Koolhaas's Seattle Public Library has a genesis that stretches back long
before he won the 1999 competition for its design. "There is a clear
line connecting that project all the way back to Delirious New York,"
says architect Mark Schendel of Studio/Gang
Architects, who, along his partner Jeanne Gang worked with Koolhaas
at projects like the Grand Palais at Lille.
New York, Koolhaas studied how the programs of the
Athletic Club subverted the usual uniformity of the
blank-faced tower to become the "apotheosis of the Skyscraper as
instrument of the Culture of Congestion." The Club harbours a sometime
surreal collection of activities - squash courts, a swimming pool, a colonic
center, an indoor golf course - united only by the circulatory core of
13 elevators that unite and feed all the floors. The 9th combines a room
full of punching bags with an oyster bar. "Eating oysters with boxing
gloves, naked," says Koolhaas, " such is the 'plot' of the ninth
story, or, the 20th century in action."
sees the Athletic Club as "an incubator for adults," the inhabitants
transforming themselves into new beings, this time according to
their individual designs. Also, to be sure, an expression of class,
of "segregation of mankind into two tribes."
second tribe, the non-elite tribe to which most of belong, inhabits a
far more constricted
world, marked, says Schendel, by the dominance of the horizontal,
the single plane that we all move around on." The mall, the superhighway,
the infinite horizon of suburban sprawl, are the hallmarks of modern life.
Even the traditional skyscraper is little more an endless - and endlessly
generic - horizontal plane, chopped into sections that are stacked one
atop the other.
hubris was to create the perfection of "an architecture that anyone
can do," and a concept of universal space that would be enabling
because it could be adapted to serve any human purpose. What sped the
acceptance of his architecture within a market-driven economy, however,
was its capacity to standardize efficiencies that could limit possibilities
and flatten human experience to what was predictable and controllable.
hubris takes a very different form, that of creating single buildings
that encapsulate the "culture of congestion" by breaking free
from the generically modular nature of most modern architecture. .An entry
in a 1989 competition for a Grand Bibliotheque in Paris included a spiral
of reading rooms, scooped out of an enormous cube of floors and floors
of bookstacks. By the time of a competition for still another Paris library
just four years later, the entire building became a continuous spiral,
"a warped interior boulevard that exposes and relates all programmatic
elements." The visitor strolls along the boulevard, and "becomes
a Baudelairean flaneur, inspecting and being seduced by a world of books
and information - by the urban scenario."
found Seattle a very receptive breeding ground for his ideas. "It's
a very specific culture here," says Koolhaas. "There is a very
common sensibility and a highly developed sense of solidarity between
the rich and the poor. I think it's the only part of America where the
rich are angst-ridden and want to do good. It is also a culture where
many people have been involved in the digital world. What connects everyone
is a dedication to reason and to reasoning, and I think that enabled us
to do the project and explains the way it turned out."
me,says Koolhaas, it is a building that is at the same time
old-fashioned in terms of resurrecting the public (realm), and contemporary
in terms of addressing the key issue whether the book is still relevant."
library is eleven stories tall. What was fascinating, explains
Koolhaas, is that
when we came back and started looking at the program, (we divided) it
into only into two cavities - those elements and programmatic components
that we assumed would remain stable over time, and those where we assumed
they would start to mutate and change their character fairly quickly.
The stable programs are set within a series of five stacked and staggered
boxes, each with its own, separate mechanical system, that include below-grade
parking, a ground-level entrance floor with an auditorium and children's
library, a floor of meeting rooms, a four-story book stack, and a penthouse
of administrative offices. On the roofs of the boxes are open floors,
all with clear current functions, but ready to mutate for meet future
Wrapped around everything - and separate from the primary structure holding
up the building - is a continuous fabric of steel with inset four-by-seven-foot
diamond-shaped windows that is actually a second structure, providing
additional bracing against earthquakes and wind. The glass, itself, has
a mesh interlayer that lets in light while controlling glare and heat.
