Skip to main content

University Library at 50: A Brutalist Icon at the Heart of the Evanston Campus

University Library Exterior Tower Detail

University Library was introduced in the May 1970 issue of American Libraries with the wonderfully-titled article, “Northwestern’s New Library … An Easy Mark for Skepticism – But a Pleasure to Be In, Inviting to Use, and Stimulating to the Mind.” The article begins, “Most librarians are not going to like Northwestern University’s new $12 million library … The rough grey cement exterior at a distance looks like corrugated boxes on their sides. Yet, as you approach the building, and step onto its stone plaza, your eye is pleased and delighted by the variety of forms, spatial relationships, thrusts, and indentations. It is a giant piece of sculpture that changes with the light of day and the angle of the seasonal sun.”

Fifty years after its opening on January 19, 1970, University Library stands as a monument in concrete to the goals of the university’s administration, librarians, and faculty at the time of construction, and the collaborative, democratic academic culture that the university actively cultivated. Conceived of by University President J. Roscoe Miller as the “intellectual capital” of the Evanston campus and by architect Walter Netsch as the heart of the university, University Library assumed a central place on campus at the time of its opening and remains one today, both physically and intellectually.

The Library Planning Committee, made up of faculty members, administrators, and librarians, envisioned the integration of book stacks with social spaces throughout the library, an opening of the discovery process for users, and a democratization of the library, comingling undergraduate, graduate, and faculty research spaces and encouraging conversations within each discipline. The three research towers were situated on a base of administrative and technical services spaces that formed a base for the support activities of the library.

University Library Exterior from Across Lagoon

Unlike the existing Deering Library, University Library would open the stacks to students, allowing for a radical democratization in browsing and discovery. Netsch centered the social life of the library among shelving that radiated outward from communal seating at the center of each tower, encouraging the coming together of students and the discussion of ideas surrounded by the knowledge contained in the library’s books.

In its original conception, Core referred to a core collection of 75,000 books agreed upon by representatives from all disciplines as “effecting the culture of the American student,” as Netsch described it. This space in the lower floors of the north tower was to be open twenty-four hours a day, so that any student could visit to consult the collection and understand the full context of their research. In an oral history conducted in 1997, Netsch identified a connection between the use of that collection and difficulties with research as the internet was widely adopted. Referring to Core, he said, “I find that it makes the start of research very easy – well, in a way it does and in a way it doesn’t, because it gives you so much information that you don’t know whether you know where to start unless you know how to ask the right questions. So in many ways, it’s the same old story, only one is electronic and the other one is a wall of books, where do you start?” [We recommend starting with a librarian if you are lost].

Netsch’s library is considered a precursor to the architect’s Field Theory buildings. As described in the Northwestern University Libraries’ 2006 exhibit, “Mr. Netsch developed his signature architectural aesthetic known as Field Theory by rotating basic squares into complex geometric shapes. Field Theory allowed Mr. Netsch to design buildings that break away from the box forms associated with Mies van der Rohe’s architecture. In Field Theory buildings, open spaces are defined by both horizontal and vertical planes, radiate out from cores containing utilities and stairwells, and are accessible via multiple levels.”

research tower interior with social circle


Open door looking into research tower


The exterior of the library stands as a physical representation of the origins of Netsch’s field theory in action. The rotated square of each tower is perched atop a central, circular core that connects the support of its base with the research functions of the tower. The circular form is continued up through the tower, superimposed on the rectangular structure and visible in the central social study spaces, radiating stacks of books, and study carrels that line the walls of each tower. The result is a building planned around the prescribed needs of its users, and disorienting in the translation from expectation to experience.

library interior with card catalog

While the article mentioned at the beginning of this post laments that most librarians would not like University Library, it is a monument to some of the tenets of librarianship: open access to knowledge, the discoverability of our collections, an encouragement of the sharing of ideas, and the library as a social space. Furthermore, the sculptural qualities of its external form—the way that the building changes in the morning sun compared to the evening light, the delicate beauty of its shadows and the rough beauty of its exposed materiality—make it a work of art at the center of our campus. We are pleased to celebrate University Library on its 50th anniversary and hope that you will join us in an appreciation of the building and the design philosophy behind it.University Library Plaza