Madeline Miller: Van Pelt – In a New Light

photo of van pelt library university of Pennsylvania


Posted on March 11, 2015 by Madelline Miller

We’ve given it nicknames and spent hours of our days and nights within its walls. We often mention it with disdain and dread because it holds memories of boredom, unbearable stress and silence. It can also be lively and at times it teems and buzzes with procrastination induced chatter. So much more than books and research resources, Van Pelt is a hub of social interaction and isolated intellectual struggle. I have hardly ever considered this structure objectively or architecturally except to comment on the small, narrow, prison-like windows that dot its exterior. What does this space feel like when it’s empty, when it’s removed from its purpose, when it’s unfamiliar?




Van Pelt is a functional space. It maximizes its square footage by placing uniform desks and carrels along every wall, so as to allow optimal room for housing an endless supply of books. Walking through the doors, riding the elevators and using the desks I have never really looked at this building, always distracted by the purpose it serves as a space for studying. I have come to learn that Van Pelt can also be an aesthetic space. During the early morning and late afternoon, the floor-to ceiling-windows throw light onto chairs and desks, causing them to glow. Instead of the austerity and darkness I associate with this building, the symmetry of the furniture and the linear shadows produce a sense of calm and order.


Van Pelt Library UPenn

My goal was to transform the way I see this building, which I often find stifling, claustrophobic, stressful and harshly lit. It was a chance to see the familiar in an unfamiliar way, stripping this space of its associations and creating a new representation of a place I walk through so frequently. With a camera, it became a bright, modern, geometric space, uncluttered by books, papers and computer cords and absent of stress and fatigue. This is how I wish I could see Van Pelt on a daily basis, as expansive and bright, but as soon as I pass through the turnstile the chaos and distress mar my vision of what I now know can be a surprisingly beautiful space.




Photography and Text by Madeline Miller


About The Author: Madeline Miller is the assistant campaign manager for The Advertising Council,  New York.

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