2020 Arthur Ross Awards-winner Andrew Skurman shares a selection of his favorite libaries
Via Andrew Skurman
April 21, 2020
The Bodleian Library, Oxford
2020 Arthur Ross Award-winner Andrew Skurman shares a selection of favorite libraries and reflects on the role that architecture plays in establishing the rather different environmental effects of each example.
To me, a library can be an expression of two paradoxical dispositions of the human mind: on one hand a library can be an accumulation of objects, coming from the passionate need for ownership, importance, and power, and on the other hand a no-less-passionate desire for communicating, giving, or sharing in order to make a better world. But the people who spend the most time in libraries are scholars and intellectuals who pursue the pure pleasure of knowledge within their area of expertise, which draws them on a daily basis to the temples where the objects of their worship are the books lined in such an orderly manner on the shelves.
When I attended architecture school many decades ago, classicism was practically nonexistent, only taught in history classes. We worshiped the cult of Le Corbusier. The only columns that existed were the very thin “pilotis.” I believed in the International Style of Modernism but I was also fascinated by classical architectural treasures of mesmerizing beauty that appeared before my eyes throughout the Western world. One day I made an about-turn: I decided to decipher the codes of classicism and to make them mine. I studied classical texts for months, day after day. Like all neophytes, I became an absolute purist and a worshiper of classicism. I marveled at the possibility of creating new and beautiful buildings with the codes that had existed for two millennia.
The first architectural book I ever owned was Graphic Standards, given to me by my uncle Joe on my thirteenth birthday. There were a few architects in the family and I knew even then that I would be an architect, and that I would use that book all my life. My library spans from ancient Greece to the neoclassical architecture of the twenty-first century. I own a thousand books and can never stop carefully selecting new ones to purchase. I love them all. Historical precedent is a huge part of my design process. Sometimes I refer to just one book and it sings in my ear like the music of a soloist. Sometimes I refer to a half a dozen books at a time and they sound like a chamber orchestra.
One of the first known collections of documents was found in Nineveh, Assyria: it is a series of clay tablets on which some orderly king probably wished to keep a record of the activities in his palace. The Egyptians, whose taste for documentation is famous, had public libraries of papyri. The frail scrolls were easily damaged but funding ensured that they could be continually replaced. Wealthy Romans liked to have a library next to their living room, much as we do. When elected to public office it was tradition for a politician to make an offer of a gift to the people. Some gave circus games and others gave libraries. At the beginning of our era there were three important public libraries in Rome.
Imagine the frenzy of delight that went through the minds of many people when printing was invented in 1454. Printed material would soon be accessible to the common man. Early libraries contained a fixed number of handwritten manuscripts that were the collections of princes and the privileged. A library of printed books could easily grow.
We worship our libraries and have mourned their loss to fires or natural disasters for centuries. But libraries are also subject to hatred and revenge. Wars have often led to the destruction or the looting of the objects that are the symbol of the pride of the enemy, whether books or artifacts. Nevertheless, generous collectors continue to donate their precious collections to libraries, and writers are still proud when libraries accept their books and the documents of their research. As long as we cherish our libraries they will thrive. Libraries represent an aspect of our humanity that is often overlooked: fraternity.
As with many exceptional places, the Oxford Library was created, or rather, recreated by a generous benefactor. Thomas Bodley was born in 1545 to a family associated with religious reform. The family temporarily relocated to Geneva where Thomas studied during his early years. When his family returned to England after Queen Mary I’s death, Thomas immediately went to study at Oxford, and as soon as he graduated with his BA he started on a grand tour of Europe.
When he returned home he became involved in politics. He held several offices, was an ambassador to the United Provinces, and also served as Elizabeth’s representative in the Council of State until early 1597.
His portraits show a man with a fairly long bearded face, dressed in black with a fashionable white collar, expressing a modest and tidy elegance.
At age 41 he married Ann Cary, the widow of a wealthy Bristol pilchard (inexpensive sardines) merchant in 1586. Her fortune, added to his own inheritance after his father’s death, allowed him to become involved in what was going to be the passion of the rest of his life: the restorations and additions to the dilapidated university library at Oxford University.
A precursor to copyright libraries, the Bodleian library is still entitled to a free copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. Bodley quickly saw that this arrangement would strain the old library's storage space, and commissioned, and financed an extension to the library precinct (now known as Arts End). Additionally, Bodley meticulously laid the foundations for the future financial security of the library, funding it personally until his death.
