Let there be Light

I get a Carleton alumni magazine a few times a year, and in the latest issue, I was really happy to read the MacOdrum Library is getting a much needed facelift.

MacOdrum Library. Don’t be fooled – building in picture looks nicer than in reality

This library is so ugly it never once crossed my mind to take a picture of it in the four years I was there, and I take pictures of a lot of things. So ugly that a prof even went on a rant one class about how uninspiring it is, and how can students be expected to respect a space that doesn’t respect itself? The only good thing about that library was its hours–it stayed open pretty late, but I’ve heard that has since changed.

libraryAs the article says, everybody hates the tiny, jail cell windows. Ask anyone who’s ever studied there. And unless you have a super long torso, there’s no chance you’re even going to get a view of the quad because the windows are way too high. Did the architects think students would be less distracted if they didn’t have a window to look out of?

The renovation plan, which aims to be completed by the end of 2013, is to push out the front by six meters and to cover those four floors with one large window. The space between the current wall and the new wall will be a socializing/group study space. This expansion also seeks to rectify the growing problem of a lack of study carrels by increasing its seats from 1200 to 2000.

The future MacOdrum Library. SO. MUCH. BETTER.

The future MacOdrum Library. SO. MUCH. BETTER.

Too bad it didn’t look like that when I was there. You can imagine my relief when I arrived at the University of Victoria for grad school and was greeted with this:

William C Mearns Library. What a difference!
Photograph by Vince Klassen. © 2008 UVic Communications

That entire glass wing is called the Students Galleria and it has extremely comfortable chairs. I would sit with my books and my laptop and bathe in the bright sunlight, waiting for inspiration to strike or maybe burn me through those windows, and the connection between libraries and illumination was all too clear but I didn’t care if it was cliché because here was a spot I liked to study. In openness, in light.

Where the magic happened

These two university libraries got me thinking about a loosely similar contrast in the New York Public Library. When I was there with a friend last October, our tour guide pointed to the ceiling in the antechamber of the breathtaking Rose Main Reading Room.

mural in antechamber of NYPL reading room

The antechamber features a large mural with dark, chaotic clouds packed together. It’s supposed to make you feel tense, unsure, because that’s how research often is. You embark on a project and have no idea what you’re getting into.

But as you stick with it, either you get used to the dark or it’s actually not dark anymore (see the Emily Dickinson poem below), and suddenly, you’re in a completely new space. The clouds part, the sky speaks in a softer blue, and the sun shines gloriously through.

New York Public Library Main Reading Room

Let there be light.

We grow accustomed to the Dark–

When Light is put away–

As when the Neighbor holds the Lamp

To witness her Goodbye–


A Moment–We uncertain step

For newness of the night–

Then–fit our Vision to the Dark–

And meet the Road–erect–


And so of larger–Darknesses

Those Evenings of the Brain–

When not a Moon disclose a sign–

Or Star–come out—within–


The Bravest–grope a little–

And sometimes hit a Tree

Directly in the Forehead–

But as they learn to see–


Either the darkness alters–

Or something in the sight

Adjusts itself to Midnight–

And Life steps almost straight.


~Emily Dickinson

Following Mondrian

My first post featured Dutch artist Piet Mondrian whose oeuvre of grid-like paintings with squares and rectangles of primary colours has inspired a plethora of Mondrian objects from architecture to clothing.

Composition II in Red, Blue, and Yellow (1930)

It seems like the world just can’t get enough Mondrian.

Without intentionally seeking him out (okay maybe a little bit), I came across Mondrian in my recent travels to Ottawa and New York and figured I would write a follow-up post in lieu of these discoveries.

I’m not sure if the idea of coloured window blocks in architecture derives from Mondrian, but seeing multiple buildings in both cities with this feature certainly made me think of him.

Coloured Windows in New York

Coloured Windows in Ottawa

During my travels, I paid a visit to my Alma Mater. A lot of construction was started there as I was finishing my degree, and I wanted to see the completion of these new buildings. Not only did I see finished projects, I also saw buildings erected that I didn’t even know were part of the plan. The building above is a new residence standing in what was one of the precious few green spaces left on a campus that everyone used to adore for its green spaces. Can you tell I’m a bit nostalgic about “the good old days” when I attended Carleton?

These other Ottawa buildings also have Mondrianesque qualities to them:

In New York, I went to the Museum of Modern Art on their free “Target Fridays” – a time frame that I would recommend avoiding because of the massive crowds. It actually felt more rushed and crammed than the streets, partly because I only had an hour before closing and so was racing from painting to painting to absorb as much as I could – not the ideal pace to appreciate art.

But it was still worth it, particularly to awe at Monet’s water lilies and to contemplate this painting by Piet Mondrian that he made as an ode to the Big Apple.

Click on the right picture for an enlarged version of the painting’s fascinating description.

Looking back at the painting on the left, can you picture the city grid with the yellow lines as streets, the blue and red squares as nodes of people and activities, and the occasional grey thrown in as moments of pause or respite from the daily grind? Other New York images this painting evokes for me are traffic lights, the omnipresent yellow of taxis, the neon lights of Times Square, and the colourful lines on the subway map.

Even though the painting doesn’t literally speak, I look at it and hear the noise of the city. It’s loud. Cars are honking. People are getting in and out of taxicabs. Vendors are trying to make a sale. Strangers are getting impatient while waiting in line for their morning Starbucks. Considering that jazz music inspired this painting called “Broadway Boogie Woogie,” Mondrian’s title invites us to “hear” his painting – to mix one sense impression with another sense in what’s called synesthesia.

Composition in White, Black, and Red (1936)

Whereas the dynamic spaces in his previous compositions (such as the one that was on display beside it, which is pictured above) appear at the edges, the dynamic spaces in “Broadway Boogie Woogie” emerge at the intersections – where people, buildings, streets and conversations collide in a syncopation of lights as colourful as the city itself.