To Louis Kahn, every building is a temple. The library is a learning temple. In a prestigious school like Phillips Exeter Academy, Kahn imagined the students to be humbled by the sense of arrival into the a sacred place like the library. He made choices like a transition from a discreet entranceway into an enormous central hall, large reinforced concrete walls in the atrium follows the perfect proportion generally known as the golden ratio, and the integration of titan-scale circular openings on concrete walls which referenced Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. Kahn would always work under natural light and was often known to be meticulous in the design of light in his architecture. In order to take full advantage of day light within the small building, carrels are placed at the end of every book shelf at the periphery near the windows and students have the ability to adjust the teakwood openings to determine how much light comes in, great for studying during the daytime.
All these decisions made in the design of this architecture might seem reasonable back at the time where the project was commissioned because there weren’t as many books and the number of students at the time as it has nowadays. The program of the building remained for the last half of the century but the need has changed drastically. All the commissioner wanted was an extravagant modern library designed by the best architect in the nation without planning ahead the future of the building. In my opinion Louis Kahn may have overly concentrated on visual formality in which the design has its tradeoffs. With the carrels at the periphery of the library, the students perhaps may be able to take advantage of the natural light but in fact, most students study after class during the evening hours when artificial light has a higher demand, which makes natural light seem less important. That is why in a traditional library, book shelves are at the periphery of the building, and carrel spaces are centralized, making it easier for collaborative learning, shared access of facilities such as wireless internet as well as saving energy from using less artificial light. An atrium seven stories tall could be too pretentious for a library and especially in New England weather it’s not very energy efficient to heat or cool the entire space within. Circular openings are commonly used as a Kahn symbol whereas in a library where quietness is foremost important might be compromised by the existence of the widely open frames.
Although the library has its weaknesses considering the school’s development today. It was truly marvelous during its time. The spacious atrium as well as the naturally lit carrels are designed to alleviate the often clusterphobic feelings associated with libraries. Back in 1971 when it opened it had 60,000 volumes whereas now it is at the building’s capacity of 250,000 volumes. Thankfully because of the load bearing walls on the facade as well as reinforced concrete interior the library holds infinite possibilities in its future renovation and addition. Kahn’s idea of containing a cube within a cube within another cube is seemingly continuous with the possibility of adding another cube in the heart of the atrium. In doing so the originally purpose of the architecture can be seen as not only timeless but also ever-growing.