To really appreciate the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, visitors need to look past the marble.
But while tourists gawk at the beauty of the building, plenty of researchers are ready to delve into the library’s holdings when it reopens Sept. 6 after a massive 16-month renovation.
Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill designed the Modernist-style Beinecke, which opened in 1963. It’s a popular stop for visitors to Yale, who marvel at its wafer-thin, marble wall panels (only 1¼ inches thick), framed by Vermont granite. They then seek out two rare permanent exhibits: the library’s 15th-century Gutenberg Bible (one of 21 complete copies of the first Western book printed with moveable type) and John James Audubon’s folio “Birds of America.”
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From the Beinecke Library Announcement:
The building’s architectural features — its exterior grid of granite and Vermont marble panels, six-story glass stack tower, and sculpture garden by sculptor Isamu Noguchi — have been refurbished to fully preserve architect Gordon Bunshaft’s modernist masterpiece, which opened in October 1963. Chicago-based HBRA Architects led the design work with assistance from New Haven-based Newman Architects.
The bulk of the comprehensive renovation project concerned replacing the library’s mechanical infrastructure — its plumbing, electrical, heating, and cooling systems — much of which was original to the building. Machinery in the building’s sub-basement, including room-sized air handlers and chillers, was replaced with state-of-the-art equipment. The building’s security and fire-suppression systems were also upgraded.
The project doubled the number of classrooms in the library from two to four. One of the new classrooms will function as a lab space in which students will have the ability to study the physical structures of books and experiment with inks, papermaking, and printing.
The building closed for renovation in May 2015. In preparation for the project, five miles worth of collection material — the equivalent of about 255,000 books — was relocated to the Yale University Library Shelving Facility. The six-story stack tower was cleared of its 180,000 volumes, which were moved to protected areas within the building.
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How will the once-modern building maintain its balance? Gutenberg Bibles and Shakespeare folios are still sacred cultural icons, but now the printed word itself is beginning to become arcane, and the Beinecke’s 54-year-old cutting edge is having its edge radically resharpened by cultural and technological realities completely independent of its bold beginnings.
Will the $73 million dollar, self-funded renovation bring about productive new technologies? Will it slowly strangle the practical utility of bound books to death into the marble, glass and steel 3D Joseph Albers art piece wrought by Bunshaft in 1963?