Beinecke Library, Yale University

This remarkable jewel-box is the Beinecke Library for Rare Books on the campus of Yale University.  It is as close to a perfectly conceived and executed building as I have seen, certainly one of the greatest work of American architecture.

Completed in 1963, it is designed by Gordon Bunshaft of SOM.  The building sits in its own plaza and stands in stark contrast with its neo-classical neighbors.  The building is really like two buildings in one - an outer shell of a concrete lattice infilled with thinly sliced Vermont marble panels, and an inner structure of a perfect, glass and steel Miesian box housing the books.  The ground level is glass and set far beneath the overhanging structure above.  Because there are no conventional windows or doors easily visible, the building has a kind of stark, scaleless monumentality.  However, once inside, you can not help but be struck by the sensuous beauty of sunlight glowing through the marble and the warm visual texture of five stories of ancient volumes.

architect Gordon Bunshaft (image from SOM)

architect Gordon Bunshaft (image from SOM)

The interior is really an other-worldly place, part Zen-like museum, part Dr. No evil lair.  And like a great athlete, the various elements of the design, the materials and lighting, scale and proportion, all make it look so easy.  It is with some time and carefully observation, that you begin to see that the magnificent glass box is not simply set in the center of the concrete and marble exoskeleton.  Rather, it is set off center, placed closer to the back wall, leaving larger spaces in the front and sides, spaces large enough that you can stand back and have enough room to view the tower of precious books.

The concrete and marble lattice is the same inside and out, in a sense it creates four walls like a courtyard, in which the book laden temple is displayed. The books are clearly there not just for research and storage - they are arranged not in conventional rows, but placed spines-out on all four sides of the tower.  That makes this a library like few others - books as objects of veneration, not valued so much for their content as their aura and authenticity.  

my sketch from 1993

my sketch from 1993

Bunshaft's design perfectly fulfills this program.  The necessity for a window-less building lead to this remarkable feat of imagination.  The exterior marble panels glow and are rendered almost fragile by the passing of clouds across their luminous surface.  By paradoxical contrast, the rare books, fragile and precious, appear as a single, solid tower, a monument to Western knowledge and the money and power of the University and the Beinecke family.

I really love this building.  Beyond appreciating its architecture as a great achievement, I am in awe of this place.  It is certainly beautiful and finely functional.  And it is made to look so simple, so effortless.  But there is something more here that moves me, something that likely strikes the same chord in me that has always made being an architect feel like more my fate than my career decision.  There is something here that reminds me that there are buildings that make up large-A Architecture, something timeless and well beyond the creation of merely beautiful and eye-catching buildings.  Something close to perfection.

my sketch from 2016

my sketch from 2016