The Architecture of Learning

In 1620 Henry Savile began the lectures that inaugurated his new Oxford professorships of geometry and astronomy. The professors were based in the Bodleian Library’s Tower of the Five Orders. In the same year Clement Edmondes, a diplomat and municipal official of London, donated this ‘mathematical model’ to the library. The alabaster sculpture combines geometry and architecture. Each side of the central column contains a rusticated version of one of the five architectural orders, with the fragmentary remains of the five Euclidean regular solids around the base. The whole is surmounted by a large dodecahedron, to which Plato had ascribed cosmological significance as reflecting the structure of the heavens. The model acts as a sort of symbolic and pedagogical machine, with the correspondence between the five geometrical solids and the five architectural orders providing part of the work’s basic conceit. 32: Museum of the History of Science, Oxford; on loan from the Bodleian Library

As architecture was dignified by humanist and mathematical treatises, it began to find a place in the world of learning. Scholars had always needed the practical art of building to provide schools, colleges, and libraries, but the broader revival of classical culture also gave them a reason to engage with the art intellectually.

When Thomas Bodley refounded Oxford’s university library at the beginning of the 17th century he not only actively encouraged donations of books but initiated a programme of building. Together with his friend and principal advisor, the mathematician and classical scholar Henry Savile, Bodley used his own money to plan the extensions that today form the Bodleian’s Schools Quadrangle. Savile continued the library project after Bodley’s death. He commissioned and perhaps even designed the Bodleian’s Tower of the Five Orders, with its arrangement of the architectural orders superimposed one above the other. Just as architectural books had become a fit subject for a university library, so the library building itself demonstrated a commitment to learning in architectural form.

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