We recently shared a few thoughts and memories of the library, collected from friends and neighbors, about the role libraries have played and continue to play in our lives. The draw of the library is foremost, the books. It is a democratic place to learn, escape, and relax. For many of us, the library conjures childhood memories of our local facility, perhaps a favorite librarian, and certainly the stack of literary treasures we inevitably brought home with us. German photographer Candida Höfer’s series of color plates, Libraries, captures the architecture and physical structures that hold those treasures and the art of those sacred halls.
This impressive volume contains 137 color plates of Höfer’s work, including the British Library in London, the Escorial in Spain, the Whitney Museum and the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York, the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, the Villa Medici in Rome, and the Hamburg University Library, among many others. The images are mostly devoid of people, drawing the eye and mind not to the functionality of a space, but to the colors and aesthetic of a building with a single purpose.
An introductory essay by philosopher and novelist Umberto Eco ponders the possibility of a utopia library he calls (borrowed from Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel) a universe. Both Eco and Borges’ universes are described in detail, with spiral stairs reaching above and below, uniformly sized books, each with the same number of pages, and written in mysterious languages. The dream is beautiful, as are the rooms Höfer has photographed.
They are grand and voluminous, with ceilings designed to inspire awe. As your eye passes over each image, catching intricate details, you can’t help but feel the stillness and solitude and the invitation to escape into a book, or to create a universe of your own.
The Biblioteca Cappuccini Redentore (above) in Venice, Italy, is stunning in its starkness, the empty shelves representing infinite possibilities. What books might come to live here?
The many libraries Höfer recorded range from the ornate and royal to the simple and modern; the warm and well lit to basement caves under fluorescents. We could wax poetic all day over the personalities of each space, which one we’d like to occupy with a mystery novel, and which with a history tome. Or which one we might runaway to, with a sleeping bag and a toothbrush – all we need to survive. These images offer only a glimpse of Höfer’s collection. It is a book best absorbed in earnest and quiet.
Libraries, by Candida Höfer, is published by Schirmer/Mosel.
P.S.: Click on images to enlarge them.