Back Story: Irwin Library

Butler University’s stunning “cultural center” is easy to miss on a campus filled with beautiful architecture.
Photography by Hadley Fruits/Indianapolis Monthly

KNOWN FOR its charm, Butler’s campus is such a picture of cohesion and harmony that one might overlook its individual buildings. Tucked away on the South Mall between residence halls is the three-story Irwin Library. It mimics a Venetian palace with its stacked, white, arched concrete columns guarding recessed walls of windows on three sides, set on an architectural podium. The airy effect of the atrium—filled with clean, vertical lines and boasting a huge, peaked skylight (above); original cylindrical chandeliers (recently refurbished); and a softly burbling, asymmetrical fountain—is immediate. You feel transported to both the past and the future at once as Arabic sahn meets smooth modernism. Opened in 1963, the building was designed by Detroit-based architect Minoru Yamasaki, who also worked on the World Trade Center. Then-chair of the steering committee of Butler’s board of trustees, George A. Kuhn, wrote that Yamasaki was given a choice of the library or the fine arts building to design, and he chose the library because it was a bigger challenge and would see more use, believing the library “should be the cultural center of the University and be representative of the [caliber] of the institution.” Judging by the number of students on a recent Tuesday afternoon taking advantage of the space, which is filled with modern amenities and a variety of comfortable study spots augmented by gorgeous views of the surrounding campus, he succeeded.