This extension of a university library is designed around a rescued work of art. Two large mosaic panels depicting scenes from the Iliad suffered their own near-perilous odyssey before finding a new home at Harvard’s Center for Hellenic Studies, after languishing in a warehouse for twenty years following their removal from a corporate headquarters in Newark, NJ.

The acquisition of this monumental art coincided with the client’s programmatic needs to create a large meeting room at the heart of its principal academic building, and to animate that building’s garden courtyard as a principal gathering place for scholars and the visiting public. The Architect’s solution to meet both needs was to place the 10 x 17 ft panels back to back so that the inner mosaic forms a wall of the meeting room(s) and the outer wall forms a prominent edge to the courtyard, highly visible from the main entrance to the building. This wall is at a skewed angle to the orthogonal walls of the courtyard to allow a new entry to the space from a former exterior door on axis with the Common Room and to retain a window to the courtyard from a Fellow’s study on the opposite side of the court. An oculus in the roof of the new addition above a figure of structural glass floor maintains daylighting to the library stacks below, formerly provided by a skylight/monitor in the garden.

The subject of the two murals is the Pillars of Herakles, or the straits of Gibraltar – with one mural illustrating the African shore, and the other the European (the centerpiece of the original triptych, the Rock of Gilbraltar, is housed in the Newark Museum of Art). The Center’s current director, Prof. Gregory Nagy explains the meaning of the passage to the Atlantic Ocean to the ancients:

"It's the portal to mediate between the known and the unknown," he says. What's more, he believes that after the mosaics languished in storage for so many years, their arrival to CHS represents a kind of homecoming. "In ancient Greek, the symbolic word is nostos," Nagy explains. "Which is not only a homecoming, but a return to light and life."

Photography by Anice Hoachlander