On Beinecke Library

The Beinecke Library started with Paul Rudolph calling me one afternoon and asking if i would be willing to do a competition. I remember two of the other architects. One was Eero Saarinen, who was doing work at Yale, and the other was Ed Stone. I can't remember the fourth. I believe it was Paul Rudolph's idea of having this competition. He had convinced the Yale University officials that was a good way to select an architect. I told Paul immediately that I would have no part of It, that is not the way to do a good building. I explained that when you do a competition, you're given a two- or three-page program of what the building is to be, and from that, without talking to any of the people who are going to use it, you produce a solution. Say you're lucky and you win the competition. You then start to talk and work with the people who are going to use the building, and you know the design doesn't work because of what you've learned in getting acquainted with the people. So you start making alterations, and the ultimate thing is a compromise. I believe one of the most important things in doing a building is writing a program, and that entails almost living with the people who are going to use the building, finding out how they hope to work in it, not listening to their solutions but listening to their needs. With that data you start a building. Getting a program on a piece of paper is silly.

Rudolf was quite upset. The man that he reported to was the provost at Yale... I asked Paul if he'd mind if I talked directly to the provost, and he said, "No, go ahead," but he was kind of upset... I'd never had any dealings with Yale, and I had assumed that the provost of a place like that would be a pretty scholarly fellow. But when I got him on the phone, he talked direct and simple and I felt very comfortable talking to him. I told him what I told Paul, and when I got through, he said, "Well, you're not the only one who's against this form of selecting an architect. The chairman of the building committee of the Yale trustees was in this morning, and he heard about this competition, and he said, 'If Yale hasn't got brains enough to select an architect, they shouldn't build a building.'" He said it in that language. I said, "Well, I'm glad to hear that." He said, "Why don't you submit your material to me, and we'll see what goes on from there." This chairman of the building committee was a marvelous man. I don't remember his name, but he was a great football player at Yale and was one of the key members of the board of trustees.

Well, we submitted everything, and we didn't hear anything for three or four weeks. One day I got a call from Mr. Lew Crandall of the Fuller Construction Company. Mr. Crandall was, you might say, Mr. Builder in New York at that time. He was the man with the greatest stature and a great, famous construction firm, the Fuller Company. He had done Lever House and he had done the bank at 43rd and Fifth Avenue, so we were friends. He said, "Gordon, I hear you'd like to do the Beinecke Library at Yale." I said, "That's right." I was surprised to hear from him. He said, "Well, the Beinecke brothers are sitting here in my office, and they've been asking me about you. I think you have the job, but don't say anything." A week later I got a call from the provost, who turned out to be a very nice man, telling me I had the job.

So we had the job. At that time Eero was doing a major dormitory at Yale, which is quite well known. Rudolph was doing the Art and Architecture Building. I had my first meeting with the Beineckes, who were charming old men. Their life interest was books, and they gave a great deal of money to the Stirling Library, which was the main library at Yale. The chief librarian was a magnificent man and a charmer. The Beineckes used to give him a million or two every year. They each had collections. One of the Beineckes had a collection of American authors. They had special collections. They were involved in rare books. The Stirling Library was bursting at the seams, with the rare books section in one part of it. The librarian wanted to move that into a separate building so that Stirling could expand. The rare book and manuscript collection at Yale was quite extensive and had to have an important place. So he convinced the Beineckes to go ahead and build a new library. My first meeting was with the two brothers up in their apartment in the Waldorf Towers, and they were charming. As soon as we got the job I started thinking about a rare book library, and there isn't much to know about it. It's a huge vault, a secure place with tremendous humidity and temperature control and stacks of books. In addition to that, there are some offices for curators, a reading room for a few scholars, and some exhibit space for books. The site was where it's built now, diagonally opposite the Stirling. I had a rough concept of a design for this important site before I went to meet the Beineckes. I happen to love books, especially bindings, and I thought it ought to be a treasure house and express that by having a large number of beautiful books displayed behind glass. You have to have a separation between people and books because of humidity control. So, when I went to them, I had the vague idea of making the exhibit aspect of it important, and putting the books not in little cases, but in a great bulk in the building.

Anyhow, when I went to them, we sat down and they said they wanted something like the Houghton Library at Harvard ... It consists of small 17th-century rooms for books of the 17th-century and so forth. This is all rare books, a series of small period rooms, charming thing. At the time, they were talking three million dollars for a building. We sat and talked, and as we talked I started telling them some of my thoughts about the library. They sort of understood it a little bit. Then they wanted to show me what their interests were, and they brought out catalogs of their collections—seven volumes. It was like old guys showing off. It was very pleasant. When I left, at the door they said, "There's one thing we want to make sure you understand. We don't want anything like the Houghton Library."

