The Art Library’s latest exhibit, “The Architect’s Library,” offers a glimpse into the minds and inspiration of world-renowned architects.
“The Architect’s Library” is a collection of books that have helped architects with their designs since as early as the Renaissance. The exhibit is currently on display at the Art Library, the Main Library, Special Collections and the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. Well-established architects published the rare books featured with the intention of aiding and inspiring other architects with their designs. Countless famous architects used these books over the years. The collection contains book by authors such as Sebastino Serlio, Italian Mannerist; architect Giovanni Battista Piranesi, an artist famous for his architectural etchings of Roman antiquities; and John Hejduk, Czech-American modern architect.
Along with those who donated the books to the school, Art History Professor Nicholas Adams brought the exhibit to Vassar.
The collection is especially beneficial for Vassar Art and Art History majors. For students interested in pursuing an art career or those who would like additional research in the field of architecture, Vassar’s art library is a renowned and historical resource, and this exhibit exemplifies the school’s commitment to giving art history students reference materials. Art History major Ryder O’Dell ’14 attested to the value of these materials. He said, “The art reference library that we have, I believe, was the first undergrad art and architecture library in the country; it’s a really great resource for art history majors.”
The collection not only serves the college as a reference for art but also as a historical reference. Thomas Hill, the Librarian of Art at Vassar College, gave some insight to the historical relevance of the exhibit, “There’s no one narrative or thesis to be taken away from an exhibit like this. That’s the beauty of a good exhibition really, that objects both in themselves and collected together are multivalent,” he said. “They can tell us all kinds of stories. In this case as I’ve said one of these stories is about the foundation of Vassar College and of the cultural conditions and influences that have engaged us over the years.”
Apart from its aesthetic value, the exhibit is entirely educational. O’Dell continued, “But besides the institutional history, there are histories of intellectual and social culture, of the migration of ideas, of the built environment, of book production, typography, illustration and printmaking, etc., that these books can recount.”
“The Architect’s Library” is also deeply rooted within the history of Vassar specifically. Hill gave details regarding the connection between the exhibit and Vassar. He said, “It’s a collection that was hidden in a collection, so to speak. Pieces of it have been noticed by many of us who have worked with it over the years. It’s the kind of notice we all take I think sometimes when we come across an unusual old book in the library stacks and wonder how it got there and what purpose it originally served.”
He continued, “The collection [Adams] and his students brought to the surface tells about the importance of the study of architectural history in the curriculum at Vassar from our very beginnings, and how this view of education continued to be supported over the years as the collection was nurtured and enlarged upon. It is also important, of course, because we have so many stunning examples of great books about architecture.”
Hill also explained why students who are interested in books would love “The Architect’s Library.” He said, “I always enjoy looking at book exhibits because, as a reader, they force me to look at books as objects. And many of the narratives I mention have to do with what the books have to tell as objects, not as texts.”
Just as literary books have the power to transform their readers’ reality, architectural books work as vehicles to transport readers into the worlds featured in the texts.
Hill went on to reference a book by Serlio, a Renaissance architect whose book is featured in the exhibit, to describe the way the books of “The Architect’s Library” bring the past to life. “When you look at an old book, for instance, Sebastiano Serlio’s ‘Libro primo d’architettvra’ (Venice, 1566), the book as a physical thing does present you with the actual past—it makes the past present and obviates historical time in a real way,” Hill said. “And that’s what I call going to the source—as astonishing, when you think about it, as it would be if you were to actually find Signore Serlio seated on a stool in front of the case to tell you about the book. Exhibits like this remind us that the past isn’t a dreamland impossibly unavailable to us, but that it is still in many ways present and actual, and asking for our attention.”
Even though the exhibit is about art history, it is easy for students of all majors and concentrations to find a point of interest in it.
Potential Psychology major Essie Asan ‘17 explained the wide-ranging appeal of the collection. She said, “I don’t plan on pursuing an Art History degree, but I still believe that visiting ‘The Architect’s Library’ is a valuable experience. Even without any background in the art field, the books can give students of any major an interesting look into the world of architecture and history.”
The exhibit is currently featured in the Art Library, the Main Library, Special Collections and the Loeb Art Center.