Louis Kahn: Phillips Exeter Academy Library

Phillips Exeter Academy Library, Louis Kahn 1965-1972, Exeter, New Hampshire  

Built in 1911, the Davis Library at the Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire  resembled an English country house and inside had four floors that housed 5,000 volumes. As the collection grew over the years, the building was often criticized for its lack of functionality and having its collections closed off to students. In 1950, the head librarian, Rodney Armstrong, was appointed by the academy’s principal to resolve the issue of lack of space, and worked over the next few years with faculty and alumni to fund the construction of a new library. He originally hired O’Connor and Kilham, an architectural firm that had designed libraries for institutions such as Barnard, West Point and Amherst, and together they spent eight years planning a traditional-style building. In 1964, Richard Day became the eleventh principal of the academy, fired the architects, and told Armstrong to charge the library building committee to seek out “the most outstanding contemporary architect in the world” to design an iconic structure (Clark). During this process, Dr. Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine and commissioner of the Salk Institute designed by architect Louis Kahn in La Jolla, California, reached out to Armstrong and insisted Kahn was the man for the job (Toussaint). After months of research and interviews with various willing architects, the Exeter community ultimately granted Kahn the commission in 1965 to build its library. 

The driving force behind Kahn’s design for the building was a search for the essential meaning of “library.” He concerned himself not with meeting a particular program of libraries established before, but rather with conceiving of a design that spoke to the particular needs of the individuals who would use this space. To Kahn, a library was a place with “great tables on which the librarian can put the books” and where readers are “able to take the books and go to the light”(Wiggins).  

The exterior of the nine-story library is made of Exeter bricks,” so-called because the school had used these in the construction of so many structures on campus in the first half of the 20th century that it became a sort of signature material – for example, in Academy Building and Dunbar Hall. Actually, the material was a particular kind of brick produced by the Eno Brick Company famed for its durability, rough texture, and irregular color. Coincidentally, just when Kahn secured the Library commission, Eno went out of business and Phillips bought up its remaining two-million brick supply and the craftsman Kahn continued the school tradition by using 420,000 bricks on the Library’s exterior face and hundreds of thousands more on the interior.  

The load-bearing brick on the outside piers becomes narrower the higher it rises; forms the four exterior walls, and represents only one of three concentric rings of the building’s construction. A reinforced concrete middle ring holds the heavy book stacks, and there is a dramatic atrium most visible to the public that forms the inner ring. There are entrances on all four sides of the building, all preceded by a covered walkway to provide shelter and a sense of transition as one enters. Inside, the user encounters a circular stone staircase and the 70-foot high atrium illuminated by the numerous windows all around the building. Expansive concrete walls with large circular openings expose seven floors of metal bookshelves and invite the user to ascend and engage the library’s collection. Up the stairs is a central hall with a circulation desk that allows both the librarian and students to be close to the books. Other levels include bookshelves containing over 150,000 volumes, computer lab, video and DVD viewing areas, faculty offices, 210 study carrels, and about 450 unique seating types scattered in different parts of the building. The study carrels are one of the library’s most celebrated features – made of a light woodpurposely positioned near windows to attract students from the metal and concrete to the warm light-flooded areas.  

The Phillips Exeter Academy Library – now known as the Class of 1945 Library – was completed in 1971, dedicated in October 21, 1972, and is the largest secondary school library in the world. It is also considered one of Louis Kahn’s masterpieces. In 2005, it was included in the United States Postal Service’s series of postage stamps honoring Masterworks of Modern American Architecture, among other iconic 1960s structures such as Robert Venturi’s Vanna Venturi House and Eero Saarinen’s TWA Terminal. In 1997, the library received the Twenty-Five Year Award from the American Institute of Architects in commemoration of its enduring significance and architectural excellence. Its open, geometric plan, materials, and thoughtful use of classical lines are what make Kahn’s building an effective and timeless piece of architecture. Many agree that the library accomplishes what the architect hoped it would do: orient the reader, scholar, alum, or causal visitor with a light-flooded space that inspires concentration, tranquility, and community.




  • Clark, Susannah. “An Open Book.” Internet Archive. The Exeter Bulletin: Winter 2008.
  • Perez, Adelyn. “AD Classics: Exeter Library (Class of 1945 Library)/Louis Kahn.” ArchDaily.
  • Toussaint, Rachel Grace. “‘Take the Books and Go to the Light’.” Seacoastonline.com.
  •  Wiggins, Glenn E. “Louis I. Kahn: The Library at Phillips Exeter Academy.” Internet Archive.  


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