Phillip Exeter Academy Library

How do you sketch an architectural masterpiece?

Well first I “shake hands” with the building which means walking around the structure, viewing it from all angles and even walking across the street to find which angle speaks to me.

The building, the Phillip Exeter Academy Library in New Hampshire, was certainly speaking to me. It is on the campus of Exeter Academy (founded in 1681) and is the largest secondary school library in the world. And I wanted to find the best angle that would really showcase the architect, Louis I. Kahn’s lines and form but I had one challenge. It was hard to see the Library through the trees. This is part of the on-the-ground-challenges of field sketching, but I was certainly up for the challenge!

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Louis I. Kahn’s great library at dusk, Exeter, New Hampshire. The interior is every more amazing.

I first became aware of Kahn’s work through the documentary 2003 My Architect: A Son’s Journey, made by his illegitimate son, Nathaniel. I had sketched his West Coast masterpiece, the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California and I wanted to find more examples of his work to add to my sketchbooks.

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The best way to understand a piece of architecture is to sketch it. The more you take the time to notice the more you really “see” it. This is really true of any subject but the best part about architecture, unlike animals, they are very obliging subjects, except for the complexity of the lines and the difficulty of perspective.

The following morning I sketched the library one either side of a coffee and oatmeal break. I sketched it from two different angles and in two different styles. My first sketch was a little more detailed following a pencil sketch while the second I was sketching without a net using micro pens (08 and a brush pen) to do a very loose sketch (featured image). I think I like the latter sketch, it is freer and captured the essence of the library better.

I did say that the interior was more incredible that the brick exterior. I know this because I headed into the space and saw the amazing interior. Unfortunately a librarian also saw me and with an air that said to me that she frequently turns away Louis I. Kahn fans. She told me of the few days of the year you could visit the interior, this was, after all, a school in session and said, “The library has because popular recently, too popular.” I thanked her and got fleeting glimpses of the incredible interior before headed out. Far too fleeting for such an amazing and sketchable space which remained unsketched.

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