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University Library

Libraries are special places. Nowadays they are often places of entertainment, but my favourite ones are those that are redolent of the traditions of knowledge.
When I was a child I had a troubled relationship with libraries. I had read anything I found remotely interesting in the local branch library’s children’s section well before I could legitimately enter the sacred adult section. The librarians seemed very concerned about the possible corrupting influence on younger minds, so when my mother checked out adult history books, the fearsome librarian behind the counter required that she confirm that the books were certainly not for me. Although the fines were in the pennies, librarians made it abundantly clear that the crime of returning a book even a day late was equivalent to the depredations of a serial axe murderer. Strangely, some years later, after the branch had closed, I had the entire place as my personal office while I worked on some development projects. I suppressed a giggle every day when I walked in – I had the keys, but alas the books were gone, including those titillating books I was not supposed to see as a child.
Years later, I still haunt libraries, but my standards have been raised by one of my favourite places: University Library at Cambridge, the largest of 114 libraries in the university. That is about one library for every 175 students.
I enjoy the entry process, up the impressive front steps, into the foyer, and to the card scanning machine. I am sometimes greeted with a cheery “How nice to see you, Dr. Ellingham. How are the children?” (Okay, so one of the librarians’ son went to school with my son). In 2016, to celebrate the library’s 600th year, the entry featured a banner listing members of the university who have won Nobel Prizes (all 96 of them) and once, as I was entering, a librarian suggested that there was enough room on it for my name. I suppose they said that frequently, but it still inspires. Walking up the stairs, one passes a wall listing significant donors, back into the middle ages. After moving through that process one feels an obligation to produce something significant.
Near the entry is an exhibition area in which some of the delights are on display – the exhibitions change frequently. The prize is perhaps an original copy of Isaac Newton’s landmark Principia of 1687 – with numerous notes. Can you imagine scribbling on such a treasure? But those scrawls are Newton’s own notes. A more recent exhibition was of non-book relics: I remain puzzled about the significance of the one simply labelled “Lithuanian Boot.”
My field rarely involves historical manuscripts but the University Library contains many of them, sometimes on display in the exhibition centre. I was once told by a history student that she had requested a book, expecting the newly issued paperback; instead, to her surprise, she found the library would be happy to provide her with the original mediaeval manuscript.
The earliest reference to the library was in 1416 and it initially grew slowly, largely due to the expense of hand-written manuscripts. In 1500 there were about 600 books, a number that fell substantially through the English Reformation. But with serious printing and gifts from benefactors over the centuries, the collection grew. In 1710 University Library was designated as a copyright library, so it contains many items not usually found in university collections. To test the completeness of the Library’s collection, I asked a librarian if they had a maintenance manual for a 1955 Humber Super Snipe (an extinct British car). The response was “probably,” but that it might take them a couple of days to find it.
The main part of the current building was designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880-1960) and built between 1931 and 1934. With its 12-storey tower and ponderous red brick construction, it might be compared to some of Scott’s other notable works, including the Bankside Power Station in London (now the Tate Modern), Liverpool Cathedral and even the traditional red English telephone box, which Scott also designed. Scott’s mix of tradition and modernism may not please everyone, but he did manage to catch what the library is really about.
As materials have poured in, the library is continuously expanding and being rebuilt to reflect new technologies. After a flirtation with the modern, more recent additions have been done in the same materials and forms as the original. One can sense a strong rejection of the post-war modernism that created some of the Library’s less esteemed spaces. Now, the historic spaces and processes are treasured. Even though electronics have long-since replaced the rows of huge catalogue volumes, into which generations of librarians pasted slips of paper, in the most recent renovations those books are preserved – and available. A new lounge area is furnished in an interwar style – I had to check to confirm that the furniture was new, not just hauled out of the basement after decades of storage. Somehow the managers integrate tradition with the most recent innovation, making the user treasure and respect the building and the system, and be inspired by them.
The result is a total experience, not just a stark functionalist place to do research. One can hole up in a nicely panelled corner, with a stack of books, sometimes overseen by portraits of past notables (and the odd painting of a battleship). After numbers of years, I still sometimes find new bits of the library. Sometimes I think of the labyrinthine library in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, but I have never encountered any sinister monks (just the regular friendly kind), although they might well be lurking somewhere. While it is usually quicker to use the stairs, for five-floor trips up, the elevators are an interesting experience. Few buildings in the developed west retain elevators with doors you have to open and close manually.
The typical Canadian university library is a territory of the young, something that makes anyone over perhaps 35 feel almost antediluvian. But not here. Antique academics prowl the stacks and ply the workstations.
The expansion and change leads to an apparent degree of crisis – so much material is now being generated and has to be stored and accessible. While much of it lurks in the extensive basements (hopefully well waterproofed), available on request, the open shelving clearly shows the stress. The stacks can seem endless, with army-green shelving marching into the distance, now often interspersed with plywood units in every bit of available space.
The mushrooming collection leads to some intriguing experiences. I was looking for a recently published book and had the call number, so I went to the appropriate location, and followed the numbers up. I came to a note: “For higher numbers look on the tables by the windows” (many of the former study tables are now full of books). I went to the table and followed the numbers along, then encountered another note: “For higher numbers look under the tables.” So there I was, in one of the great libraries of the world, rooting around on my hands and knees. But I was not alone, and perhaps that individual under the tables with me, also looking for some elusive text, has already won his Nobel prize.
I am not the only one to esteem Cambridge University Library. Germaine Greer offered: “For those of us who have the right to enjoy it, the library is heaven on earth.” 

