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June 14, 2022

A Temple of Learning

For the visually literate, the Huffington Library is an open book, well worth the time to “read” and enjoy. Michael Huffington, the patron of our library, noted that he and the architect Paul Kennon worked together to create a structure that would “offer our students a sense of grandeur in their lives on campus so that they could dream big.”

If inspiring students to reach for the stars was the goal, then Huffington Library remains an unequivocal success because Mr. Huffington and Mr. Kennon (whom Mr. Huffington described as a “brilliant architect”) have given us a brick-and-mortar masterpiece that calls to mind some of the most ambitious architectural forms of the ancient world. Indeed, the many Greco-Roman references embedded within the façade define our library not as a mere repository of books but as a temple of learning that asserts the triumph of knowledge over ignorance.


The ancient Romans practiced emulation (the Latin aemulatio) of great works of art as a means of surpassing their cultural predecessors, particularly with respect to the Greeks; the goal was not merely duplication of previous artistic achievements but rather the production of distinctly Roman monuments through the lively fusion of tradition and innovation. Roman architects, for example, often combined hallmarks of Greek and Etruscan buildings, creating astonishing architectural hybrids that served Roman political or religious purposes.



       Image 1: The Pantheon

Lesson plans for Humanities Level 9 include presentations on ancient architecture, which in part help demonstrate the Roman proclivity for Greek culture.  For example, the Pantheon, the Roman temple to all the gods, circa 125 A.D. (image 1), borrows certain features from the complex of buildings on the Acropolis in Athens such as the double pediment of the Propylaea, the gateway leading to the Parthenon, circa 440 B.C. (image 2). 


Image 2: The Propylaea

These deliberate architectural references to Athenian monuments of the fifth century B.C. broadcast the Romans’ claim to be the rightful heirs to the Greek legacy of military victory and divine favor during the Persian Wars.


     Image 3: The Arch of Titus

To further emphasize the link between imperialism and divinity—an ancient version of our own Manifest Destiny—the Romans introduced an unequivocally martial element to traditional temple architecture. The insertion of an attic form between the rotunda, the main gathering space of the Pantheon, and the pediment, the triangular shape above the supporting columns of the portico, renders the Pantheon both temple and victory monument.  The rectangular attic is a hallmark of Roman triumphal arches, freestanding structures that memorialized the conquests of the most celebrated Roman generals and emperors (image 3).

By blending the attic form of a triumphal arch with the traditional architecture of Greek and Roman temples, the Pantheon helps define Roman identity by asserting military conquest as a religious imperative.


Image 4: Arch of Constantine

In the tradition of Roman emulation, the architect of our own Huffington Library appears to have intentionally inserted aspects of the Arch of Constantine (image 4) within the façade of the Huffington Library.

The relative sizes and locations of the central arch and flanking windows of our library, for example, mimic the relationship among the three arches in the ancient Roman structure. 


    Image 5: The Huffington Library

Likewise, the circular windows in the façade of the Huffington Library (image 5) echo the location of the roundels in the Arch of Constantine (roundels provide relief carvings that proclaim the emperor’s virtues and military prowess). Furthermore, by blending the triangular pediment (a traditional feature of Greco-Roman temples) at the apex of the façade with the attic form of a triumphal arch, the Huffington Library embodies the Roman impulse for emulation that is so evident in the Pantheon.  Indeed, despite their distance in time and space, the Huffington Library and the Pantheon are inextricably bound precisely because both structures combine features of Greek temple architecture with features of Roman triumphal arches. Through such close reading of these and other architectural features, the hidden meaning of the Huffington Library begins to emerge.

A Communication of the Mind

Consistent with these Greco-Roman architectural references, access to Huffington Library via the twists and turns of the lateral staircase calls to mind the form—and the function—of the main stairs from the Temple of Fortuna at Palestrina, circa first century B.C. (Image 6).


     Image 6: Model of Temple of Fortuna

This vast Roman complex consisted of four levels linked by monumental stairways, which prepared the worshipper for spiritual communion with the gods by controlling his or her progression from darkness to light, from lower to higher elevations, and from panoramic views of nature to elaborate architectural formations.  In this way, the stairways and the ascending terraces physically and psychologically moved the worshipper through a series of controlled sensory experiences.

Entry to Huffington Library is likewise a matter of both physical and psychological sensations.  Turning left or right from one set of stairs to the next and ascending from lower to higher levels—movement along the x and y axes—draws attention to the act of entering the library—movement along the z axis.  These coerced transitions control the rhythm and the direction of the ascent, and the landing of each set of stairs provides natural pauses that offer increasingly panoramic views of the central quadrangle of the Culver campus.

Mr. Huffington confirmed that he chose this particular configuration because he “wanted everyone once they got to the top of the stairs to have a chance to turn outward and see our magnificent campus before entering the library.”   By thus magnifying the visitor’s progression through time and space, the lateral staircase of Huffington Library encourages a degree of transcendence that may condition the visiting scholar for an appropriately reverent encounter with the intellectual heritage of Western civilization, for a communion of the mind, so to speak.

A Monumental Gift

In light of the specific architectural references described above, is it really so difficult to conceive the façade of the Huffington Library in terms of metaphor?  The Pantheon was the Roman temple to all the gods, and the Arch of Constantine celebrated the military victories of Constantine, the first Christian emperor.  A building that contains the works of such literary deities as Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton and that invites young scholars to come worship at the altar of knowledge appropriately borrows ancient architectural forms that functioned as temples and victory monuments. What better way to sanctify learning than to commemorate the process in brick and mortar as an interior pilgrimage, as a perennial struggle against ignorance that leads to intellectual triumph? 

Also, the Temple of Fortuna was dedicated to the personification of luck, good or bad. The Greeks likewise personified the capricious nature of fate, which they called Tyche. For the Greeks, as every Humanities student at Culver Academies knows, the surest means of mitigating the effect of bad luck in one’s life was through techne, or technological know-how of one sort or another. This lesson from the past remains particularly relevant because, like our cultural ancestors, we seek to gain mastery over the power of chance or luck in our lives, and this mastery results from knowledge, which of course the Huffington Library offers to one and all, thanks to Mr. Huffington and Mr. Kennon.

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