We worked on it and developed the design that you see. Fuller was doing the estimating and dealing with the Beineckes as far as money, and we finally presented the design to them one morning. We had a model made exactly like it's built now, except the original hope was to make it out of onyx. The structure would be covered with onyx and these big panels would be translucent onyx. The idea came from seeing what I thought was onyx in a Renaissance-type palace in Istanbul. It was designed by an Italian, a late palace. The model lit up, and it was a fabulous thing. It was made out of real onyx shaved down to less than an eighth of an inch... They loved the model. I don't know if we told them the estimate, but I think Fuller did. It was eight million. From then on it was a beautiful affair.

I thought of onyx because books cannot be exposed to direct sunlight. This model looked like a treasure casket. It was held up by four corner columns. The whole pattern of the exterior is a structural truss. The one façade must be a hundred and eighty feet. There are only columns in the corners, so the whole thing is a truss like a bridge. I had the idea of onyx from the very beginning because it admits soft light, but no sunlight. It's like being in a cathedral. In ancient times, they used two materials for small windows, onyx and alabaster. The marble people told me alabaster would disappear in water, that it would dissolve in rain. It couldn't be used.

If I start this story, it will take two hours. What I'd seen this palace—it was not an Arabic palace. It was done by an Italian in the 17th or 18th century for a sultan. At the end of it was the harem, and at the end of that was a huge bathroom, a room about the size of our living room with a slight divider—one for going to the toilet, where they used a hole in the floor, and the other was for bathing. Have you ever seen Egyptian vases—we have one in the living room—tan colored with little white lines? I thought it was translucent onyx. You could call it a tan marble with little white streaks. The floors and walls of this [room] were all that material. At the ceiling there was a dome made out of the material, and instead of pieces of glass, they used thin sheets of onyx and the light came through that.

To cut it short, this was not onyx. This was alabaster. I didn't know that at the time. The model we made used onyx from Peru... Marble and alabaster are quarried in solid blocks. At the time we started getting serious, the Peruvians promised they could do it, but they couldn't do it after all. We wanted big sheets, eight feet by eight feet, and we wanted a lot of them. You can't find enough boulders. The boulders vary in color and all that. In fact, all the white ones are reserved for the Vatican. We spent two years looking for onyx.

At that time, de Gaulle was fighting in Algeria, the Algerians were revolting. I had an idea that onyx came from Carthage. It ended up that we had the American ambassador to France requesting the French government to send troops to clear an area where there was a quarry of onyx. The quarry was owned by a Belgium company. We approached this Belgium company, and they said it was impossible. They had sent a man down to see the condition of the quarry with six soldiers to protect him, and had to leave. There was too much fighting. So we then approached the French government, and they replied they couldn't do anything about it. To try to make that area neutral would be to recognize that the Algerian revolt existed.

Well, we eventually gave up on onyx. I went to France to see about getting thick special glass that would be translucent and interesting in texture. But they couldn't make it either. Then an old man from the Vermont Marble Company, which was about a hundred or two hundred miles away, said he thought there was a strata of white marble that was translucent. We went there, and that's what we got.

The building outside looks kind of cold. I'm really not crazy about the white marble because it's too cold, but we had no choice if we wanted translucency. If I had known that what I was dreaming about was alabaster, and if we could have had proper tests taken to find out if it could stand water, that building would have been a dream. We would have covered the structure with the same thing. These X's would have been covered with a marble. It would be opaque because it would be stuck against it, and it would be all in one material. I doubt if it would stand up to the weather of the United States. If it did, it would be wonderful.

I think perhaps this building will be associated with me more than any other building I have designed, and it's going to be there a long time. I don't know if that means it's great, but in the long haul a building becomes important by the judgment of future generations.

The thing about the Beinecke that's interesting is the outside is cold and severe, and you walk inside and it's very warm and rich. When the sun pours in, it's quite nice with the rich books. Everybody loves to go into a great space. That's what makes people love to see cathedrals. That's what makes the National Gallery that [I.M.] Pei did—the great room inside doesn't do a thing, but it's very dramatic and a great open space. That's what the public likes. However, I didn't think of the public. Our space isn't that size and it's got a big bulk in the middle. But if they're handsomely done, great spaces give an emotional experience to people. I've had ladies write me about the Beinecke, saying that they just shivered when they saw it.

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