Gordon Bunshaft: the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New Haven

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, Gordon Bunshaft (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, LLP), 1960, New Haven, Connecticut


Yale University’s collection of rare books and manuscripts began in 1701, when a group of ministers founded the college. Originally, the collection was stored on special shelving in Dwight Hall, which served as the library until the late 19th century. In 1930, it was moved across campus to a Rare Book Room dedicated to the collection in the new Sterling Memorial Library. Three decades on, the collection had grown to an unmanageable – if magisterial – 130,000 catalogued volumes and had neared its allotted capacity. In the 1960s, brothers and Yale alumni Edwin and Frederick Beinecke, who had already donated several works to the collection, provided the funds to finance a library building entirely dedicated to rare books and manuscripts. The then-Chairman of the Yale Department of Architecture, noted architect Paul Rudolph (whose students include Norman Foster and Richard Rogers) held a competition between four firms for the commission to design the Beinecke Library. One of the architects asked to participate was Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM). He refused the invitation, however,  and explained in a letter to the Chairman Rudolph that he believed one of the important parts of designing a building is collaborating with and understanding the needs of the people who will use the space; winning a competition for a design created before this process would lead to compromise and poor results. This reasoning convinced the university and the Chairman that he was the person for the job.

The main theme in the design of the Beinecke Library was the same as it is for so many structures – the management of light. Here was a requirement of a congenial public space for reading and study, but with a  particular imperative of preservation. Bunshaft’s solution was to construct a windowless facade out of veined marble panels, each three centimeters thick and arranged in a gridded frame of Vermont granite. From the exterior, the rectangular building appears as a cold, impenetrable mass; however, from within, the thin stone walls diffuse daylight and create a warm, glowing effect throughout the space. Temperature and humidity controls were also implemented to ensure protection of the papers and books. The weight of the building is supported by four concrete piers, one at each corner, which allows the exterior of the first floor to be almost entirely enclosed in glass. Visitors enter the building by a revolving glass door on the ground level, and are directly confronted by the library’s iconic six-story tower of rare books. The glass tower alone holds more than 180,000 volumes and is accessible only by the library staff. On either side of the lobby are stairways that lead above to a large exhibition space on a mezzanine level, and below to two subterranean floors that house the rest of the library’s collection. The lower levels contain also a reading room, classrooms, and offices. They are naturally illuminated by a sunken courtyard that features a sculpture garden designed by artist Isamu Noguchi. The sculptures are of geometric forms–made exclusively of white marble to match the library’s façade–that represent the earth, the sun, and the nature of chance. The overall dimensions are a proportional 1:2:3 (height: width: length). And the outside almost completely obscures the jewel-like interior of the book housings, to say nothing of furnishings by iconic designers Marcel Breuer and Florence Knoll.

The Beinecke Library is one of the largest buildings in the world devoted entirely to rare books and manuscripts, with capacity for accommodating 180,000 volumes above ground and an estimated half a million items of various formats 600,000 volumes in its lower levels. It is home to a great variety, including a Gutenberg Bible, the Voynich Manuscript; works by Daniel Defoe, Jonathan Edwards, and John Ruskin; seminal documents in ornithology and cartography; and the complete papers of the playwright Thornton Wilder. Situated in a plaza surrounded by Neoclassical and Gothic style buildings, the Modernist structure was not well-received by the university’s community when it opened in 1963. The library staff regularly criticized its incongruence with the rest of Yale’s buildings, one librarian calling it a “floating folly,” and another drawing on visitor postcards to point out its design flaws. With time, however, the building has become celebrated by students, faculty, and the public as a landmark of Yale University and an innovative masterpiece by a remarkable American architect from the storied firm of SOM.




“About the Building.” Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. Accessed December 14, 2018. https://beinecke.library.yale.edu/about/about-building.

Fiederer, Luke. “AD Classics: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library / Gordon Bunshaft (SOM).” ArchDaily. August 01, 2017. Accessed December 14, 2018. https://www. archdaily.com/65987/ad-classics-beinecke-rare-book-and-manuscript-library-skidmore-owings-merrill.

Klein, Christopher. “Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library Turns 50.” The Boston Globe. April 07, 2013. Accessed December 14, 2018. https://www.bostonglobe.com/ lifestyle/travel/2013/04/06/yale-beinecke-rare-book-and-manuscript-library-turns/2Xq1xcahwCc8rNBrouTEqM/story.html?utm_medium=website&utm_source=archdaily.com.

Taylor, Merrily E. The Yale University Library 1701-1978: its History, Collections, and Present Organization. New Haven: Yale University Library, 1978. Accessed December 14, 2018. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beinecke_Rare_Book_%26_Manuscript_Library#cite_note-Taylor-13.

“Yale University – Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.” SOM. Accessed December 14, 2018. https://www.som.com/projects/yale_university__beinecke_rare_book_and_ manuscript_library.


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