In Seattle, the straight geometric cube of the previous Paris projects
is sliced and diced to envelop the projections of the various boxes, creating
a complex form of
indentations and overhangs, with sections that are diagonal as well as
vertical and horizontal. The reflections of cars in the street race along
the facets, just line in the Saul Bass title sequence for Hitchcock's
North by Northwest. The glassy exterior shimmers like a jewelbox.
Its varied volumes, even in their massive, diamond-gridded linearity,
evoke a cool modernism that's somehow also richly voluptuous.
building takes up a full city block. It's set into a hill so what's a
basement along 5th avenue becomes a street-level entrance on 4th. To the
right of the 5th avenue
entrance is a grand staircase that's been transformed into an open, 275-seat
auditorium, seats set on its treads, and its side aisles forming a stairway
descending down to the 4th avenue entrance floor.
5th avenue entrance level contains the grandest of the library's great
spaces. A living room at the scale of the city,." is
how Koolhaas describes it. Its reception area has a large flat monitor
display with male and female virtual guides that greet you; the
same guides pop up on video screens throughout the library. To the right
is a coffee cart where homeless teens train to be baristas, and a gift
shop that's mounted on tracks to allow its five components to fold up
into a solid box after hours. To the left is a spacious reading room,
over which the steel diamond facade soars, flooding the space with light.
A teen center offers two sound domes where listeners will be able to blast
music at ear-splitting volumes without disturbing other patrons.
The books are placed along a book spiral, a continuous four-story
ramp. Joshua Ramus calls it probably the most unique element
of this building. He compares the process of finding books in a
conventional library to being led along a trail of tears. You're
handed the Dewey decimal system, which is already obtuse to all of us,
and the next step is that the building doesn't even support that very
obtuse classification system. Our aim was to create a system for physical
organiza- tion that matched the organization of the Dewey. At the bottom
of the spiral is 000; the top of the spiral is 999. Markings on
aisle floors indicate the dewey number of the books in the adjacent stacks.
Indicators in the elevators show the Dewey numbers covered on each of
the four floors. It's always directly obvious to the patron how
to find the books, says Ramus.
There's enough room to double the current holdings of around 750,000 books,
The spiral is brightly lit and the stacks have a sense of openness and
says the spiral system encourages people "to browse through
the entire trajectory, so that you don't always move with a particular
aim. Ramus adds, There was a study done that made the claim
that something like 70 percent of all positive hits in a library were
actually through serendipity-people do not take out what they came to
the library to look for in the first place. You can now browse the entire
collection, and you're not shunted into a small fiefdom in the control
of a single librarian.
Normally stationed throughout the collection, librarians here work together
in an open
19,500 square foot floor that Koolhaas has named the mixing chamber,
a great tall space with an aluminum floor and black columns whose spray-on
insulation includes a mica chip glitter. Different areas of the library
have different acoustics. As opposed to the reading room, where the intent
was to dampen sound, the mixing chamber has an aggressively lively acoustic
that seems to mirror its intense interactivity.
In time, says Ramus, the reason you will want to access
a library like this will not necessarily be the physical materials or
even the technology but the ability to curate information. Koolhaas
describes the mixing chamber as being based on the model of the
trading floor, where the librarians are the experts in a trading room
of information. Librarians who are specialists in a subject will
be able to offer what Ramus calls interdisciplinary help,"
allowing patrons to refine their searches. The chamber has 132 computers,
and offers virtual reference service via online chat. There's
even a dumbwaiter to carry books between the spiral and the mixing chamber.
Koolhaas has made the library a showplace for his love for strong colors
and varied finishes. Floors are made of bamboo, wood scraps, aluminum,
and poured polyurethane in in bright hues - in the children's library,
it's a rubberized pink.
