Fairy Tale Architecture: The Library of Babel

Writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer curate a series in which diverse architects explore the intimate relationship between the domestic structure of fairy tales and the imaginative realm of architecture.

The Universe. [All images by Rice+Lipka Architects]
The Universe. [All images by Rice+Lipka Architects]

Fairy tales have transfixed readers for thousands of years, and for many reasons; one of the most compelling is the promise of a magical home. How many architects, young and old, have been inspired by a hero or heroine who must imagine new realms and new spaces — new ways of being in this strange world? Houses in fairy tales are never just houses; they always contain secrets and dreams. This project presents a new path of inquiry, a new line of flight into architecture as a fantastic, literary realm of becoming.

— Kate Bernheimer & Andrew Bernheimer

The Vindications.
The Vindications.

 

Glowing Fruit.
Glowing Fruit.

The Library of Babel

“The Library of Babel” is a terrifying and beautiful story by prophetic Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges, written when he was employed shelving books in the city library.

First published in a shorter version as “The Total Library,” this dense, nine-page story concerns a library that houses all of the books ever written and yet to be written. The Library is arranged non-hierarchically; all of the volumes — from the most rudimentary to the most inscrutable — are equally important in this infinite space. Its rooms are hexagons. Its staircases are broken.

The Library’s many visitors — elated, dogmatic and anguished types are all represented — strangle one another in the corridors. They fall down air shafts and perish. They weep, or go mad. Desperate characters hide in the bathrooms, “rattling metal disks inside dice cups,” hoping to mind-read the call number for a missing canonical text. Others, overcome with “hygienic, ascetic rage,” stand before entire walls of books, denouncing the volumes, raising their fists.

The Library is described exquisitely, with mathematical detail. For readers who have trouble with the math in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, this fairy tale also offers a sensation of dread. The Library does not represent completely incomplete beauty and madness: it is completely incomplete beauty and madness. And Borges’s language is everyday — the story is a municipal prayer. To say the world is an infinite library and we are mad pilgrims destined for beauty and failure is not to say an occult thing, but a real thing. Fairy tales are real; the Library of Babel is real. It’s a real story, that is.

— Kate Bernheimer

Travelers and Inquisitors.
Travelers and Inquisitors.

Three Questions for Rice + Lipka from Kate Bernheimer

I was so delighted when you agreed this tale was a great fit — it seemed to resonate with what I’d seen in your firm’s work. What was it that drew you to the story? A childhood memory? An image? A building you already knew?

We are simply fascinated with the story — with the breadth of possible architectural outcomes given the specificity of Borges’s description of the Library, with the notion that all the books that could ever be written would be accessible (essentially providing access to future knowledge), and with its prediction of our contemporary condition of living with overwhelming access to information.

Was there anything in the fairy tale that presented a specific problem for you from a design perspective, and how did you solve that problem?

Yes, the library’s size. The modest scale of the individual hexagonal library unit gave us an illusionary sense of personal scale and intimacy that seemed both reasonable and understandable. As the extent of the conceit unfolds, the library’s impenetrability becomes clear, and the illusion that all knowledge is somehow close at hand slips away. It was fascinating to analyze the text and mine it for the real, the everyday, the architectural givens of the tale, and at the same time search the story for what is not prescribed. We took care not to veer from the specific descriptions of the spaces and their relationships, and we had to guard against our own assumptions in order to find holes in the story — its openings for interpretation.

Did you consider the built execution in your design? If so, who might execute this? If not, how might you position your architecture within the realm of the unbuilt and imagined?

We did speculate about how this structure might be built — it is at once completely ordinary and impossible. At the scale of the individual unit or unit cluster, it is easy to imagine; yet by extending it to a size that is even a small fraction of what the story suggests, we bumped up against magical glitches in the story. When spacecraft, artificial gravity and space-time warps entered our internal debates, we knew we were missing the point. At best, our understanding of the library, like our understanding of the universe, is limited.

Book Man.
Book Man.

Necessities.
Necessities.

About the Series: Fairy Tale Architecture

Places’ ongoing series on fairy tale architecture is curated by writer Kate Bernheimer and architect Andrew Bernheimer.

Cite
Kate and Andrew Bernheimer, “Fairy Tale Architecture: The Library of Babel,” Places Journal, December 2013. Accessed 28 Feb 2015. <>

If you would like to comment on this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.