Field Trip :: Phillips Exeter Library

Image: Pablo Sanchez
By Rand Lemley, BArch Candidate

The campus at Phillips Exeter Academy in Exeter, New Hampshire is probably what you might expect from one of the most well-known and respected private secondary schools in the country. The red brick buildings are “as luxurious as the nation’s top universities,” said the New York Times, and surround a quad with a building at its center which seems quite out of place. Louis Kahn’s Phillips Exeter Academy Library rises as a great mass from the treed lawn, red brick rhythmically punctured by windows outlined in wood. The library feels foreign among the delicate steepled buildings nearby and seems to flaunt its uniqueness by not even resolving its corners.

The exterior of Kahn’s masterpiece -- the library won the AIA’s 25 Year Award in 1997 -- is monolithic and monumental, and though the interior is more delicate, that term is only used relative to the experience of approach. After entry, visitors are met with a rounded concrete staircase that leads to the main atrium. The atrium is the most iconic portion of this building, with four floors of open air before reaching a massive concrete crossbeam used for structure and to reflect light from clerestory windows downward into the space. The walls look like they have been punched by a giant cookie cutter. The concrete walls have four-storey round apertures that allow the book stacks to be seen beyond.

Entry Stairs. Image: Rand Lemley
The building has been organized into three square rings, of which the inner holds the atrium. The exterior ring houses the numerous library carrels in a double height ceiling. In this ring, windows stretch to the ceiling in an effort to provide as much natural light for the space as possible. The carrels are pushed to the outside of the ring to give the students abundant light while studying. Students have a sliding wood panel on the wall to shut out direct light if needed. Where the apex of the corners of the building would be, instead Kahn has placed outdoor patios, which seem like they would only be practical for, at most, half of the school year in New England weather.

Student carrels. Image: Rand Lemley
The middle ring contains the main stacks of the library. The four corners hold small conference rooms at opposite ends and two dissimilar staircases at the other ends. One staircase drives into the corner before splitting to either side, while the other winds around an elevator. Every other floor of stacks looks over the carrels and out into the treed campus, while looking in through the circular apertures into the atrium. Depending on which floor a visitor occupies, this view into the center of the building changes with the curve of the aperture so that at the top, only a sliver of a view is available. This changing personality of the building is such an amazing part of the experience.

Atrium apertures. Image:Rand Lemley
Like much of Kahn’s work, the Exeter library is deceivingly simple on paper, yet the built work manifests a multitude of subtleties that enrich a visitor’s experience. The library is open to the public and hours of availability can be found here.