The library's circulatory systems-the stairways, escalators, and elevators-are
neon chartreuse. The escalators, lit from within, seem to glow, providing
a pulsating visual anchor distinguishable even at farthest reaches of
the library. The escalator connecting the living room and mixing chamber
includes a Tony Oursler
freak-you-out installation, "Commu"
that projects videos of heads, eyes, mouths, and ears onto soft, egg-shaped
screens. (To view it, click here
and then click on Works, then on Recent, then on Seattle Public Library,
and finally on the "Watch the Videos" link on the page that
then appears. Another Oursler piece, "Guilty" is at the Museum
of Contemporary Art.) It's a good reminder of the library's role is
not just to soothe, but to provoke..
interior, the steel of the diamond facade is painted robin's egg blue.
The meeting-room level has corridors with amorphously shaped walls in
shades of deep red and purple; walking along it is like walking through
a ventricle.. The polyurethane foam seats in the auditorium
are lime green. The curtain, a grassy print on one side, and a warm cream
with green pleats on the reverse, is by longtime Koolhaas collaborator
and companion Petra
Blaisse. Her firm is called Inside/Outside,
which is fitting, since she brings the landscaping she designed for outside
the library into the building as giant photos of plants printed on carpets
that are each a different hyperintense two-tone green, maroon, blue, red,
remain: Will librarians really want to work so closely together?
Will users really be able to take advantage of their expertise? Will the
Rube Goldberg stretch of conveyor belts that feed the automated checkout
based) be able to resist breaking down?
A few glitches have
already been noted. Koolhaas was visibly perturbed when an escalator ground
to a halt under the weight of the mob following him on a press tour, and
the dimmed lighting in the mixing chamber made it seem uninviting.
"How do we get more light here?" he implored into his cell phone.
"It's crazy." The glossy floors in the elevators easily show
scuffs, and older eyes will probably find the LEDs displaying floor information
all but impossible to read
in the glaring light of the cabs. The book spiral has already revealed
an unanticipated affinity to a roach motel. Patrons are easily finding
their way in through the up-only escalators, but are having a hard time
finding their way out. Chartreuse signs have been taped up with instructions.
More than 25,000 people passed through the library on its opening day,
May 23, and media reports indicated most were both awed and delighted.
One can imagine them as atoms bouncing against one another, cross-pollinating
even as they morph into their new selves, creating the kinds of creative
interactions that are an article of faith for Koolhaas, who believes that
if you create buildings that encourage such contacts, good things will
That rush of activity
will probably remain the norm for the foreseeable future. Most patrons
will experience their new library loudly buzzing with activity, yet Koolhaas's
and Ramus's achievement may actually best be appreciated on a slow day.
Sitting in the far
corner of the tenth-floor grand reading room, atop Blaisse's
deep-hued floral carpet, you see the sweeping wall of diamond windows
rise at a soothing 45-degree angle to a height of 40 feet, to the top
of the administration box, whose walls overlooking the reading room are
covered in square white pillows that muffle sound even as they remind
you of a pasha's harem. The pillows continue along the ceiling underneath
the box, from which simple square white columns descend to the floor.
At points where the diamonds of the steel frame window wall are subtly
doubled to strengthen the load, reinforcing columns slope to the floor,
where they're encircled by low, almost comically gentle steel railings.
In the middle distance the happy chartreuse splash of
the grand staircase and escalator leads down to the book spiral; while
farther off elevators glide noiselessly up and down in their glass and
The rap on modernism
is that it comes in just two flavors-the cold perfection of Mies or a
cacophonous experimentalism that often seems more about fashion than architecture.
The Seattle Public Library points to a third way, a new maturity.
As you take in all the funky shapes and angles and textures and colors,
look-at-me bravado suddenly dissolves, and you become aware of how deeply
harmonious these spaces are, how they both nurture and resolve the contentious
multiplicities of modern life. You're blindsided by unexpected emotion,
enveloped in a profound sense of harmony that's only supposed to be found
in the likes of a Greek temple (also brightly painted in its original
incarnation), or a Gothic cathedral. This is a place of grace.
Sleekness in Seattle
- the new Seattle Public Library, by OMA,
Rem Koolhaas, Joshua Ramus - navigation: