The Breathing Library

author Wolfgang Tschapeller
project Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, Cornell University, AAP – Architecture, Art, and Planning, Ithaca, New York, USA
written by Caroline O’Donnell, John Zissovici

Architecture’s identity crisis after the turn of the millennium was not unreasonable, given the dissolution of the physicality of the objects that it typically housed. What was the role of a bank, when money became digital? What was the role of a cinema when we could stream films to our television screens? And what was the role of the library when books no longer needed to be physical objects?

In Cornell’s Mui Ho Fine Arts Library, Tschapeller did not, as the phrase goes, let a good crisis go to waste. The moment of doubt in the future of the physicality of books was, it would seem, taken as an opportunity to evolve architecture in tandem with the evolving programme; to make both the object and its future dissolution legible in the design.

Long before the architect was selected, a Cornell library taskforce had undertaken an extensive investigation of library use-patterns, both inside and outside the institution, and in particular, the role and availability of images in printed and digital books.  At that time, the Fine Arts Library was the most used library in terms of volumes held, supporting well-documented trends beyond Cornell, revealing that the physicality of the book holds more significance in the visual disciplines than in others. Overall, while the popularity of e-books is certainly increasing, the production of physical books is not declining, (at least not yet) and one might argue that, even if they do, the physicality of the objects that remain will become even more important.

Besides the value of the object itself, the productive act of browsing is the leading argument for the necessity of physical books, as well as the availability of images, which are sometimes omitted from online books. At the same time, both of the above are evolving into digital realms, and the physical book exists in a more and more digital world.