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The Architect’s Library - A closer look: Audio Lecture by Nicholas Adams, Professor of Art on the Mary Conover Mellon Chair
Audio Lecture by Nicholas Adams, Professor of Art on the Mary Conover Mellon Chair

The foundation of Vassar College required special sensitivity to architecture; the buildings had to provide a suitable setting for a population that typically had not been educated outside of the home. Matthew Vassar (1792–1868) carefully considered two different plans for the campus, one by the architect Thomas A. Tefft (1826–1859) and a second, the one that was executed, by James Renwick (1818–1895). Vassar thought books on art and architecture were also an essential requisite for the education of the new students and to make that possible he procured part of the collection of the Rev. Elias L. Magoon (1810–1886), one of the College’s Charter Trustees. Much of the Magoon collection came from the estate of the English antiquarian John Britton (1771–1857) and was specialized in English and French gothic and gothic revival, the style that Vassar thought could best set the moral tone at the new institution. Magoon had worked as a mason in his early years and architecture was, he thought, the “emblem of the divine on earth.” So in addition to books of architectural importance, Vassar also obtained books with an overt message like Francis Close’s Church Architecture: Scripturally Considered from the Earliest Days to the Present Times (London: Hatchard’s, 1844). The founder could be assured that the collection would provide uplifting lessons.

From this nucleus, the collections grew. Prominent gifts from alumnae/i and friends brought notable works to the College. Matthew Vassar’s own collection contained the works of the landscape designer Andrew Jackson Downing and others who believed in the virtues of modern rural living. Professor Herbert E. Mills (VC faculty 1893–1931) assembled an extraordinary collection of the works of the nineteenth-century British utopian socialist, Robert Owen (1771–1858). Vassar’s fifth president, Henry Noble MacCracken (1915–46), donated an early edition of the works of the Renaissance architect Sebastiano Serlio. Francis Fitz Randolph (1889–1973) donated the volumes by Giovanni Battista Piranesi. Phyllis Lambert (VC ’48) donated a rare folio of the work of John Hejduk, and many other books. In 1935, concurrent with the construction of a new library dedicated to art and architecture (1937), the first at an undergraduate institution, the College obtained a significant grant from the Carnegie Corporation and added the major works of early modernism. The result we see today is an outstanding, well-rounded architectural library with significant holdings from all periods of Western architecture.

This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue celebrate the most notable of these books. Exhibition and catalogue begin from the premise that books have long stood close to the heart of an architect’s knowledge. It was the way architects learned about the buildings of the past or buildings from another country; it was the way new ideas were launched and advanced to the profession and to the public. Every architect had a library for pleasure and for practical use. Large or small, the architect’s library was both a place of ready reference and a place for reflection and meditation. The exhibition imagines an architect allowed to browse our shelves and pluck from them the volumes that might serve as reference material for a timeless architectural office.

Traditionally, architectural studies have been deeply cognizant of the book––no academic field (unless it be religion) is more indebted to a single book than architecture. Interpreting the texts of the ancient writer Vitruvius and the ruins of ancient Rome provided full-time employment for generations of architects. Later, books continued to play a significant role. In the nineteenth century, the great era of mechanical printing, the architectural polemics of the day were carried on through books. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in North America, particularly, pattern books played a pivotal role. The exhibition starts, naturally enough, with the earliest printed works in our collection and ends, roughly, with World War II when the architectural book slowly lost its place as the medium of exchange, overcome by the essay, the color reproduction magazine, and by increased travel opportunities. Today, the role once filled by books and magazines is being occupied by blogs, bundled news services, and accumulation sites like Architizer (cofounded by Benjamin Prosky, VC ’99); with time, the book as a means of communication among architects may yet further lose its status.

We have not limited ourselves to rarities, although many of the volumes we have looked at are exceedingly rare. Whether we have a first or a fifth edition has not been of great moment to us––though we have avoided modern reprints. The questions we have tried to answer are simple ones: Who wrote this work? What is it about? Why is it important? We might like to have the original of James Stuart and Nicholas Revett’s great mid-eighteenth-century book, The Antiquities of Athens (the first volume is published in 1762) but there is much to learn from our octavo mid-nineteenth-century reprint. And while bindings have sometimes been stripped or covered over by overly-zealous librarians, something that would pain a true bibliophile, we recognize that these are books that, in some cases, have lived for more than a century in a working undergraduate library. It is remarkable how many of the books originally provided by Magoon and Vassar are still on the shelves. This is not, therefore, an exhibition limited to the precious. Our working architect needs the sixth edition of Thomas Rickman’s penetrating study of gothic architecture (1862) just as much as the spectacular Piranesi etchings of Roman antiquities.

