Beinecke Library: a straightforward modern building or more?

(only available in English)

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An essay written in pairs
Part of a dual fold research
(theoretical and analytical)


Looking at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library makes one wonder if there is more to this modern library than meets the eye. And if so, what is it that makes this library special? What are the characteristics that contribute to this speciality? The analysis will thus attempt to answer the question if the Beinecke library is a straightforward modern building or more.

As Monestiroli (2005a, p. 73) described in his book, “a construction system is not directly architecture; for it to become architecture, it must establish a dual relationship: with the building typology on the one hand, and with the complex issue of decoration on the other. These three notions – type, construction and decoration – are three inseparable notions in architectural design.” Even though it is agreed with Monestiroli that a design is not an isolated entity, it is believed that there are more notions (geometry, space, representation, form and function) that contribute to the overall design of a building and that each of these notions should contribute to enhance the character of the building for it to become something more than meets the eye. (Monestiroli, 2005a) Each of these notions will therefore be used as principals to guide the research.


In accordance with Quatremère it is assumed that “the word type does not present so much an image of something to be copied or imitated exactly as the idea of an element which should itself serve as a rule for the model.” “Such an ideal type, is only an abstraction […], a standard by which the individual work of art could be valued”. (Argan, 1963, p. 564-565) This implies that if the library is something more than only a library it contains characteristics, or an abstraction of the characteristics found in a different type than that of the library.

What is clear at first glance of the building’s exterior, is that it is located at a square. The square and the building itself form an integral architectural ensemble that is surrounded by older traditional buildings. Broadly speaking, this resembles a likeness with the concept of religious buildings on a domain bounded from the outside world, by the Greeks called Temenos. (Unwin, 2003)

One is thus very much inclined to assume that the typology of the volume both above and below ground can be viewed as a modern temple dedicated to books and manuscripts. Here temple is seen as “a building used for [‘]religious[’] worship”, (Cambridge Dictionary, 2019) “a place devoted to a special purpose”. (Merriam-Webster, n.d.

Comparing the library with a classical example of a temple (Weber, 2011) it can be seen that even though a temple contains ornamentations and a tympanum (Cartwright, 2013) and the library does not, there are many elements that are indeed based on the principals of the temple. (images 3.1. and 3.2) The refinement and subtlety of all these elements contribute to a sacral and excluded ambiance both on the inside and outside of both buildings.

Since many of the themes in the building and its close environment have parities to a temple, it can thus assumed that Beinecke’s type resembles an abstraction of a (Greek) temple and is thus, in terms of typology, more than a straightforward modern building.

Floorplans with comparison intermediate space Beinecke and Partenon, and comparison of cella Beinecke and Partenon


The same applies to the way Bunshaft treats the columns which is similar to traditional architecture; for free standing columns he uses circles (columns) and for columns implemented into a wall, he uses squares (pilasters). Besides this, columns that play an important role for the architecture design concept are shown off. (image 3.3.)

Furthermore, looking at the placement of these columns it can be seen that Bunshaft does the exact opposite of what Durand advises about composition: “In private buildings of the least importance, to limit the expense, the number of columns must be reduced, and they must be spaced as widely as possible; whereas in the most considerable public buildings, for greater durability, they must be as densely arrayed as possible.” (Durand 1802, p.119) In the more public part of the building, the ground floor, four columns are placed at the corners of the building and thus creating a reduced amount of columns, compared to the more private area upstairs where, if we see the vertical elements of the Vierendeel truss as columns, they are more densely positioned. Bunshaft thus choses to let the requirements of each function guide the architectural design instead of, as Durand writes, the economical and durability aspects. The Vierendeel truss, which provides the stability in the building, will be more elaborately discussed hereafter in representation.

