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Phillips Exeter Academy Library

Louis Kahn

Project Name

Phillips Exeter Academy Library


2-36 Abbot Hall

Project Status


Year Completed



12,321 sq. feet



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Project Description


Meeting in 1964 and 1965, the committee for the Phillip Exeter Academy Library conferred with numerous architects before recommending Louis I. Kahn, FAIA, as the architect, whom they admired "for his sympathetic use of brick and his concern for natural light." Their recommendation was accepted in November 1965.

The final design document, entitled "Proposals for the Library at Phillips Exeter Academy," also had the subtitle of "Program of Requirements for the New Library Recommended by the Library Committee of the Faculty." Published in its final version in June 1966, the document is unusual in its approach, breadth, and conclusions.

Working both with Kahn and with Engelhardt, of Engelhardt and Leggett, educational consultants from Purdy Station, New York, the committee covered every aspect of the building, from philosophy to practical details, with great emphasis on the atmosphere desired both within and without the building. In addition to outlining functional requirements for the library, the committee specified site and exterior design, design details, staff facilities, spatial relationships, and items such as air conditioning, lighting, electrical and mechanical equipment, and security, fire, and water protection.

One of the most striking notes in the document is that "the emphasis should not be on housing books but on housing readers using books. It is therefore desirable to seek an environment that would encourage and insure the pleasure of reading and study." Following this logic, the committee goes on to recommend a variety of choices of seating areas for students and faculty, including both hard and soft chairs, near windows and in interior areas of the building. A requirement for either a garden or a shaded terrace at another level is also specified.

At the end of the document, discussing spatial relationships, the committee stresses "that a reader as he enters be able to sense at once the building's plan." Kahn admirably accomplished this charge. Entering from the main entrances on the ground floor, and climbing the stairs to the first floor, the visitor can immediately perceive the relationship of reference area, circulation desk, and book stacks.

Supervision of student behavior and security of the collections were not given much prominence in the design document, as the Academy's experience with both had been good. This led to a specification that the circulation desk be located on the first floor, rather than on the ground floor directly inside the main entrance, as is traditional in most libraries. Placing the circulation desk closer to the center of library activities ensured that service took priority over supervision.

Embracing the committee's specification on the use of traditional Exeter brick, stone, and slate, Kahn also incorporated extensive use of natural wood (primarily teak and white oak), travertine, and concrete, producing a building that is warm, impressive and highly functional.

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