Secrets in the facade of Univ. Washington’s library

The rich iconography in the facade of University of Washington’s main Suzzallo Library has been well-noted by commentators.  For example, in the Wikipedia entry for the library, or in the architecture guide by Norman J. Johnston published in Princeton Architectural Press’ “Campus Guides” series.

The guides I’ve seen all mention the 24 sculptures of famous cultural figures, set on the outside faces of the building’s buttresses.  Several also note the three figures set over the main entrance, by the same sculptor as the buttress figures, representing Thought, Inspiration, and Mastery.  However, the 24 figures are far up, hardly visible from the ground;  and the three big figures are not visibly labeled  (that may be why Johnston gets them mixed up in his commentary).

Strangely, I can’t find mention of the inscriptions which are easily the most visible to any person actually entering the library:  the brasswork directly over the six doors, representing six famous figures in printing and publishing: Tao Feng, Gutenberg, Caxton, Aldus, Estienne, and Elsevier.

If this brasswork is as old as the building (1926), it’s actually quite remarkable that the Chinese “father of printing” was given the first place in this pantheon.  It’s strange, however, that the screen presents his years as “954-881″, i.e. B.C., about 1900 years earlier than the real Tao Feng (aka Feng Dao), whose years are the reverse, 881-954.  The Chinese are ancient, yes, but not always that ancient.  (and once again, I feel like I’m the only guy who ever studies these plaques).

Above the fourth door, centermost of the “in” doors, the inscription reads “Aldus”, for the famous Venetian printing and publisher Aldus Manutius.  I wonder if this placement had any part in the naming of Seattle-based Aldus Corporation, whose creation of Pagemaker software started the “desktop publishing” revolution.

Speculation aside, I think the position of these six printer/publisher names, directly above the doors, is poetically apt.  Further above is Thought, and Inspiration;  and far above that, the pantheon of Moses, Dante, Adam Smith, etc.;  but usually the main pathway to Learning is by books and printing, represented by these printing/publishing figures which make up almost literally part of the door into the library.  Intentional or not, the positioning of this group expresses a fundamental truth about learning.

more photographs of Suzzallo library.

2 comments
Harekrishna Zacharia
Harekrishna Zacharia

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Michael Bakkensen
Michael Bakkensen

Love that you take the time to figure out the figures. Next on the list should be the gargoyles on that apartment building on 110 near Columbia.