Finally, looking at the hierarchy of the elements used to construct the façade of the building, the marble squared structure can be seen as the most dominant element. The rectangular volume is zoomed at the top and bottom with a straight and simple layer. This makes the borders of the volume very clear and strong. One could argue that this is the same layering as in the temple, where the colonnade is bordered by the Crepidoma (Cartwright, 2013) and the roof structure. However, a clear connection to a deeper meaning of the building is not present looking only to the construction of the building. Nevertheless, the construction does contribute to the search for the disconnection between outside- and inside world and helps create an inwards orientated building with a focus on reading.

Floorplans with architectural structure and functional structure of Beinecke, and with grid alignment and size determination of Beinecke


The geometry, similarly, does not immediately hint at a deeper meaning for the modern Beinecke. Within the context, the administration building, where the board of the university is located, is the only building incorporated within the ensemble of the library. From the alignment it be reasoned that the sizes within the ensemble are based on this building thus suggestion that the building also reacts to its environment on a geometrical scale. (image 3.4.) Together this creates a grid system of 2,67×2,67 meter on which the entire building and domain are designed. Even in the corner of the marble facade, the centre lines dictate the form; a sum of the two elements coming together. (image 3.5.)

Next, the main grid is divided into a grid half the size. This smaller grid is used to organise minor things in the interior, the art in the courtyard and the spacing around the book tower for example. All of this could hint at that the main function of the building is to protect its books and the secondary, but not less important function, is to showcase the books, with the protective layer positioned on the main grid and the interior on the smaller grid.

Finally, if we look at Vitruvius and his definition on proportion, we see that although an exact equality between the two notions cannot be determined, there is a link between proportion and symmetry. Bunshaft also uses both symmetry and proportions in his building. However, where Vitruvius believes that “Symmetry is the proper mutual agreement between the members of the building, and the relation, in accordance with a certain part selected as standard, of the separate parts to the figure of the building as a whole” (Padovan 1999, p.162) Bunshaft sometimes deliberately choses to place elements asymmetrically in their context highlighting their presence. (image 3.6.) Nevertheless, Vitruvius also writes that “Without symmetry and proportion there can be no principles in the design of any temple; that is, if there is no precise relation between its members, as in the case of those of a well-shaped man.” (Padovan 1999, p.162) and Bunshaft does relate all its members, as mentioned above, via one system, namely the grid system.

Corner detail with construction based on grid and facade of Beinecke and floorplan with offset book tower from center of Beinecke


Several thresholds are created when entering the building to emphasise one’s entrance to this ensemble and building. For the exterior, the main space of the ensemble is the square, the space that creates a clear and formal division between the context and the library. This formal border is created by a wall of half height, which is opened at mayor entry points. The important entry points form the connection with the campus and the main administration buildings. To reach the library, one must leave the main routes intentionally as was also often the case for historic temples.

The transparent first floor with darkened glass is the second threshold. Its forms the physical border between in- and outside. After entering, one is clearly confronted with the open stairwell, that connects the public spaces to each other. One floor up is the area located where multiple lounge corners for reading are provided. One floor down is the main reading room, meeting rooms and small classrooms. Beside the stairwell, the book tower is a guidance through the building and the element that represents the ‘Cella’, as described before. The ambiance around this element contributes to the sense of the space which corresponds to the believe of Schmarsow that “our sense of space (Raumgefuhl) and spatial imagination (Raumphantasie) press toward spatial creation (Raumgestaltung); […].” (Schmarsow, 1893, p. 287) This can for example be seen by the little but clearly open space above the tower that keeps it very separate from other parts and therefore more exclusive.

Overall it can thus be argued that the notion of space and the way the architectural design deals with this notion, by among other creating borders between spaces and certain ambiances within spaces, clearly hints that Beinecke is more than a modern library.


