I always find Alberto Manguel an inspiring proponent of libraries, and he’s just written an op-ed essay on “Reinventing the Library” in today’s New York TimesHe has always had a bad case of “Bibliothecaphilia,” which happens to be the title of a very engaging exhibition at MassMoCA in North Adams, installed for the entire year.  But I can’t resist quoting the conclusion to his case for libraries as “the encompassing symbol of an entire society, a numinous place where readers could learn the art of attention” —

“If libraries are to be not only repositories of society’s memory and symbols of its identity but the heart of larger social centers, then these changes must be made consciously from an intellectually strong institution that recognizes its exemplary role, and teaches us what books can do: show us our responsibilities toward one another, help us question our values and undermine our prejudices, lend us courage and ingenuity to continue to live together, and give us illuminating words that might allow us to imagine better times.”

So if you have any doubts about the future of libraries, keep this in mind as you assess what Williams College has just created.

Wait, here’s another hot-off-the-press defense of libraries, from the New York Review of Books.  The key sentence: “The library remains a sacred place for secular folk.”  Amen to that.

Axis to access

I’m not sure of the exchange rate between words and pictures – it can’t really be a thousand to one, can it? – but in talking about the new library quadrangle at Williams, pictures seem more telling than any words I can muster.  The site is a sight, and can hardly be imagined by anyone who hasn’t set foot on it in the past two months.  I visited with a camera twice at the peak of foliage season, and put together this visual essay.

I’ve heard a number of people credited with the idea, but for at least the fifty years since Greylock Quad was built, campus planners have suggested an east-west pedestrian axis other than Route 2.  Now it’s a reality, and beyond what the designers could have hoped.  It seems to bring the mountains right onto the campus in an unexpected way.

The axis reaches its destination, both literal and metaphorical, in the access services atrium that joins old Stetson to new Sawyer, and proceeds into the atrium of the new library, implicitly continuing through four floors of glazing into the landscape beyond, toward the hairpin turn on the Mohawk Trail in the distance.

I’ll go around and into the old/new library on my next illustrated tour, but here I concentrate on a pictorial description of the privileged position the library now occupies on the Williams campus.  Click through for more photographs.

Access east 3

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Returning a book to the college library last week, I was surprised to see the whole new quadrangle — where the grass has come in, but with no further landscaping yet — being floored over, and a large stage erected in front of Stetson Hall.  The occasion was the kick-off for “Teach It Forward,” the new capital campaign for Williams, but the disruption made me all the more interested in the eventual design for the quad.  Are the trees in the rendering at the top of this blog still in the plan?

As luck would have it, I didn’t have to wait long for the answer.  The next day, the local public access station Willinet streamed video of an illustrated talk by Rita Coppola-Wallace, the College’s Executive Director of Design and Construction, about all the projects in the pipeline (also covered in Williams Record).  When I requested further information about the quad in particular, she kindly directed me to the Current Projects page of the Facilities website.

As well as the overall site plan for the quad, the website offers renderings and descriptions of planned features and amenities.  It’s reassuring to learn that the current big bare space represents only Phase One of the landscaping project, with Phase Two to be completed next summer.  Besides landscaping that will include a “rain garden/bio-swale” at the north edge of the quad, the plans call for new granite steps from Chapin Hall plaza down to the quad, and large marble blocks for sitting and gathering, presumably much like those just installed at the main entrance to Stetson Hall.

In the interim, students are being encouraged to walk natural pathways across the open grass, with the optimal routes being paved over next summer.  This is characteristic of the openness to student input that has marked the entire Stetson-Sawyer project, from details of program to choice of library furniture.

I’ve been making my way through eight years of entries in the Sawyer Library construction news blog, which is a fascinating progression in itself, but also informative about the transformation from original program to architect’s plan to actual building.

Another useful link I haven’t included here yet is the Sawyer Library page “About the Building,” which in turn links to Professor Michael Lewis’ entertaining illustrated lecture on the history of libraries on campus.  I would also direct you to the Williams Magazine feature, “A Library in Full,” which includes a nicely-done five-minute video on the new library (also available here) and a slide show.

This Columbus Day I’ll be taking pictures for my illustrated tour of the new library, showing off its spectacular views of peak fall foliage in the Purple Valley.  And by Thanksgiving, I will have posted, at long last, the concluding chapter to this story of Eph’s Libraries.

