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Sleekness in Seattle- by Lynn Becker

Rem Koolhaas, Joshua Ramus, OMA and the
Seattle Public Library



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Seattle Public LibraryRem 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.

In 1978's Delirious New York, Koolhaas studied how the programs of the
38-story Downtown Athletic Club subverted the usual uniformity of the Rem Koolhaas, Joshua Ramus
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."

Koolhaas 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."

The second tribe, the non-elite tribe to which most of belong, inhabits a far more Seattle Public Library Children's Libraryconstricted 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.

Mies's 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.

Koolhaas's 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."

Koolhaas found Seattle a very receptive breeding ground for his ideas. "It's a very specific culture here," says Koolhaas. "There is a very highly developed
common sensibility and a highly developed sense of solidarity between Seatrtle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas
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."

“For 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."

The library is eleven stories tall. “What was fascinating,“ explains Koolhaas, “is Seattle Public Library Living Roomthat 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 needs.

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 Seattle Public Library exteriorof 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.

The 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 Rem Koolhaas Seattle Public Libraryavenue 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.

The 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; Koolhaas Seattle Public Library Living Roomthe 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 Koolhaas Seattle Public Library Book Spiralelement 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 space.
Seattle Public Library book stacksKoolhaas 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 Koolhaas Seattle Public Library  Mixing Chamberopen 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 a Koolhaas Seattle Public Library escalatoralmost 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..

On the 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 auditoriumSeattle Public Library Theater 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, or purple.

Questions 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 system (RFID 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 Koolhaas Seattle Public Library exterioruninviting. "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 result.

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 Koolhaas Seattle Public Library  Reading Room
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 Seattle Public Library Reading Roomof the grand staircase and escalator leads down to the book spiral; while farther off elevators glide noiselessly up and down in their glass and concrete wrappers.

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, the
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:

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