There are so many ways to appreciate a collection. There are the jewels of publishing and book illustration: the Daniele Barbaro translation of Vitruvius’s De Architectura (1584), the editions of Palladio, Serlio, and Vignola, and the Piranesi editions. The Dugdale-Hollar history of St. Paul’s (1658) before the Great Fire of London in 1666 provides our best record of the transformation of that church by the great English classicist Inigo Jones (1573–1652). Admirable also is Colen Campbell’s Vitruvius Britannicus (1727–25) that advanced Palladianism in the United Kingdom, and the incomparably delicate The House Beautiful by Frank Lloyd Wright (1897).

We might also pull out those books that contain annotations, penciled or ink commentary that prove the interests of subsequent architects. On the title page of Barbaro’s Vitruvius (1584) is written the name “Alessandro Fratta Veronese.” Fratta was a seventeenth-century nobleman from Verona, Italy. He seems to have had some confidence in his own opinion as his occasional contestation of Barbaro in the margins reveals. Another fascinating ownership history is our first edition of A.W.N. Pugin’s neo-gothic polemic, Contrasts (1836). It owner was a certain Robert C. Long Jr. (1810–1849), the architect who introduced the Gothic Revival to that city. The book has contemporary pencil comments in the margins––one of a number that may be by Long. One of our most generous donors was the architect, architectural historian and Vassar faculty member John McAndrew (VC faculty 1931–37). His inscriptions are many. He donated one of the Bauhausbücher, the propaganda series edited by Walter Gropius, that he had obtained, as recorded in an annotation, in October 1929 at Dessau! Richard Neutra’s Wie Baut Amerika (1927) has a dedication to McAndrew signed by Neutra and copies of the early treatises of Le Corbusier are marked as gifts from McAndrew. McAndrew left Vassar to become director of the department of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art, and Vassar obtained the important catalogues of the exhibitions held there.

Every book has a story, but the story it will tell you depends very much on the questions you bring to it. We have called this exhibition “The Architect’s Library” as a way of describing our focus. But architecture is, by its nature, multidisciplinary. What question would you ask? If you are interested in representational techniques, these books range from the orthogonal elevations of the sixteenth century to the complex axonometry of John Hejduk in the twentieth. They tell of changes in the technology of image reproduction, with the development of woodcuts, engravings, aquatints, and photographic collage. Owen Jones’ Grammar of Ornament with its sparkling color lithographs looks as fresh today as it must have more than a hundred years ago. There is a splendid range of typographies to study too, from the refined neoclassical Bodoni used in the eighteenth century to the sans serif used in the pocket volumes of the Bauhaus. Historians of technology and construction can find evidence to interest them in the many builders’ manuals. Students of history can examine the evolution of royal and aristocratic dwellings, attitudes toward the poor, the history of travel and tourism, and many other subjects. We have not been able to display everything in this exhibition.

Nothing so effectively represents both society’s enduring values and daily life’s hasty practices as architecture, and books have been there to record them both. Architects make concrete our routines and rituals, fixing time and space and holding it fast. Equally, nothing more effectively melts these concrete confections or liberates the imagination more than a new image, opening us to new worlds with a lifeline out of the here and now. This exhibition encourages you to experience these notable books for yourself and for your own purposes.

— Nicholas Adams

Note: The Architect’s Library is being held in four locations on campus. In the Special Collections Study Room are some of the first books on architecture held by the College; in the cases in the Main Library are a broad selection of books, from the sixteenth to the twentieth century; in the Art Library are books from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; in the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is a small exhibition devoted to the works of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, his followers and predecessors.

A catalogue of the architectural collection entitled The Architect’ s Library: A Collection of Notable Books on Architecture at Vassar College, edited by Nicholas Adams, is available from The Art Department or Special Collections. The catalogue has contributions by students in Art 370 (Spring 2013), professor Brian Lukacher, assistant professor Tobias Armborst, Art Librarian Thomas Hill, and Vassar graduates Sean Weiss (City University of New York) and Lindsay Cook (Columbia University).