Renaissance

Arts Librarian Raymond mounts a defence of the printed word as an e-library purge sweeps through the university. Thousands of volumes are culled and then the librarian himself is shown the door. Redundant, alone with his books, Raymond plots his renaissance: a return to the past, to a time when ‘everything he encountered was new’.

Renaissance takes him back to architecture, to the student experience, to the suburb of his youth — all encapsulated in his planned renovation of a derelict warehouse. When the renovation stalls, Raymond takes the opportunity to visit Italy. There, he re-invents himself as the ‘student of architecture’, he learns to draw, he discovers the Italian Renaissance as if it were new. Why didn’t we just stop there? he asks. But on the road to Rome, misadventure disrupts his euphoria, and he finds himself convalescent in the home of an Italian nonna.

Renaissance is a novel of books, of art and architecture, of possible dreams. It explores the relationship between past and present, between old and new, between personal and cultural longing.

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extracts from chapters 1, 3, 4

He can’t say he didn’t know it was coming; everyone knew; they couldn’t not know. The number of books being borrowed, the shrinking acquisition budgets, days on end when no-one seems to visit the top floor. And then the staff workshops: making the library relevant. ‘If no-one is borrowing books, why do we need them?’ The logic behind the brave new world of the Digital Learning Café. Learning? Mindlessly texting over their soy lattes.

After each workshop, Raymond heads to the library shelves, and consoles himself with the thought that it might not happen. They might yet realise their folly; they might not find the funds. A new senior appointment is all it might take to change direction. He walks along the rows of books in the Arts Library, runs his fingers across the spines, and finds reassurance: the Arts Library is still there in all its wondrous being.

Librarians should be passionate about books. The library is their habitat, after all; it’s their kingdom. Books are their charges, their subjects, often their friends. But not even his closest colleagues know the extent of his passion for books. They don’t know how Raymond makes interventions in the Arts Library; they don;t know he’s been doing it for years.

However it developed later, the beginnings were innocent. His first week in the job, Raymond discovered a gap in the Literature collection: there was no copy of Middlemarch. But wasn’t Middlemarch the greatest novel in the English language? How could you have a Literature collection without Middlemarch? Why, you couldn’t even have an Arts Library without it! An oversight, Raymond concluded, which he set about correcting. Part of his role, the newly promoted Arts Librarian might’ve said at the time. So two copies were ordered, the Norton Critical Edition for the studious, the Penguin paperback for those who just wanted to read it.

He discovered other gaps, after that, other classics of Literature that were inexplicably not there. And the more he looked, the worse it got. Whole areas of the discipline were in desperate need: periods missing, genres under-represented, wonderful writers not honoured with even a single volume. Was this negligence? Raymond respected academics, sometimes too much, but he saw how focused they could be on their own areas, how absorbed they were in the minutiae of their own scholarly cause. He saw the politics at play, too, saw how sometimes academics would deliberately exclude books. Books antagonistic to their own approaches, he guessed, or books they didn’t know how to teach, or books that, for whatever reason, they simply wanted kept out of the hands of their students. That wasn’t negligence, that was wilful. So you could never rely on academics to see the big picture, you could never rely on them to understand what an Arts Library could be.

And so Gide was ordered and Lawrence Durrell and the missing works of E.M. Forster and the Collected Essays of Christopher Hill and a lovely collection of little-known English novels that had in common their setting in the Lakes District. And a thousand others! That was how the Literature collection grew beyond expectation, colonising the Decorative Arts shelves at one end and the Theory of Education section at the other. Discretionary funds, unspent portions of the Literary Studies book budget, monies earmarked for Cultural Studies journals. He called on all of them to contribute and they did, each one according to its means.

It is not simply this librarian’s missionary zeal; it is equally about the student experience of learning. Has it changed for students today? No, he thinks. In essence their experience is the same as his. His own student life began in Architecture, but ended up in Arts, when he took the chance to start again. That first lecture on Wittgenstein, the introduction to Sartre and to Freud, the discovery of Joyce, the whole semester they’d spent on the history plays. It seems like yesterday, because all these years later, he is still taken with the power of those ideas, still indebted to those long reading lists.

