Thursday, November 12, 2015

What Foundations Have Been Laid for Them: The Building and Burning of Knowledge

We are accustomed to equating literature and architecture—a stanza, the basic unit of poetry, is, after all, a “room” in Italian. But in the case of the edifices built to hold books, this relationship is more intimate, not just linguistic or metaphoric but concrete (often marble). If a stanza is a room for words on the page, a library is a series of rooms for words—and the books that hold them—on the ground. And ground is often disputed, desecrated, possessed and dispossessed. It is always political: just as it is the site for the building and projecting of knowledge, it is often the site of its destruction as well. Consider three examples:

The Fridericianum in Kassel, Germany, opened in 1779 as a library and public museum, one of Europe’s earliest. Along with the art collections of the Hessian landgraves, it held more than 100,000 books. The Fridericianum’s construction was funded by Friedrich II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel, who made his fortune by selling local mercenaries to Great Britain to fight in the American Revolution. After briefly becoming a parliamentary building under Napoléon’s brother Jérôme, then King of Westphalia and Kassel, the Fridericianum was returned to its original function; Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm would work at the library there. The museum’s collections were relocated to Berlin under Prussian rule, and by the early twentieth century the building became a state library only. Thus marks some of the nascent stages of Fridericianum’s building of knowledge, but burning would come.
On May 19, 1933, approximately 2,000 books were burned on Friedrichsplatz, reportedly attended to by enormous crowds. The bonfire was held in conjunction with book burnings in university towns across the country, a nation-wide “Action Against the Un-German Spirit,” as it was termed, that aimed to rid Germany of “Jewish intellectualism.” Nearly a decade later, in 1941, the Fridericianum—still a library at the time—caught fire during the Allied bombing raids that flattened Kassel. In images taken after the bombing, we notice not just the thousands of burned volumes leafing out palely from the dark rubble, but the now naked Neoclassical armature of the building’s columns; indeed, the eighteenth-century structure was designed in the “spirit of the Enlightenment” by Huguenot architect Simon Louis du Ry.

The main architectural embodiment of that spirit, and of the classical ideal more generally, was, of course, the Parthenon in Greece. Built during the rule of Pericles in Athens between 447 and 432 BC, the temple was dedicated to Athena, the goddess of wisdom, civilization, justice, and war, among other attributes. And the Parthenon would become the architectural model that has most often inspired the shape of Western public institutions’ edifices of knowledge, among them libraries, museums, universities, government buildings, courts, and banks. Though built to shelter a monumental gold-and-ivory statue of Athena, the Parthenon would also house the city’s treasury. Indeed, the temple was funded by taxes derived from both the Athens treasury and tribute from cities across the Aegean after the Athenian victories in the Persian Wars (Plutarch famously offers a story about Pericles wasting allies’ money on “sacred buildings”). Transformed into a mosque during the Ottoman Empire, and partially destroyed and rebuilt many times in the interim, the deconsecrated Parthenon of the modern period became an emblem of Western cultural hegemony, not exclusively democratic.

Text by Pierre Bal-Blanc, Marina Fokidis, Quinn Latimer, Yorgos Makris, Marta Minujín