文澜阁 Wenlan Pavilion

Fall 2013, Master’s Thesis Research

To re-envision the public library of the future my master’s thesis analyzed China’s pre-modern private libraries such as the Wenlan Pavilion, on Hangzhou’s West Lake. Whereas westerners tend to think of public libraries as storage spaces and perhaps as a small scale public sphere, these Cangshu Lou 藏书楼 (literally “store books buildings”) functioned as archives but also overlapped numerous other discourses in their various functions: government, schools of thought (philosophies and religions), education (state and private schools), book publishing and making, social exchanges small and large, calligraphy and painting, landscape and the family.

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Wenlan Pavilion was built under Emperor Qianlong‘s imperial decree to create the Siku Quanshu canon, which was largely an anti-dissent effort as the books that didn’t make the cut were burned. The Seven Halls constructed across the empire to shelter the Siku Quanshu were all built in interpretation of China’s most famous private library, Tianyi Pavillion. I addressed the Seven Halls as an overlap of the government discourse in a section of my thesis, but the analysis of Wenlan Pavilion focused on its connection to the landscape:

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Wenlan Pavilion site plan 潘谷西。《江南理景艺术》。南京:东南大学出版社,2001,126页

 

The dialogue between Chinese traditional architecture and nature is profound and inherent, but there are several basic conditions that contribute to the discursive overlap between Cangshu Lou and the landscape. The first is an often repeated desire of the literati who constructed book pavilions in their busy residential compounds to create  a quiet, peaceful place for reading. That yearning easily coincides with the traditional form of the Chinese landscape garden which, through the use of natural forms and objects, often creates a separate reality from the business of the compound’s residences. Many of the bureaucrats and wealthy merchants who could afford to collect books and build protection for them could also afford traditional gardens.

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Wenlan Pavilion site section and front elevation 潘谷西。《江南理景艺术》。南京:东南大学出版社,2001,127页

More relevant to Wenlan Pavilion, another reason to place one’s book room close to the natural features of the landscape garden is the ability to use the water source to combat the threat of fire. The axial approach to the Seven Halls incorporates the landscape of the garden:

 

 

After turning away from the legendary West Lake, you enter the compound through the front gate

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Pass through the front courtyard and main gate

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To arrive at the rockery, where you have the option of either moving through by passing under the rock in a tunnel like experience, or to explore the simulacrum of a mountain

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Then you continue through the Yuelan Room, now used to exhibit the history of the library

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Exiting the structure, the main courtyard of the reservoir pond, its famous Immortal Peak Taihu stone, and Wenlan Pavilion is revealed. No direct path exists from here to the library, one must move off the axis and interact with the natural forms to get to the other side.

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Wenlan Pavilion and the other Seven Halls feature sequential approaches that require the visitor to first transition through manmade natural forms in order to reach the archive. This, along with the Cangshu Lou of the Couple’s Retreat Garden in Suzhou, with its thin threshold between the archive and the neighboring garden, present another solution to the placelessness of the modern, digitized archive. The dual role of the public library to function as both archive and as public gathering space is threatened by the dispersed network of the Internet. But in these structures and their relationship to their surroundings we see how even the smallest node can be inherently linked to at least some simple sense of place. Perhaps not the communal place discussed in the tower Cangshu Lou of the teaching institutions, but the place of habitat and seasons. The thin thermal barriers of these buildings leave their occupants acutely aware of the sun’s warming rays on a chilly autumn day or the emerging cicadas. How does the library of the future co-manifest itself? Globally to interact and actively reconfigure itself as a rhizome, and locally, to serve the community it is based in. The simplest solution to this question suggests that the fundamental possessions of a future library is a connection to the internet and a connection to place.

(Skill and Knowledge Archiving, Placeness and the the Everyday were the three categories that manifested from the Cangshu Lou analysis.)