Of course, the student today will be sent off to read Derrida and Lacan, or someone equally impenetrable, but he imagines this student, in a state of predictable confusion, wandering the shelves of the Arts Library to the sudden and serendipitous discovery of Rousseau’s Confessions or The Confessions of Saint Augustine or The Confessions of Felix Kroll. Discovering books that he has placed there for that very purpose, and having their lives changed for it. No-one else would believe this, but Raymond swears he has seen it happen.

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The books take over the house, room after room. The living room gone, Damian’s old bedroom next, then Cass’. Now they move into the passageway. He remembers the story about an old man who hadn’t thrown out a newspaper in fifty years. What an archive he had! Newspapers going back to the Coronation and the American troops in the war. But his house had become completely unliveable, it stank of newspapers. Is there a similar madness about this venture? If you had known there were so many books, would you ever have made the offer? But that there are so many books makes the effort to save them even more urgent, and so the long nights continue. A quick meal, then to work on the catalogue. A dozen books or so might enter the system, their decimal code in his practised hand, his thumbs smoothing out the label carefully on the spine. But each night ends the same way, Raymond with a book he doesn’t know, a book he then can’t put down.

Three months later, it’s over. Victoria delivers the last crate, it was she who delivered the first. ‘That’s it’, she says, without enthusiasm, ‘we’ve finished.’

She shrugs, pauses for just a moment, and a look passes between them, a look perhaps of resignation, or perhaps of acknowledgement, that they are both there at the end, as they had been at the beginning, witnesses to this dark moment in the history of books. Thirty percent, perhaps forty percent of the library gone, rumours have it. No-one is prepared to say how much exactly, and Raymond hesitates to head along the shelves and make his own assessment.

The workers gutting the old ground floor finish their demolition then the builders move in. The Digital Learning Café takes shape with frightening speed: gleaming steel and glass carried in, swarms of electricians, blue cable everywhere. The University Librarian announces the appointment of baristas, and discussion begins on the subject of librarian uniforms. Every librarian is to be issued with a New Library tablet, personalised with username and unique passcode.

On the bleakest, shortest day of winter the Library announces a round of voluntary redundancies. Less books equals less staff equals ‘the opportunity for early retirement’. But they’re not truly voluntary, these redundancies. Some staff can’t take them, others don’t seem to have a choice. And it’s no secret who they have in their sights: those who still think libraries should be made out of books.

‘But what will you do?’ Cass sounds alarmed on the phone.

So Raymond has to tell her about the ‘great library cull’, and to confess to his part in it,  to explain how his house has come to be completely filled up with books.

‘The books are my first priority. They need cataloguing, I need to know what I‘ve got. I’ve decided to build my very own Arts Library. Remember when individuals had libraries?’

‘No, actually, I don’t. Anyway, you can’t just do books! You’ve done books. You need something else. You need a life…’ she adds before she can help herself. She has no suggestions, only her anxiety, her fear that Raymond will retreat further from the world, cataloguing his books, drowning in his books. She sees a still-life: old man with books.

The farewells are late in the afternoon. Drinks, hors d’oeuvres, decent champagne for a change. Not everyone seems to be there, though. Gregan is, of course, and the Pro Vice-Chancellor (Enterprise and Innovation), but some of the library staff stay away. In the end, six had put their hands up. Or were elbowed to the exit; it depends who you ask. What are the others thinking? Pocketing their golden handshakes with a smile and mixed feelings? A sense of betrayal, too. But whose? All of an age, they are: the old hands, the greater part of the library’s experience. And they keep mentioning that in the speeches, too: the experience, the knowledge, the impressive contributions. But that was precisely what counted against them.

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It’s a different type of drawing, the drawing of the architect. Architects draw things that don’t yet exist; they draw things into existence. How to draw like an architect. He remembers that: the way the lines had to overlap, not stopping where they met, but crossing over to form an intersection, the corner precise within it. Overlapping the ends of the lines, drawing each line with a single clean stroke, drawing with boldness and purpose. And the feel of the drawing pen, light in the fingers but firm on the paper. How significant the black ink seemed as the line came into being, as if the line once drawn could never be erased, as if drawing were actually building.