Bodley was not the true creator of the library. It was founded in 1320 and received a number of prestigious collections. But due to a witch hunt for Catholic books it lost many of its treasures before it was renovated by Thomas Bodley.
The present library was designed by Thomas Holt. A 17th century master carpenter and architect from either Halifax or York, he is notable for designing important architectural works in the Renaissance style built at Oxford. I very much admire the original use of many different sizes of wooden columns in the Doric order in the design of the access to and circulation around the upper levels of the stacks. Today, the Bodleian Library serves as the main research library for Oxford’s prestigious campus.
Sometimes great works of art come from men in great circumstances. The architect of this library is Michelangelo, one of the greatest geniuses of all time: a sculptor, painter and architect. The library is named after the Basilica di San Lorenzo which is located in Florence.
The patron Pope Clement VII was an heir to the fortune of the Medici, the great Italian banking family. Clement was the illegitimate son of Giuliano de Medici, brother of Lorenzo. Interestingly, he spent the first seven years of his life raised by his godfather who was the architect Antonio da Sangallo the Elder. Clement’s papacy took place during a particularly difficult time: the Emperor Charles V of Spain was battling with the Francis I of France and redesigning the map of Europe for centuries to come, the Turks were invading Europe, Luther and Calvin were creating the Reformation, and Henry V of England was splitting with Rome to satisfy his complicated love life.
One can imagine that the conception of the Laurentian library was a soothing escape in Clement’s political turmoils. I imagine him closing the door after the departure of messengers of bad news, and turning to his genius architect Michelangelo to collaborate, shoulder-to-shoulder, on what would be their common masterpiece.
The dynamically articulated double height walls of the vestibule are counterpointed by the fantastical horizontal staircase. The staircase is an explosion of originality that fits perfectly with the fanciful character of the architectural whole. It gives the impression of a grand fountain frozen in time, and consists of three flights of steps: the outer ones are quadrangular shapes, the central ones are convex - and the bottom three steps are completely elliptical.
One climbs the sensuous stair in the double height vestibule and enters the central axis of the single height, perfectly symmetrical, and long rectangular hall of the brightly lit library reading room, which originally had continuous rows of 15 window bays on both sides, defined by pilasters sitting on a chair rail (this design was unfortunately modified in 19th century by an addition adjacent to the reading room), which are articulated as exterior facades.
All of the details of the reading room are unified, down to the inlaid wooden desks designed by Michelangelo, which still retain the small plaques inscribed with the number of manuscripts originally kept on each desk. The library may have been built during the time of printing, but it was designed to show off manuscripts with their rare bindings in an age that still regarded printed books as inferior, cheap alternatives to proper books, copied by hand onto parchment: the incunables. Having been made accessible, the Medici collection was considered complete and was not meant to be watered down by inferior editions or further collecting. As such it was important that the manuscripts were displayed to their best effect. Pope Clement was personally involved with Michelangelo over the design of the lecterns on which his family’s collection of books would be displayed. The beautiful carved wood paneled ceiling mimics the design of the multicolored tiled floor, fabricated using the techniques developed by Della Robbia.
Michelangelo was self taught as an architect. After making his sketches, he would produce a wax or clay model to develop his architectural schemes. Although he never considered himself an architect, he inspired a multitude of followers and his works were precursors of the Mannerist movement.
The Laurentian Library, Florence
What was the secret of the seduction powers of Diane de Poitiers, for whom King Henry II of France restored the Château d’Anet? She was a woman of noble descent and she occupied several important offices in the court of Francis I. As beautiful as she was clever, Diane, the widow of Jean de Brézé, became the future king’s mistress when he was 15 years old and she 34. She kept that position for 25 years until King Henry was killed in a tournament. He died wearing on his armor the colors of Diane—black and white—not those of his wife, Catherine de Medici.
Diane, it is said, understood hygiene in a time when the concept was very remote. Every day she took a bath of rain water and brushed her teeth. But she also had some bad habits: whatever she drank she strained through a gold filter to preserve her youth, and, according to research done on her corpse in modern times, that is what might have killed her at age 66.
The Château d’Anet was built on the estate that Diane had inherited from her late husband Jean de Brézé. The architect, Philibert de l’Orme, was one of the star architects of his time. He studied in Rome where he was close to the circle of the French ambassador Jean du Bellay. Returning to France he was named architect of the king. With his artistic and scholarly nature, de l’Orme was the incarnation of the Renaissance man. He created, among many other buildings, the Château de Fontainebleau.
