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Hilles Library

Brass Tacks

By Jonathan Boorstin

Hilles is the first University library designed to make studying a pleasure. The chairs are comfortable; the tables are attractively arranged in small isolated groups. There is no better place to whisper to a study-date or read casually in carpeted comfort. But the architect clearly hasn't worked in a long time.

At Harvard and Radcliffe there is a large group of people in a hurry, who view pleasant studying as a self-contradictory concept or at least a luxury they can rarely afford. The student whose main interests lie outside of his courses wants to get his studying over with as quickly as possible; the reading-period crowds which fill the present libraries at the end of the term want to cram the most possible studying into their waning days. For these, the wonks of the Loeb, of Carpenter Center, or the classroom, pleasant surroundings are not attractive but distracting.

Two types of space are best for concentrated studying. Ideally, one should be totally alone, buried in books. The depths of Widener are close to perfect, and Kirkland's creaky eighteenth-century library is good on a light-to-medium day. Such facilities can handle only a limited number of students, however, and the next best thing is a room so large that no single person is distracting. In Lamont, a small stall partition is enough to isolate the student from the rest of the room.

Hilles Library groups students by twos and threes. When the library is half empty it is possible to be alone; otherwise the student is inevitably part of a group. He can chat with the person next to him without attracting angry glares, and he senses each move his partners make. Swing-out tables are provided for crowded days, but these are not partitioned and could well prove as unsatisfactory as the center tables in Lamont.

If Hilles Library slights some people, it is still an excellent "study center." Its very weakness for the wonk, its relaxed smoking-room atmosphere, is its greatest strength as the center of an intellectual community at Radcliffe quad. No modern building at Harvard succeeds as well in including the old pleasures of quiet, leisurely contemplation or discussion.

But there are nevertheless a number of aspects in which the building doesn't equal the ambiance of the "medieval cloister" with which the Radcliffe News Office has somewhat unfortunately compared it. While the exterior does, perhaps, evoke the "pattern of light and shadow associated with the contemplative mood of a medieval cloister," it lacks the sense of weighty mass and the play of volumes which is indispensible to the monastic mood. It is one of the few buildings which looks exactly like its cut-out mock-ups or elevation drawings.

Much of the medieval mood depended on lighting. The architect of Hilles, however, has reversed the ancient contract between the dim interior and the brilliantly sunlit yard by over-lighting the building and darkening the windows. There is no reason why Cliffies should sit in medieval obscurity, but the fluorescent lighting is so even and so intense, and the light sources so well concealed behind honeycomb lenses that there is no direction to the light, no modulation, at all.

Objects seem flat and stacked on one another--nothing gives a sense of space or depth. Smoked windows, too, promote the feeling of the unreality of space. They tend to equalize tones while preserving the hues of a sunlit landscape, reducing the view to a colored tapestry hanging on the wall.

In other ways the tinted glass is an unfortunate compromise. It does not eliminate the need for curtains, as the architect apparently hoped. In spite of the overhanging roof, late afternoon sunlight streams into the west side of the library and the west-facing courtyard offices on the upper floors. While this period is not popular among students for work, it is a favorite time for the faculty members, who like to drop by for a few hours after afternoon classes. When the sun hits the offices they are caught in a spotlight and as their rooms heat up they cannot avoid putting on a show for the secretaries across the courtyard. In any case, all the offices need curtains -- why give someone a private office devoid of privacy? True, hangings might break the lines of the building, but here is one case where beauty must give way to utility.

In spite of these drawbacks, Hilles Library is a success. The architect wants it to be a pleasant place, and it is. Like any building it is a compromise between contradictory demands, and in this case the architect has favored those of the leisurely student over those of the hard-driving.

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