Built to serve the various branches of Harvard Medical School and the Greater Boston medical profession, this vital educational facility holds approximately one million volumes. Tightly woven into the complex of buildings that constitute the medical campus, the classical limestone surface harmonizes with the surroundings while being unmistakably modern. This is evident in its reinforced concrete framing and general articulation, most notable in the projecting fins of the cornice.
Innovations are also apparent on the interior, where four vertical core towers containing the mechanical systems define the open seven-story central court. Constructed around a grand staircase, the library's perimeter is defined by open stacks and reading alcoves on the periphery, with carrels projecting out over the central space. Reader traffic is carefully regulated, with books and periodicals in separate areas; the fifth floor harbors rare books and manuscripts, an auditorium, and conference rooms.
The court lends a dramatic aspect to the vista, providing a welcome prospect for visitors and users. In terms of the open space, the placement of stacks and readers' carrels, and the emphasis on daylight (controlled by sliding louvers), one may consider the Countway as an antecedent to Louis Kahn's high-profile Exeter Library, 1967–1972, at Phillips Academy, Exeter, New Hampshire.
Though Nikolaus Pevsner famously declared in his Outline of European Architecture (1943) that “a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture,” in a corner of the plaza before Francis A. Countway Library, near steps leading to the original quad of Harvard Medical School, there is a chain link bike cage of significant interest. The white canvas pediment roof rests on five slender concrete gray piers on each of the longitudinal facades, rising from concrete drums roughly two feet in diameter. Black cylindrical poles mark the corners and the divisions into bays. Through the locked gate of the front short side, we glimpse the trussed roof with its neon fluorescent light suspended in the middle, visually and physically separating the two rows of bicycles; total capacity is fifty-six.