The young architect draws quickly. It’s just three weeks since her visit, and they are perched on stools at a drawing table, as she reveals her ideas in her white-black-white architect’s office. Photographs of contemporary interiors line the walls, the same ones she used in the lecture: the stables converted into apartments, the restaurant conversion, the re-built warehouse. She is throwing ideas around with her pen the way other people talk. She talks as she draws, explaining the ideas; pen and voice work as a team.

‘I really like your idea of keeping the old doorway at one end of the warehouse and the big arched window at the other. But let’s emphasise them.’

So she takes the openings as a motif and makes another opening in the middle of the space by putting in an arch that mirrors the openings at either end.

‘It’s not a ‘real’ arch. It’s not structural. Only holds itself up.’

The arch appears on the paper, a big broad arch of laminated timber, attached at the top to the exposed timber truss. An orb at its apex is sketched, and the timber fretwork linking the sides to the brick walls. But she resists Raymond’s idea of keeping the old stairwell.

‘How you arrive at a space is critically important for how you experience it’, she says.

She wants a circular stairwell right in the middle of the space so that the whole open area is revealed as you wind your way up the stairs. A prism-shaped skylight above will give it a celestial quality, and glass treads on the staircase will refract and reflect the light above. It’s a staircase you can see through, right up to the sky.

‘You will feel like you are being lifted up’, she says, ‘like you’re ascending a staircase to heaven.’

Raymond is happy to go along with that, but then she installs the library downstairs! Punching big holes in the end walls to let light in, and filling in the holes with glass bricks. It’s genius, this: thin glass bricks stacked together to look like books on a shelf, standing, lying, leaning. The idea is exhilirating, but it ignores the brief. The library is meant to be upstairs.

‘It’s wonderful, but…’

  ‘You will still have books upstairs.’ Peering at him through her black-framed glasses, trying to reassure, sensing his resistance. ‘Here. A small, intimate library. A private library. An alcove. For all your really important books.’

And the pen is at work again, detailing how that might look: an almost enclosed space, a narrow entrance. ‘You might even have to turn sideways to enter…’ It gives a sense of just how private a private library could be. But there’s no desk at its centre, there’s no space for a desk, just the outlines of a chair. Then it’s not just any chair.

‘Marcel Breuer. You have such an affection for modernism.’ She pulls a catalogue off the shelf, flicks through it until she finds the chair. ‘They still make them. The Wassily. You don’t sit in that chair. You’re sort of suspended in it. Perfect for reading.’

A Bauhaus design: tubular chrome frame with black leather straps stretched across it like strips of skin. It’s modernism, pure modernism, just as he remembers it.

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With the first day of work, Raymond finds the sense of ownership he developed over the past months threatened. A certain way of being in the warehouse has disappeared: the way he would walk up the heavy wooden stairs, sit at his favourite windows, or enjoy the angled evening sunlight striking the dining table as he read. These are just memories now. And he can’t even refer to it as ‘the warehouse’ anymore, it is now ‘the site’. He counters this by being there everyday. He arrives early in the morning, puts his hard hat on, talks briefly to the builders, then watches the work proceed. He is careful not to get in the way, careful not to give any hint that he is wanting to supervise them, but he reminds them just with his presence that he is the owner.

They don’t like being watched, but he ignores their irritation. Looks pass between them when he arrives, and there are more looks when he walks around with the plans, just like an architect would. He is determined not to miss anything, especially at this point, when everything is happening quickly. As they work, he is there with his camera, documenting each step, sometimes before the dust has settled. He finds it exhilirating, how the architect’s plans — bold lines once drawn on drafting paper — can unleash all this energy.

Downstairs they punch two big holes in the walls for the glass brick panels, having already inserted lintels and props to make the walls safe. The openings dramatically change the space for the few hours before they are covered up again, sealed with rigid metal sheets against weather and intruders. What’s left of the building’s history of manufacture — the few lights, the derelict toilet, the metal angles on the walls where storage racks would once have been — are gone inside a day. The old staircase stays for now, it will be their access for most of the project, but it no longer looks like it did. Dust covers everything, and the builders’ heavy boots show no respect.

