In the Archive: Petit, Lebas, Fontaine, Le Corbusier, Kolář

Raphael Haque

Click on drawings to move and enlarge.

In The Library at Night, Alberto Manguel likens a library to a human brain and imagines a kind of phrenic Library of Alexandria in which each book becomes a neuron and the connections between books synapses. Thus the brain is a library and the library has a mind. In this way, it can turn itself inside out to be tapped into and experienced by another.

In late spring, I took the train from Oxford, and leaving the gloomy weather at the door, stepped inside Niall Hobhouse’s archive at Shatwell Farm. In Manguel’s analogy, I got inside Niall’s head, where I took careful footsteps through the cerebral outcome of years of collecting: be it organically, or through more concerted efforts to hunt down several Le Corbusier drawings in Kentucky.

In this altered state of awareness, time moved in different ways, overlapping like memories. I was excited to see one particular work – Savinien Petit’s ‘Chapelle a Deux Salles Avec Luminaire’ (DMC 3331.3); an 1845 pencil and watercolour study of a Roman catacomb that I had written an essay on the previous summer, but which, up until that time, I had only seen in a photograph. There were two distinct timelines here. The first extended in both directions – starting with Petit’s work in the mid-nineteenth century, returning to the late nineteenth century, and pushing into the late twentieth century. The other, more chronological, followed my movements through the collection as I pieced together connections between the images, creating my own version of those neurons and synapses. From there I was led to drawings by Louis-Hippolyte Lebas (DMC 1052.2.21), Giovanni Battista Piranesi, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine (DMC 1853) and Jiří Kolář (DMC 1489r).

Lebas’ nineteenth century studies of Rome, contained in an eighty-three-page sketchbook, condenses the grandeur of its civilization into drawings a few centimetres wide. Though he was in Rome forty years before Petit, it is nice to think that while he depicted the city of the living, Petit, more consumed by the dead, drew the catacombs beneath his feet, and where, no more than a kilometre away, Battista had painted – from imagination – the interiors of Roman basilicas in which he never stood.

I closed the drawer labelled P-S and crossed the room, travelling across three centuries to the works of Le Corbusier and van der Rohe. With a giddy feeling that I think any architect would share, I held the model for the southern wall of Corbusier’s Ronchamp Chapel (DMC 1439). Feeling its weight and form, I tried to follow the thoughts of Le Corbusier as he gouged it out and developed its shape. It was perhaps a third, cyclical timeline – a synapse that connected me, for that moment, to the designer. 

Part of the library is housed in two shipping containers at the top of the hill to the west of the farm, where we then walked. The books in one container were arranged around a series of mirrors, in the other, the back wall was a mirror. The space inside infinitely multiplied, like Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, making it possible to lose oneself in the thirty-by eight-foot space. I made a Lidar scan of this container – using my iPhone to trace the surfaces – which is now stored as an STL in The Cloud. This library was the basis of the third chapter of my thesis. I was unable to visit the library again before the submission deadline, so being able to capture a posthumous scan and store it digitally allowed me to close that timeline. 

Entering the collection had a very individual aspect to it (in the way that my departmental library does not) precisely because it was personal and eclectic. It allowed me to connect the synapses in my own library in a fresh way. I wonder if librarians might do better to put the Dewey Decimal System aside for a while and think more of their collections as sentient beings.