwall extending above the building volume. The corners are the one part of the building I found not entirely convincing – they are inaccessible voids – strangely shaped terraces with locked doors – while continuing the brick across the corner on the diagonal obscures the contrast. Maybe those corner screenwalls could have been wood (but who am I to be telling Lou Kahn anything)?No one walks in the colonnade, except while entering the building. The entry is effectively hidden, not celebrated, as all four facades read exactly the same. References to everyone from Palladio to Wright abound.
The concentric layering of the building drives everything. Right inside the thick exterior wall is the study zone, matching the depth of the colonnade below. Each student has a carrel, four in each bay between piers. The zone is double-height, with carrels on the mezzanines too.
Inside the ring of carrels is the ring of stacks, with the aisles perpendicular to the facades and leading into the center. This area has the highest structural loads, so the massive concrete structure is very evident, with the shifting of the structure towards the corners visible on the main floor.
The next layer is palazzo-style circulation around the central atrium, but still within the stack structural system. The slab is pulled back from the atrium, and the guardrail is cabinetwork, a bookcases with a tilted reference book shelf above, a concept other architects have been imitating ineptly ever since. The central atrium is magnificent. You ascend a curving travertine stair (the only curve in plan in the building) from the ground floor into the center of the building. The concrete walls pierced by enormous circles rise on four sides, leading up to the massive diagonal roof beams. Daylight from the clerestories bounces off these beams and floods the building below. I’m assuming that this concrete box acts as the trussed moment frame for the building, with the shear moving around the circular cut-outs. Structure and light, simple symbolic forms, color and materiality. It is simple and perfect, beautifully-proportioned, and you can sit and look at it endlessly.
The unity of the building is shocking. We’re now so used to buildings which are a collision of elements, where every piece is unto itself, and the intersections among them are simply managed by the architect. Here is a classical building where the complexity is integrated and purified, illustrating what Venturi calls The Responsibility to the Difficult Whole. It is seemingly simple, but everywhere you focus, there is more to see.
Visiting the library is a very easy and pleasant experience; Exeter just asks visitors to sign in, and not photograph the students. Other than that there are no restrictions and you can wander around freely.