In defense of the ugly library
    Photo by Lauren Virnoche / North by Northwestern.

    I don’t remember much about the generic, winding tour I took when I first set foot on campus, but I do remember scoffing at what appeared to be a hybrid of the sidewalk and Megatron from Transformers: What was this behemoth of cement bulging out of the ground?

    I asked the tour guide when Northwestern would finish the construction on this building. Surprisingly, he looked thrilled that he could share his snappy, pre-packaged remark, following the “clever joke + historical trivia + personal story = aww” formula: Basically, during the cementophilic 1960s, the library’s staggered anatomy was built to look like books being pulled from a shelf. Though it can be intimidating, he said, he had great memories studying late with his friends, and soon I would grow to love it too.

    I hated the library from the start, but it only got worse when classes began. Bullying the library is a pastime at Northwestern. I found out that its architecture is classified as Brutalist—from the French for raw concrete, béton brut. For all of Fall Quarter, I avoided its single entrance like it was contagious with something nasty.

    But by Reading Week, overrun with papers and exams, I conformed. Now I couldn’t admit to having never set foot in the library before. There was no excuse for being perplexed by the turnstiles. It was too late to ask how to escape the gloomy basement, so I wandered for 30 minutes until I found elevators that whisked me to the fifth floor. And then I saw the library in a new light.

    The Evanston campus is often criticized for its cluttered architecture. Much of the campus looks far older than it is, thanks to the neo-Gothic work of James Gamble Rogers, who was hired as the university’s architect in 1921 and takes credit for Deering Library, Scott Hall and Lutkin Hall. His work contrasts with the ‘60s Brutalist architecture fashioned by the university’s most famous builder, the concrete-obsessed Walter Netsch, who designed Regenstein Hall, the clock tower and the library.

    Maybe the contrast suits us. The buildings on campus range from the ancient-looking structures typical of an elite college to the modern and limit-pushing—an eclecticism that’s mirrored in the student body itself. “What really gives Northwestern’s campus its coherence is the landscaping,” former associate provost, Jeremy Wilson, said in a 2001 issue of Northwestern magazine. And that’s a beautiful thing: a mess of buildings dissimilar in age and architecture but tied together by a common landscape.

    The university library is sort of like a maze, with its three, five-floored towers welded to the neo-Gothic, ivy-covered Deering Library next door. Netsch intended to devote each tower to a different discipline: humanities, social sciences and history. Today each one houses a variety of collections but retains its unique charm.

    Who knew there was a beanbag nook in Core? A seminar room plastered with maps of the worlds? A hidden lounge between the main library and Deering? When I walk by the shelves, it’s like being caught inside the graph of a complex multivariable function. Everything moves away from me with elegance and symmetry—it’s a circular, graceful library.


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