The Approach to Doe Library

by David H. Wright

Our campus has only a few buildings of true architectural distinction, but the Doe Library, finished in 1911, must be counted among them.

The great vaulted reading room is one of the grandest interior spaces in the Bay Area, and at this season the early evening sun lights it up through the great western window to reveal it to even a casual passer-by. The engaged columns of the north facade, subtly varied in their rhythmic spacing, lend dignity. They reveal the reading room through the vast north windows, and they accentuate the entrance.

As a freshman in my class this semester put it when we began our consideration of the expressive qualities of architecture: "When you see the library you know you're at the university."

Now at last the wretched T Buildings are gone, and also the foolish screen of small trees put in front of the entrance when the street was diverted after Moffitt was built, a screen that effectively blocked any proper view of the library facade. We might wish the skylights for the new stacks were a little less prominent, but the details are sensitively designed and their cast stone is a reasonable match for the granite veneer of Doe, infinitely better than the dumb design of the Library Annex with its plastic surface.

At last we can admire the facade from the foot of the path leading down from McCone Hall. But it is doubtful how much longer we will be able to admire it without hindrance, and we still cannot approach the library as the architect, John Galen Howard, intended: across a fine terrace, along the axis of the building.

Howard had been trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, as virtually all ambitious American architects were in that era, and in that tradition he developed a grandiose official plan for the campus. Considered as a whole, that plan is much too elaborate and formal for our taste, but the extract from it showing in the foreground of his drawing of the Doe Library is reasonable and appropriate.

Currently the classes of 1945-1947 are raising funds to finish the landscape in front of Doe and designate it the Memorial Grove. There is to be a pool and a small grove of redwoods between Moffitt and the road as an appropriate memorial to those killed in the war. And as a memorial to all who served, half the sloping ground facing Doe is to be planted with rows of trees; that is controversial.

A dozen years ago I went to visit the grave of a friend who had speeded up his schooling to get in a year of college before volunteering for the celebrated Tenth Mountain Division. He was killed in Italy only six weeks before the end of hostilities. He was the son of a German museum director who had an early brush with the Nazi suppression of modern art who emigrated to America as soon as Hitler came to power because he did not want to raise his

sons in that atmosphere of intellectual and artistic suppression.

In cruel irony, my friend had been chosen to lead a dangerous patrol behind German lines because of his perfect knowledge of the language.

He is buried in the American Military Cemetery outside Florence, one among the endless rows of crosses interspersed with an occasional star of David, set on a gentle slope of perfectly manicured lawn. The setting is dignified, but it does not do justice to the vigorous intellect or the liberal spirit of my friend.

The next year I was driving along the old road high across the mountains between Florence and Bologna when I spotted a sign for the German Military Cemetery, not far from where my friend had been killed. I thought to myself that the war really was over, that I have many friends and colleagues who served in the German army, and that it was time I paid my respect to their casualties also.

To my surprise I found the German cemetery deeply moving. The graves have flat dark stone markers in keeping with that nearly barren hilltop, arranged in patterns respecting the contours. While retaining my own passionate devotion to the issues of the war, in this setting somehow I felt reconciled to the suffering of ordinary mortals on both sides.

The German architect had studied the context, respected it, and drawn strength from it, thereby raising his expression to the level of universals. The American administration had plunked down a standard government-issue cemetery without any sensitivity to the Tuscan landscape.

In Berkeley today the formulaic response is an artificial natural landscape sculpted by bulldozer, what we now see in front of Doe. The authentic natural landscape of Strawberry Creek is one of the great joys of the campus and by universal consent will be preserved in all future building. But artificial nature is entirely wrong as a setting for Doe Library.

We should respect and enhance the dignity of this building by having a path approach it as intended, directly on axis, across a reasonably formal terrace, distinct from the sloping open ground above and below (currently the delight of Frisbee players and sunbathers). It would be good to reconsider an earlier proposal to have a bridge starting below McCone Hall, crossing the road and heading straight to the library. Then the low concrete barrier now in front of Doe should be removed. There should be diverging paths for convenience, but symbolically every one should be invited to enter the library, to pass through its portal beneath the bronze bust of Minerva, goddess of wisdom. That is the purpose of a university and a fitting memorial to the losses of war.

David Wright is professor of the history of art.


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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