They move upstairs. The big door onto the street is safe for now; it will be access for building materials, not unlike it would’ve been once. Otherwise the upstairs is stripped bare. Raymond watches, documenting each move, as the fittings are ripped out. The bathroom and kitchen are completely gone in a couple of days; only the remains of the plumbing tell you where they had once been. There is no sense remaining of the seventies renovation; what is left looks like an abandoned factory.

Then one morning Raymond arrives to an empty building. He dons his hard hat and waits, but no-one comes. It is the architect who phones with the news. Two weeks into the build, the builder has gone broke, the business is to be placed in administration. Gabrielle is perplexed, apologetic and reassuring all at the same time.

‘It’s just an interruption’, she says. ‘A month, maybe two. I’m sorry, but I think there’s only a slim chance now that the build will be finished before Christmas.’

Raymond spends the rest of the day on site trying to catch the builder on the phone. He calls Damian, since the builder had been Damian’s recommendation, but Damian knows nothing. Perplexed, apologetic and reassuring, too. It’s ‘just an interruption’. It is late in the afternoon before the builder calls back. Yes, he says, they can trade their out of their situation, but he doesn’t sound very convincing. And the idea of Raymond finding another builder is quickly dismissed. The contracts they have signed are still valid for now. It is ‘just an interruption’.

There has only been enough time for demolition work in these two weeks, the builders haven’t yet started building. Except for one thing: they have cut the hole for the staircase in the upstairs floor. Perhaps Raymond hadn’t really appreciated how big the staircase was going to be, but he can see it now, and in this empty building, it is enormous. Here is the architect’s dream: the light flooding down from upstairs, the two floors united, a whole sense of space newly created. Raymond stands in the centre of the shaft of light, and imagines the glass treads of the stairs winding their way upwards, the architect’s staircase to heaven. This is what it means to be an architect: to take the journey from an idea to a drawing to the reality of a physical space.

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Had he expected the art to be beautiful? He doesn’t think the word ‘beautiful’ makes any sense. There has to be a different way of judging it. But the building? — That is beautiful! The sheer volume of it, it’s huge circular pillars, the big arched windows in the metre-thick walls. What did it look like before, when the Arsenale was its own place? The Arsenale as it was, without the art and the spectators and all the paraphernalia of the Venice Biennale. And he imagines that, standing there, ignoring the installations and letting the space dominate. Somewhere he’d read that Dante used the Arsenale as inspiration for a canto in Inferno. Yes, Dante Alighieri had stood here, too.

In the days that follow, there are dozens more Biennale events scattered across Venice. The exhibitions are often installed in palazzi, but these are smaller than you might imagine a ‘palazzo’ to be, often with nothing especially ‘palatial’ about them. Old, but not really grand; some of them quite run-down. This is what excites the Curator of Contemporary Art, the relationship between the art and the architecture. It’s the way, she explains, (in that particular way she has of explaining), that the ‘contemporary’ of the artwork is given greater force through its conflictive juxtaposition with the architecture of another time. That is how she says it, ‘conflictive juxtaposition’. He does his best, he remembers the terms, but struggles to remember what it was they are looking at when she said something like ‘conflictive juxtaposition’.

She is dismissive, sometimes, as soon as they enter an exhibition. 

‘But why?’ he asks. It seems a reasonable question.

‘Because they’ve ignored the building. They’ve treated the space as if it’s just another blank art gallery wall.’

‘So how would you do it?’

‘I wouldn’t put that art in here. Big paintings in this space? It’s wrong. The wrong art for the building.’

They are stopped in front of a large painting, a spoof on the Renaissance. There’s a  Mona Lisa in it, and a Leonardo Da Vinci, and airplanes and mobile phones. A security camera peers out through the canvas. The work of a Russian, it exasperates her.

‘Still coming to terms with their so-called freedom!’ she sneers.

