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Temples of ignorance: boundaries blur between book collections and the buildings that house them

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As building and as metaphor – from the civic space of the library to Giulio Camillo’s ‘theatre of memory’, architecture plays a crucial part in the structuring and disposition of knowledge 

In the reading room of the Biblioteca Angelica in Rome, librarians climb ladders, skirt around cantilevered walkways, and balance on the edges of shelves to reach the highest-placed books. Every so often, these narrow catwalks give way to doors punctured into the frame of the wooden shelving, upon which books are painted to match the stacks of real books on either side. These painted doors, as well as the three-storey-high shelves themselves, are the work of Nicola Fagioli, who was called to design them as part of a major renovation in 1765 conducted by the celebrated late Baroque architect Luigi Vanvitelli (1700-1773).

The Biblioteca Angelica was founded in 1604 when Augustinian Bishop Angelo Rocca (1546-1620) entrusted his book collection to the convent of Sant’Agostino in Rome on the condition that its contents be made available to the public. With this act, the Biblioteca Angelica became one of the first public libraries in Europe (along with the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in Milan and the Bodleian Library in Oxford). 

‘The most fundamental metaphors that help us to articulate how we think and what we know are those drawn from the field of architecture’

In the 17th century it became fashionable for the wealthy to accumulate private libraries. It was in this climate in 1627 that Gabriel Naudé (1600-1653), librarian to the French Cardinal Jules Mazarin and founder of the Bibliothèque Mazarine (the oldest public library in Paris), published his Advis pour dresser une bibliothèque, translated into English in 1661 as Instructions Concerning Erecting of a Library. The book, intended for all those wishing to set up their own library, advised not only on content, but also on form, addressing the ideal spatial disposition, decoration and arrangement of the collection. Naudé tells of the libraries attributed to the Ancients, paved with serpentine marble and roofs of gold, walls of glass and ivory, and desks of ebony and cedar. He extols the virtues of libraries situated away from noisy streets and facing the east winds, and comments on the best position of windows. All this is combined with deliberations on the right subject headings for dividing a collection. Affirming the library as a safe repository for dangerous ideas, Naudé also reserves a section for the books of the ‘heretics’ so they are placed alongside the teachings of the Catholic Church and all of the authoritative books in Greek and Latin. Advice on which books should be considered essential for inclusion in any library is peppered with advice on their appropriate housing, so that knowledge and its arrangement in space are combined into a single how-to manual.

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Bibliothèque Royale, Étienne-Louis Boullée

Source: Tallandier / Bridgeman Images

1785 interior perspective by Étienne-Louis Boullée of the unrealised Bibliothèque Royale

After it officially opened in 1644, a visit to Naudé’s library became a weekly public event, in which Parisians were invited by the Paris Gazette to present themselves, every Thursday, at the library and feuilleter – ‘leaf through’ – the collection in a public performance of knowledge acquisition. Naudé’s weekly open-house turned reading into a performative act, just as the painted shelves in the Biblioteca Angelica perform a symbolic simulation of knowledge by daubing its books onto the very walls of the building. 

Of course, the notion of a public library in the 17th century did not signify that the library was accessible to absolutely everyone. And nor does it today. Even the most experienced library user can feel trepidation on stepping over the threshold of an unfamiliar library, its spaces inscribed with a series of rituals possibly unknown to a new reader. How to apply for a library card? How and where to deposit one’s bags? Where should one sit? Are pens allowed in the reading rooms? How are books ordered, and where is the pick-up desk? Where is it acceptable to talk, and where must one be silent?The nature of these rituals determines the character of a library, and reframes the pace of time experienced within. These rituals, as with other social customs, must be learned and performed, so that they can facilitate the smooth running of the concentrated community that occupies the library. The library interior effectively becomes civic space.

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Mg 7317

Source: mike sinclair

A giant bookshelf covers the front of the garage of Kansas City Library


Architecture has long had an essential role to play in shaping this civic space, as both its backdrop and facilitator, because in order to be culturally sanctioned, reading and researching – acts we usually consider to be private – must be conducted collectively. That this performative role falls immediately to architecture is a consequence of the long tradition in Western thought of framing the organisation and accessibility of knowledge in architectural terms. The most fundamental metaphors (in both a figurative and literal sense) that help us to articulate how we think and what we know are those drawn from the field of architecture. They invoke order, hierarchies and relationships in building that are readily transferred to thought. 

We speak of foundations and structures of knowledge, of constructing an argument, of entering into an exchange of ideas, of the vicinity or distance of opinions, and of solid or flimsy proof. Generic spatial or material metaphors such as these are rooted in a long tradition of using images of castles, palaces, cloisters or theatres not just as mental frameworks for arranging knowledge, but also for making it readily accessible and available for use. 

Sixteenth-century Italian philosopher Giulio Camillo’s ‘theatre of memory’, held aloft by the seven pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom (Proverbs), is probably the best-known example of such an architecture of the mind. And as the painted doors of the Biblioteca Angelica illustrate, this metaphorical realm is easily transposed onto actual spaces. Étienne-Louis Boullée’s proposal for the Bibliothèque Royale in Paris is another elaborate scenography that equates the building of knowledge with foundations, and ideas with structure: he imagines a monumental vault raised up by tightly packed shelves of books, leading to enlightenment.

‘The digital acts more as a lure than a repellent, facilitating their desire to enter the space of public ritual’

The habit of representing in architectural terms how knowledge is organised and how it is accessed has persisted well into the digital age. Characterisations of the physical space of collected knowledge as a structure with civic dimensions are paralleled by similar conceptions of digital knowledge structures. In his 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, the author William Gibson imagined the Matrix, a virtual universe of data of ‘unthinkable complexity’ – cyberspace – as a city formed of a three-dimensional grid dotted with building blocks. With this Matrix, Gibson was the first to imagine the world of computer data as a structured and inhabitable space accessible by a moving (virtual) body. The Matrix is parallel to, but separate from, the ‘real’ world. Translating for the digital age the long-standing tradition of visualising the structure and storage of information as a form of architecture, Gibson created an image of data that has proven so powerful that it has entirely pervaded popular imagination.

In the three decades since the publication of Neuromancer, the realm of the digital has seen developments well beyond – but often close to – the world imagined by Gibson. These developments pertain to the generation, storage and treatment of data, to the way data and digital processes manifest themselves in the environment, and to the analysis, design, production and management of that same environment. Perhaps most fundamentally, Gibson’s metaphor presaged the accessibility of data on an unprecedented scale. This has resulted in an alluring unfolding of knowledge in the digital realm not dissimilar to the availability of urban space for wandering, exploration and appropriation.

Datatron 3sxga

Datatron 3sxga

Source: © Ryoji Ikeda / photograph: Ryuichi Maruo

Ryoji Ikeda’s 2009 audiovisual installation data.tron. The giant screen is flooded with data, ensuring complete immersion in the work. Each pixel of image is calculated by mathematical principle

Yet these digital developments undoubtedly also pose a serious challenge to the collective dimension that is as inherent in urban space as it is in the analogue predecessors of Gibson’s Matrix. For rather than being the hallucination of an individual (like Gibson’s Matrix), a ‘theatre’ of memory is a collective form, a shared model and, as such, a public space. Interestingly, the necessity of reading’s public character appears to ensure that libraries continue to be buildings, even in the face of doomsday predictions about the phasing out of print matter and the buildings that house it in favour of a brand-new digital universe. The British Library receives more visitors now than ever before in its history – and this is in spite of the digitisation of large parts of its collection. Perhaps this signifies that the digital acts more as a lure than a repellent, familiarising readers with both procedure and content from the safety of home and, in turn, facilitating their desire to enter the space of public ritual. In any case, the demand and desire for spaces that allow us to perform the communality of reading remain undiminished. Perhaps if aspects of the digital have been allowed to enter into architecture – as they have in many contemporary public libraries – then we might also allow the forms and aspirations of civic architecture to enter the space of the digital, in order to ensure its commitment to communally shared knowledge.

This sense of communality is rooted also in the way the architectural setting of the library emphasises that here, one enters into a dialogue with history. The physical library provides a point of reference in time as much as in space. It is the culmination in the present of a collection that is, by definition, rooted in the past. Much like a church, the library invites reading, not just of its ‘content’, but of the constellation of the structure and what it holds. Returning to the Biblioteca Angelica and scanning the reading room, one finds one does not distinguish between the books and the architecture (it is only the painted bookstacks that make one glance twice, suddenly aware of the distinction). But the blurring of the boundaries between a collection and the structure that houses it and makes it accessible does not necessarily require the rarefied or monumental architecture of the Angelica. 

‘Rather than Temples of Knowledge, libraries feel more often like Temples of Ignorance’

Over five floors of a rather unassuming 1950s brick building designed by Charles Holden on Woburn Square in London, sits the once-private book collection of German-Jewish art historian Aby Warburg (1866-1929), which was evacuated in its entirety from Hamburg under the threat of Nazism in 1933. Here, the close relationship between the collection and the building is generated by the idiosyncratic classification system devised by Warburg himself, and the total accessibility of all books directly from the shelves. A banal lift entrance explains this system in terms of ‘Word’, ‘Image’, ‘Action’ and ‘Orientation’, and each term corresponds to a separate floor of the building: on the first floor we find Images of art history; on the second, Words, including language and literature and the transmission of classical texts; on the third, Orientation, including Western and Eastern religions and philosophy; and on the top floor, Action, which includes society and culture, history, science, and what JK Rowling’s Harry Potter might have termed a ‘restricted section’, containing books on magic. Readers must insert themselves gingerly within this labyrinthine universe shaped by the long shelves arranged around the L-shaped floors.

If the library is a civic space and the act of reading a public ritual, then the repetition of this ritual may lend a sense of comfort to what is frequently the terrifying prospect of knowledge collection. After all, rather than Temples of Knowledge, libraries feel more often like Temples of Ignorance. They force us to slow down as we conduct our research, and they show us what we don’t know far more than they affirm what we do. This is one of their strengths. The ready digital availability of knowledge, by contrast, holds the false promise of endless glittering paths opening up to us simultaneously. Yet confronted with this stream of ceaseless information online, we often find it difficult to be discerning and judicious, or to distinguish fact from fiction. As a wave of troubling political events around the world have recently demonstrated, this can have disastrous results. Charting a path through the unknowable requires picking a position, taking a stand, even if this means other possible paths fall by the wayside. 

This piece is featured in the AR December 2018/January 2019 Book issue – click here to purchase your copy today