Cloistered by a protective shell of stone, the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library is one of the world’s foremost collections of rare manuscripts. Opened in 1963, the library is renowned for its translucent marble façade and the world-renowned glass book tower sheltered within – a dramatic arrangement resulting from the particular requirements of a repository for literary artifacts. This unique design, very much in the Modernist lineage but in contrast to the revivalist styles of the rest of Yale’s campus, has only become appreciated thanks to the passage of time; the same bold choices which are now celebrated were once seen as a cause for contempt and outrage.
Yale’s collection of rare manuscripts began in 1701, when ten ministers met to found a college in Connecticut Colony. The books they donated were the first of many gifts to follow over the next three centuries, including the cryptic Voynich Manuscript and one of the twenty one original Gutenberg Bibles known to exist, which was given to the university in 1926. Originally, the rare books collection was stored on special shelving in Dwight Hall, which served as a library until the late 19th Century; in the 1930’s, it was moved to the Rare Book Room in the Sterling Library. A gift from Frederick and Edwin Beinecke, a pair of Yale alumni, allowed the university to construct a purpose-built library building for its growing collection in the 1960’s.[2,3]
Paul Rudolph, the then Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, decided to hold a competition between four firms for the privilege to design the Beinecke Library. One of the architects he invited to participate was Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), who refused. His reasoning, as he explained to Yale’s provost, convinced the university to award him the job:
“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.”
A primary concern in the design of the library was the control of light. Sufficient ambient lighting was required to enable the building to serve as a place for study and reading; however, exposure to sunlight could damage the carefully-preserved texts of the collection. Bunshaft’s compromise was to construct the façade of panes of marble which, at a thickness of only 1¼” (roughly 3 cm), allow for some light to diffuse into the interior without damaging the collection. From the outside, the gray-veined white marble appears cold and impenetrable, but from within, the sunlight causes the stone to glow with a surprising level of warmth.
The marble panels are placed into a gridded frame of light gray Vermont granite. A system of prefabricated steel trusses is hidden within the granite, transferring the weight of the façade to the four enormous concrete piers that stand at each of its four corners. This structural system allows for the ground floor lobby to be almost entirely glazed, giving those in the plaza before the library a glimpse of the treasure trove hidden within the box.
Visitors to the Beinecke Library enter by means of a revolving glass door at ground level. Two stairways to either side lead to the mezzanine level; directly ahead, meanwhile, stands the hidden heart of the library. Ensconced safely within the marble shell is a glass tower six stories tall, filled with stacks of rare books. Bound in leather and, in some cases, even gilded, there are roughly 180,000 tomes within the glass shaft, set proudly on display even despite only being accessible to library staff.[8,9]
Underneath the library’s plaza are two additional floors containing the rest of the collection, which comprises 320,000 volumes and several million manuscripts. These subterranean levels also house the working areas of the library, including a reading room, offices, and classrooms. Natural light enters the basement levels through a sunken court reminiscent of a cloister scriptorium. The courtyard features a sculpture garden designed by sculptor Isami Noguchi, who exclusively used white marble in deference to the geometry of the library itself. Three sculpted forms occupy the plantless garden: a pyramid representing the geometry of the earth and past, a disc representing the sun, and a cube resembling chance via the rolling of dice.
Upon its completion in 1963, the Beinecke Library received open scorn from Yale’s librarians. Against the backdrop of existing Neoclassical and Collegiate Gothic buildings, the imposingly Modernist box was unflatteringly deemed a “floating folly.” Assistant Librarian Donald Wing called it “an architect’s dream and our future nightmare”; the library’s director, meanwhile, marked up postcards of the building to point out its design flaws. In the fifty years since the library’s opening, however, these protests have largely faded away, and the Beinecke Library has become a celebrated element of Yale’s campus.
 Rierden, Andi. “Modern Pantheon Saves History’s Words.” The New York Times, July 29, 1990. [access].
 Perez, Adelyn. “AD Classics: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library / Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill.” ArchDaily. June 28, 2010. [access].
 “Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut (building).” Celsus: A Library Architecture Resource. Accessed April 26, 2017. [access].
 “Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.” Amusing Planet. Accessed April 27, 2017. [access].
 “About the Building.” About the Building | Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Accessed April 27, 2017. [access].
 “About the Building.”
 Klein, Christopher. “Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library turns 50.” The Boston Globe, April 7, 2013. [access].
 “Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.”
- Architects: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
- Location: 121 Wall St, New Haven, CT 06511, United States
- Architect In Charge: Gordon Bunshaft
- Client: Yale University
- References: Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill
- Area: 125262.0 ft2
- Project Year: 1963
- Photographs: Ezra Stoller/Esto
Images in this article were provided by Esto Photographics as part of a partnership between the photo agency and ArchDaily. They are all, unless otherwise stated, under the protection of copyright.