As they navigate from one Biennale event to the next, Raymond experiences Venice up close. Alleys that shrink into passageways, passageways that dive under buildings, that come to a dead end without warning. Small squares that suddenly just appear; old stone wells capped in ageing metal; the sounds of footsteps on paving stones; the clamour of the huge gulls dining out of garbage bags in the alleyways. Everywhere, there’s water, caressing the buildings and slyly eating away at them, the stone walls half-submerged, like gutted fish. He finds the arched bridges beautiful. They cross a canal and he pauses to take in the stillness: the boats tied up, bobbing gently, the reflections of Venice fluid in the grey-black water. A gondola appears, inexplicably, it seems. Cass calls him on.

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The restaurant is on the far side of the Giardini in a residential neighbourhood that doesn’t look a lot like the rest of Venice, because there is so much space. They are dining on the pavement. There’s a view towards the water in one direction, and a view into a walled garden in the other. Boys kick a ball around the campo.

‘I was thinking of returning to Architecture.’

They have finished their entrées of stewed salt cod and now the waiter has cleared their plates. Raymond judges it to be the right moment.

‘You mean, to study? To become a student again?’ The word is whispered, as if the suggestion is somehow scandalous.

‘I was looking at it as sort of…unfinished business.’

‘This is because of the warehouse project. You’ve been so immersed in it.’

‘I started going to lectures, and I’ve been to a couple of architecture events. That’s how I found the architect, Gabriele.’

‘I wondered about that…’

‘She gave a lecture about her work, but it wasn’t the work that struck me, it was what she said. Buildings have histories, buildings have lives. We don’t need to demolish the past to build the future…’

  ‘Now you’re in Venice, where everything is history. Well, almost everything.’

‘I’ve been reading a lot. There’s a whole new section in the library: history, theory, contemporary design journals, and lots and lots on Modernism. I’ve been re-reading the works I read in Architecture School. It starts to come back, refreshed.’

‘But Raymond, you don’t seriously see yourself becoming an architect, do you?…Do you?’

He hasn’t thought about that. ‘Becoming an architect.’ It’s the wrong question. What does it mean to ‘become an architect’, anyway? It’s for another time. What he wants to do is become a student again, to pick up from where he’d left off, and the simplest way to do that is to return to where it all started. That’s what he thought, except that it isn’t working.

‘It’s all changed. They’ve demolished the old school and built a new one. They don’t call it a ‘school of architecture’ anymore, it’s ‘environments’, now. It’s a different world, everyone sees with different eyes. It doesn’t makes sense to me like it used to.’

‘That doesn’t surprise me at all. It was a long time ago…’

‘But it’s got big on me. It’s what I think about most of the time…’

He simply felt alienated sitting up the back in the lecture theatre, listening to a different language, trying to understand a sensibility that was barely recognisable. The truth? He didn’t belong there.

‘Why not do Fine Arts? You don’t need a professional qualification, you just want to enjoy the field.’ Over the main course of more Venetian fish, Cass warms to the idea of Raymond doing a Fine Arts degree. This is her territory, and she paints a picture of people like Raymond happily returning to university to study things for which there is no professional outcome and no specific expectation.

‘Best time of your life’, she says. And she talks quickly about about museums and galleries, about periods and histories, about movements and turning points, about art heroes and art warriors, and she makes it sound almost irresistible.

Except it’s not the answer for Raymond, because the point of returning to study is to study architecture, whatever the outcome of that might be. As he listens to her expound on the joys of the Fine Arts degree, he realises what his mistake had been: to imagine returning to the institution. Because there is no romance there, no possibility of experiencing awe like there is in Venice, no moment of euphoria in discovering the Renaissance as a set of architect’s drawings. And then he remembers Robertson, and the romantic idea of the architecture student takes hold once again.

‘We had this lecturer back then, Robertson. We all thought he was the best design teacher in the school. He had this way of explaining the process of design; he made the act of creation totally compelling. We were in awe of him. Some of the staff were too, I think. Then one day, we found out something really shocking: Robertson had never built anything. Whatever buildings he’d designed, whatever brilliant schemes he had fashioned on his drafting table, none of them had ever been built. He was an architect without architecture. It was devastating at the time, I didn’t get it at all. But I do now. Architecture for him was a way of understanding the world.’

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