Open space

Returning students are in for shock.  For forty years, the center of the Williams College campus was occupied by a brick box plopped down from some midwestern corporate park.  Where that building was, now is open space, and the most amazing thing, besides the views opened up, is how big it is — what a volume has been displaced!

And how bare it is, as of late August.  Obviously, it will be much more welcoming when the landscaping is done, and work proceeds apace.

I’ve resumed conversations with the College’s Director of Libraries David Pilachowski, and recently accompanied a tour he was giving for the library building committee of another school, who were swooning with desire over what Williams has created.

I must say that on first visit to the New Sawyer Library, my reaction to the building, both exterior and interior, was that it was all too much, too much of everything — materials, colors, shapes, textures, spaces, seating options.  But on each succeeding visit, I appreciate more of all that the building is.  The planners and architects labored to answer every need, and do it in exuberant and playful style.

I’ll be back with more updates, as the landscaping is completed, and the students return.  And as I talk with librarians about their experience of the building.  Once all construction is finished, I’ll take you with me on an illustrated tour of the whole project.

The past week I’ve been keeping track of the demolition of the old Sawyer Library, and you can too on the College’s construction blog.  A few days ago I gaped at a huge excavator at work with a shear attachment, and channeling my inner three-year-old, imagined a dinosaur with giant metal jaws.  And yesterday there were six excavators on the site, hard at it simultaneously, outfitted with buckets and grasping teeth, some salvaging rebar and other metal, while others scooped and crushed rubble to fill in the foundation hole.  The unmaking of the old was as dramatic as the making of the new.

Most impressive was the opening up of the view toward the west façade of Stetson Hall, and the culmination of a new campus axis, first suggested by architect and planner Ben Thompson back in the Sixties.  With the removal of the boxy brick obstruction of the Harry Weese & Associates building, an open quadrangle will create a public space as satisfying as the new water feature at the Clark Art Institute, where I work.  And then the rendering at the top of this page will finally take shape in actuality.

Thus I’ll be prompted to put the finishing touches on this website, just as the finishing touches are placed on the grand project of the New Sawyer Library.  The library itself has been in operation for almost a year, and by now has a familiar, lived-in feeling.  A magnificent construction built for use, designed to be all things to all people, it is already fulfilling its purposes, and will soon achieve its ultimate shape.  I look forward to drawing comparisons between the work of Bohlen Cywinski Jackson on the fulfillment of this plan for a new campus focal point, and Tadao Ando’s creation of the same for the Clark, achieving similar aims in antithetical styles.  It’s been a stunning year for architecture in our remote corner of Massachusetts, and I intend to celebrate it.

New library links

As the latest of Eph’s Libraries enters its final phase of construction, for opening in September, the College has posted on YouTube an informative and entertaining illustrated lecture on the the history of libraries at Williams by Professor Michael J. Lewis, Faison-Pierson-Stoddard Professor of Art History.  Meanwhile, many plans, photos, and video can be found at the New Sawyer library website.

New Sawyer gets go-ahead

Last month the new President of Williams College, Adam Falk, announced to the college community that construction of the new Sawyer Library, on hold for two years because of the economic climate, will begin in April 2011, for completion in 2014.  Head Librarian David Pilachowski celebrated the resumption of the project, and the Williams Record reported the story.  I hope to follow up with interviews with both officials, but in the meantime, here’s an answer to any who might ask “Why a new library when books are on their way out?”:

“Our humble and astonishing inheritance is the world and only the world, whose existence we constantly test (and prove) by telling ourselves stories about it.  The suspicion that we and the world are made in the image of something wonderfully and chaotically coherent far beyond our grasp, of which we are also part; the hope that our exploded cosmos and we, its stardust, have an ineffable meaning and method; the delight in retelling the old metaphor of the world as a book we read and in which we too are read; the conceit that what we can know of reality is an imagination made of language – all this finds its material manifestation in that self-portrait we call a library.  And our love for it, and our lust to see more of it, and our pride in its accomplishments as we wander through shelves full of books that promise more and more delights, are among our happiest, most moving proofs of possessing, in spite of all the miseries and sorrows of this life, a more intimate, consolatory, perhaps redeeming faith in a method behind the madness than any jealous deity could wish upon us.” — Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night


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