Sixty years ago, Adelphi University commissioned a campus master plan and, a few years later, built a library designed by one of the 20th century's most notable architects: Richard Neutra.
Sixty years ago, Adelphi University commissioned a campus master plan and, a few years later, built a library designed by one of the 20th century’s most notable architects: Richard Neutra. Swirbul Library, still a centerpiece of the campus, stands as one of the few examples of Neutra’s work in the Northeast United States.
Neutra, an intellectual, forward-thinking architect and planner, anticipated numerous features in the library that would be commonplace five decades later. He is generally considered among the most important modernist architects—along with names such as Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Louis Sullivan.
Swirbul Library is not only one of the few Neutra works in the Northeast—it’s also one of his few libraries or other buildings for colleges and universities, as most of his designs were for homes, office spaces, schools and public spaces such as the Gettysburg Cyclorama.
The architect’s concept at Adelphi centered around what he called the “living library” that would, of course, accommodate books and other print material, but also a news ticker-tape display, closed-circuit TV for distance learning and sharing with students around the world, a belt conveyor and electric lifts for speedy book handling, and interdisciplinary gathering places, all well ahead of their time. He also seemed to anticipate the advent of the internet and the Information Age, along with a need for physical space to bring people and information together in a physical space. While many of his ideas remained as concepts due to budget restraints, distinctive features of the library as built include exterior reflecting ponds on either side of the main entrance and a gracefully curved staircase, which is dramatically reflected in a large mirrored wall. (See photo and design below.) Neutra dubbed this feature the “Ascent to Knowledge.”
Much of the design planning work for Adelphi’s library, as well as a campus master plan Neutra and his firm completed, are in the University’s archival collections.
Neutra’s ideas built on an Adelphi architectural tradition that already included buildings designed by prestigious architects including McKim, Mead and White—the New York firm founded by Stanford White—which designed Levermore, Blodgett and Woodruff halls, Adelphi’s first three buildings, constructed in 1929. The most recent major campus addition was the Nexus Building, which opened in 2016, designed by Ballinger, a major architectural firm located in Philadelphia.
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