For the notion of representation, it was already briefly touched upon that the more public and private areas in the building correspond to the level of openness of these areas. However, its main act of representation can be found in the construction. It can be noted that “Schelling asserts that architecture is not directly equivalent to construction, but a representation of the act of construction. What distinguishes construction and architecture, therefore, is this representation in stable, intelligible forms.” (Monestiroli, 2005b, p. 78) This would imply that the ornaments on a temple, for example the Triglyphs on a Greek temple as the Parthenon (Cartwright, 2013) represent the construction and so does the cladding on the library. The granite cladding’s form and position represents the Vierendeel truss located behind it. The truss’ shape is the logical outcome of the evolution of a moment fixed knot in a steal structure and highlights the forces in a stable way. (image 3.7.)

Detail with visibility of structure in facade cladding

Furthermore, the homogeneous expression of the granite cladding and its representative construction can also be seen as the mask (the cladding) and its skull (the construction). As Schumacher (1988, p.2) writes: “The term facade, as applied to architecture in this century, has taken on the same negative connotation that it has when applied to people. Modern-movement theory shunned the facade and gave us the skeleton or the skull” Even though Beinecke is seen as a modern building Bunshaft has chosen to not shun the façade and show us the mask instead of the skull. This can be seen as an act to protect what is inside. This argument is further reinforced by the fact that on the ‘protective’ inside the book tower does shun its façade and shows its skull with a clearly visible structure.

This would not at first sight indicate that there is more to this library than one expects. However, the attention to the representative function of the elements mentioned above, the enormous height of the main volume above ground, the pontifical placement of the book tower within this large open space and the smaller more densely positioned areas for the supporting functions reminds of the layout and functioning of a monastery, a devoted place, a temple.

Form and function

The final notion to be analysed is the relation between form and function of Beinecke. According to Mies, “knowing the function does not mean taking note of its external appearance, it means grasping its most general value; in other words, knowledge of function defines a ‘value’, which is then assigned a concise form that will make it clear.” (Monestiroli, 2005a, p. 41) It is strongly believed that this agrees with how the Beinecke library has been designed. In the main volume an inverted space bounded from the outside is created. The ambiance has a strong link to focus on the function, but due to its height and open layout it could also serve other functions.

Beside the main volume, all other spaces have a disconnection between form and function. The basement area has a form that could be used in for example an office. To provide an example, the reading room has light from the south, which is not ideal for reading. Looking at famous libraries in Paris, the light is evenly distributed across the room, creating a smooth glow. Those spaces are more specifically created for reading. Nevertheless, if the complete set of spaces is analysed in relation to the aim of this research it seems that the design methodology in this building had its focus on the abstract idea of the book temple instead of only its function as a library. Looking at the notion of form and function in that regards shows that the complete library does have a relation between the form and its function.


Conclusive drawing of the similarity between the Partenon (a temple) and Beinecke

“In other words, the type explained the reason behind architecture, which remained constant throughout history, reinforcing through its continuity the permanence of the first moment in which the connection between the form and the nature of the object was understood and the concept of type was formulated.” (Moneo, 1978, p. 28) Type has also influenced in its totality the design of the Beinecke library. Besides type, all the other notions described in this report have shown their contribution in the creation of the typology. As Quatremère believed the typology was also the reason behind the architecture as is the case with the library. It is strongly believed that Bunshaft, a man influenced by the ideas of both the ancients and the moderns, intended to create not only a library but something more, a place of holiness, of worship and of the more divine. (image 3.8.) This is done by creating borders between the outside world and the ensemble, by creating a noteworthy entrance to the ‘sanctuary’ and actual place of worship itself, the building, by highlighting the construction and creating a simple system that unites all architectural objects, by creating an interplay between high and low, dark and light to design a specific atmosphere for each space and finally also by detailing the building to such extent that it follows the rules even on the smallest scale. Creating such a building hints at the idea of creating a place of gathering, one where the saying ‘knowledge is power’ becomes reality and that makes people experience the character of the books, a modern version of a temple where the books, objects carrying the ‘holy’ knowledge which should be kept and transferred, are not only protected but also put on a pedestal.

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(APA 7th edition)

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