The union of love and power was symbolically celebrated throughout the chateau in a logo of intertwining monograms: the H for King Henry ll and a lunar crescent symbolizing Diane. Elegant carved raised wood paneling covers all the surfaces of the intimate library, including the ceiling with its magnificent flat rendition of implied coffers. The inlays in black Belgian marble have different versions of the couple’s logo incised in them and were gilded. Above the fireplace is a sensuous nude portrait of Diane at her dressing table (School of Fontainebleau) flanked by hunting bows carved in the wood paneling alluding to Diane as the Huntress.
After the “Dame d’Anet” passed away, her son-in-law Claude de Lorraine, the Duc d’Aumâle built a memorial chapel in her name at the château where her body was placed in 1576, seven years after her death.
Library of the Château d’Anet
Located on the heights of the Janiculum hill, overlooking Rome, the American Academy is housed in a 1914 neoclassical building by McKim, Mead, and White. In 1894, McKim founded the American School of Architecture in Rome. He involved not only artists and architects, but also the great financial geniuses of his time: J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller, and Henry Clay Frick, all contributing to McKim’s enterprise. This evolved into the American Academy in Rome in 1911.
The Arthur and Janet C. Ross Library and Reading Room is a treasured resource for scholars and artists working in Rome and is home to over 160,000 volumes in the fields of classical studies and the history of Italian art and architecture. Each year the Library adds 2,500 volumes to its collection. With its majestic vaulted ceiling and its refined pared down detailing, the Reading Room is a sublime and elegant space.
Many famous artists, poets, and architects including Velasquez, Poussin, Rubens, Adam, and, of course, Lord Byron were influenced by a sojourn to Italy.
As classicists, we like to know that the best of culture is perpetuated. One of the most noble institutions that contributes to this goal is the American Academy in Rome, where scores of young and not-so-young Americans have gone to study humanities, archaeology, and the fine arts. Having never had the time or opportunity before, the author of these lines applied to and was granted permission to study as a visiting artist at the American Academy in Rome a few years ago. It was the most glorious way to spend my 60th birthday. My wife and I lived at the Academy for a month in the company of artists, a few American politicians, and scholars of many fields and nationalities. I did research on the work of Michelangelo in Rome and Florence, which has been a huge inspiration to my subsequent work. Just one anecdote: my Indian clients visited us in Rome and chose the same burnt sienna color of the plaster loggia walls of the McKim building of the Academy for their house in New Delhi.
The American Academy in Rome
Aren’t we all intrigued by the stories of the Marches, Rockefellers, and Onassises of this world? Exceptional men who start modestly and finish on a throne? Few personalities are more colorful than Juan March, father of Bartolomé, who began his brilliant career as a smuggler of tobacco from Morocco and went on to become the wealthiest man in Spain through his partly illegitimate businesses, sometimes involving bribery, and his political influence. He founded a bank in 1926, befriended Franco during the Spanish Civil War, and we are very grateful to him for working closely with the Allies to prevent Spain from joining the Axis during World War II. After the war, he created political parties, newspapers and, of most interest to us, the March Foundation. It is located in a beautiful hotel particulier in Madrid and supports the fine arts, music and the social sciences.
His son Bartolomé March, born with a silver spoon in his mouth, started collecting precious books and manuscripts at a young age. He is the eponym of the library, in which are housed his own collections of rare books. Bartolomé also purchased 18th century furniture and a fantastic and eclectic collection of art, from Murillo to Bacon.
The family owns and operates a few other museums in Spain and works closely with universities there. They now reside between Madrid, Majorca, and (of course) Gstaad. Their collections are reportedly worth over a billion dollars.
In order to shelter his valuable holdings, Bartolomé March added a wing to his mansion which was originally built in the 1920s and is located in one of the most elegant districts of Madrid. It has a large garden and is decorated in an eclectic Empire style. The visual effect of the interior is accented by the play of colors of various wood species including ebony and oak. The steel and bronze of the railings, banisters, and light fixtures hanging on beautiful chains are the “jewelry” of the room. The library is a large rectangular double height room with shelving on two levels. On the main floor of the library the books are stored, as they were in libraries of the 16th and 17th centuries, on shelves placed perpendicular to the perimeter walls. At the center of the room, an eighteenth century globe is displayed. There is a beautiful wood spiral staircase that accesses the stacks on the upper level.
The interior was designed by the Parisian firm Jansen, one of the most prestigious and successful decorating firms of the 20th century. They worked with many royal families and also redesigned parts of the White House during the Kennedy administration. Their work here can be compared to that of their contemporaries, Emilio Terry and Carlos de Beistegui.
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