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Sleekness in Seattle- by Lynn Becker

The new Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, redefines modernism for the 21st century. (originally published in somewhat different form under the title "Not by the Book" in the Chicago Reader, June 11, 2004)


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  OMA - Office for Metropolitan

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Creating a great building isn't quite as hard as getting the planets in perfect alignment, - the closest we've gotten to that in the last 4,000 years was six out of nine, back in 1952 B.C. - but it's not a bad analogy. The progression of ways things can go wrong is Murphy's Law in Malthusian compounding.

A great building requires a great client - not just a willing institution, but an iron-willed personality to go with it, someone who can overcome the endless obstacles lobbed his or her way, and even then, you could wind up with a Robert Moses in his dotage, obsessively plotting to bulldoze New York City into a theme park for expressways. But if the planets align just so, you might just get Deborah Jacobs, the velvet Bismarck behind Seattle's stunning new public library.

On becoming the city's chief librarian in 1997, Jacobs began ceaselessly lobbying for an ambitious rebuilding program for the city's entire library system. She persuaded local voters to approve a $194 million bond issue they'd voted down only four years before, and raised another $82 million from private donors, including $20,000,000 from Bill and Melinda Gates, and, not to be outdone, $22,500,000 from another Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen. She guided the project through a change in administrations and converted an initially skeptical new mayor into a strong supporter. She managed to add 70,000 books, DVDS and other items to the library's collections even as the new building was being finished.

Would that Chicago had had someone like Jacobs to save us from the
post-modernist lump of our own central library, but that was another time, and a different kind of story.


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