My thanks to the University Library staff for providing information and allowing photographs to be taken, as well as for their many years of careful stewardship of one of my favourite places.
Sources:
Cambridge University Library Website: www.lib.cam.ac.uk Accessed 2 April, 2017.
Greer, Germaine (2010) My favourite library is being transformed into a beacon of naffness, The Guardian, 4 January, 2010. www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2010/jan/04/germaine-greer-cambridge-university-library. Accessed 2 April, 2017.
 
 

Editorial

Image: Hotel Marques Riscal Rioja. Acrylic-on-canvas painting by Angelo de Castro, architect & illustrator, principal of Angelo de Castro Ltda, Lisbon, Portugal.

One of our essayists confessed that colour in architecture was one of the toughest topics he had ever tackled – a fact that took him by surprise, since colour and architecture are both familiar and accessible topics. But there the similarities, apparently, end.
One problem is that architecture and colour live in separate worlds – one is real and tangible, the other perceptual. You can touch architecture and move around in it, but colour is abstract – a trick that relies on the ability of real materials to reflect and refract light. Le Corbusier claimed that architecture consists of “the play of masses brought together in light.” But if you turn out the lights, architecture still exists. Colour, on the other hand, doesn’t.
Another problem is that architecture and colour have had a troubled relationship over the millennia. Ancient and classical civilizations used colour on their buildings with abandon, imagining that as the buildings aged, and the colour wore off, future generations would replace it. They didn’t. Centuries later, when these magnificent temples, monuments and sculptures were “rediscovered,” they were admired for their complete lack of colour. And this became the standard for classical beauty in Western cultures: permanent, pristine and colourless.
Over the years, colourful architecture has flourished from time to time, but at the beginning of the 20th century, it was virtually outlawed by austere new arts movements. Hoping to resurrect the glory of classical architecture, without the distractions of decoration, architecture was to be colourless once again.
In recent years, new technologies have made it possible to use colour in buildings in many exciting ways, but old beliefs are hard to dislodge. So how DO you write about the relationship between colour and architecture, if they can’t even agree to get along? Our feature includes four essays that look at the subject from different angles. “Colour Notes” considers the use of colour in modern culture, with architecture as a notable exception. “Colour Blind” recounts architecture’s “colourful” and not-so-colourful history. “The Tie” looks at the importance of clothing choices. “Why not Colour” examines the amazing history of colour research and the possible reasons for the continuing reticence to use colour in architecture.
Will colour and architecture finally reach an amicable settlement? We look forward to hearing and reading your comments

The Tie

I had just arrived for a Right Angle meeting, after a client presentation, and was placing my coat on the back of the chair, when Ian Ellingham suddenly asked me if I had worn the tie I was wearing to the presentation. He immediately took a picture of my tie and followed up with, “We’re doing our next issue on Colour. Tell me why you wore wear that tie.” It was a quick and surprising welcome and, caught off guard, I wasn’t sure how to respond at first.
I was not wearing what might be considered the architect’s uniform – a traditional black suit. Non-colour has been on-trend within the profession since the days of Eero Saarinen and Mies van der Rohe. White, grey and black have dominated not only the buildings we design, but also the fashion choices we make.
On this particular day I was wearing a deep blue suit and a bold tie with colours layered in horizontal bands, broken by vertical ribbing. Its geometric design has inspired others to refer to it as, “Alex’s architectural tie.” But I wasn’t wearing it with that in mind.
Colour has been a part of my architectural toolkit since my university days. For me, it was a means of imparting vitality to spaces. During my final thesis year at the University of Toronto, I was inspired by Christopher Alexander’s factor analysis and was using the Engineering Department’s computers to examine the relationship of the factors affecting a community. My test case was Toronto’s West End. The output revealed a pattern of scattered, modest incursions throughout the community. The most significant was a renovation of the West End YMCA that included supergraphics across the building façade. With a small budget and youth volunteers, supergraphics and colour had been used to brighten the dull green spaces, and signal to the community that the Y was modernizing and becoming more welcoming.
Over the years that followed, my firm has focused on a non-institutional approach to public buildings. Stark Temporale Architects’ first awards were for outdoor pools based on the theme of, “a day at the lake,” involving a range of new amenities and building forms. An integral part of the concept was place-making, which included symbols, colour, signage and graphics. Later as a sole practitioner, and then as principal of my own firm, the place-making approach became an integral part of the firm’s renovation of educational buildings.
For a period of time, I was involved in rejuvenating school institutional buildings, sometimes with paint alone. It seems inconceivable today, but at that time, institutional green was  rampant – used everywhere, applied to all surfaces, reducing contrast and absorbing the natural or artificial light within the space. The impact of this light green shade was to render the spaces staid, which Google tells me is synonymous with, “sedate, respectable, quiet, serious, serious-minded, steady, conventional, traditional, unadventurous, unenterprising, set in one’s way.” Institutional green was all of these things and more. For spaces intended to educate, stimulate, inspire joy and be vibrant, light green did not appear to be an effective solution.

Colour Comments

A few months ago, we were all treated to the iPhone XR television commercial, “Color Flood,” a stirring mini-adventure, as well as another creative example of the sales potential of colour, music and movement. (See Catching a Heffalump, on this site.) The ad was not unlike most music videos, TV ads, super-hero movie franchises, etc., in its inventive use of colour. What set this ad apart was that it didn’t just depend on colour; it was about colour.
Colour is a pressing topic these days, and this is particularly true in architecture, because the potential for its use is almost limitless. In the not-too-distant past, we relied solely on paint to brighten our built environment. But today, construction, covering and surfacing materials are available in a complete spectrum of bright durable colours. Why shouldn’t our environments be as cheery as our television ads?
One problem is that architecture and colour live in separate worlds – one is real and tangible, the other perceptual. You can touch architecture and move around in it, but colour is abstract – a trick that relies on the ability of real materials to reflect and refract light. Le Corbusier claimed that architecture consists of “the play of masses brought together in light.” But if you turn off the lights, architecture still exists. Colour doesn’t.
Another problem is that architecture and colour have had a troubled relationship over the millennia. Ancient and classical civilizations used colour on their buildings with abandon, imagining that as the buildings aged, and the colour wore off, future generations would replace it. They didn’t. Centuries later, when these magnificent temples, monuments and sculptures were “rediscovered,” they were admired for their tasteful lack of colour. And this became the standard for classical beauty in Western cultures: permanent, pristine and colourless.
Over the years, colourful architecture has flourished from time to time, but at the beginning of the 20th century, it was virtually outlawed by austere new arts movements. Hoping to resurrect the glory of classical architecture, without the distractions of decoration, architecture was to be colourless once again.
In recent years, although new technologies have made it possible to use colour in buildings in many exciting ways, old beliefs are hard to dislodge. For many architects and builders, the old ways are still the best: “classical” whites and greys (the colours of stone), sympathetic earth tones (the colours of the soil) and organic hues (the colours of wood).
In our Summer 2019 issue, we present three essays that look at the subject from different angles. “Colour Notes” considers the use of colour in modern culture, with architecture as a notable exception. “Colour Blind” recounts architecture’s colourful and not-so-colourful history. “Why not Colour?” examines the amazing history of colour research and the possible reasons for the continuing reticence to use colour in architecture.
Find our Summer 2019 issue here

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Angela McDougall
Project Manager – Naylor Association Solutions

amcdougall@naylor.com

Latest Issue of The Journal: Summer 2019

Vol. 2, No. 4 – COLOUR
For centuries, architecture and urban design have been characterized by austere colour schemes
(Anything else would have been tawdry)
Has this epoch finally come to an end?

AVAILABLE HERE!

Next in The Journal

Vol. 2, No. 4 – FALL 2019
DRAWING
An examination of drawing as a narrative, drawing as a record of experiences and drawing as a means of discovery

Vol. 3, No. 1 – WINTER 2019/20
AUTHENTICITY
Highlighting the changing definitions of “authenticity” as it applies to architecture

Submission deadline: October 4, 2019

Vol. 3, No. 2 – SPRING 2020
WATER
We look at the many uses of water as a building material, a plumbing necessity, an aesthetic device, and the source of countless insurance claims.

Submission deadline: December 20, 2019

Contact Us

For submissions and inquiries:
editor@therightanglejournal.com

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