Archis 2004 #5

When was the last time a public building was so acclaimed? OMA’s Central Library in Seattle

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Seattle has a very specific culture, which is in a way unique in America, in the sense that it has developed a common sensibility, a highly developed sense of solidarity between the rich and the poor. I think this is the only place in America where the rich are angst-ridden and want to do good, it is also the culture of the digital world in which many people are involved, and as such they are radical, even revolutionary, in their intentions, without necessarily being revolutionary in their preferences. But what unites everyone is certainly dedication to reason, and to reasoning, and I think that this enabled us to do this project and explains why it has turned out the way it has.


Rem Koolhaas, opening speech on Sunday, 23 May 2004, in Seattle.

 

It started at the airport. The taxi driver said he thought the new library was beautiful. In the hotel I heard children talking about ‘that cool big thing’, while the receptionist told me that everyone would be at the opening on Sunday. Indeed, everyone – 26,500 people in one afternoon – visited the Seattle Central Library. And while I took in the scene, I wondered when I had last witnessed the citizens of any town actually reacting enthusiastically to a new public building. Maybe it’s because this library has been configured as an interior public domain. This engenders associations with Toyo Ito’s Multimedia Centre in Sendai and, perhaps, with MVRDV’s Expo Pavilion in Hannover. But, in fact, these comparisons fall short. This popular library is no temporary exhibition building, nor a box of cubes; moreover, it plays a different role in the public domain.

 

This ‘shaken up’ polymorphous building houses 750,000 books in an open configuration. Some two million visitors are anticipated each year.1 It returns the public domain to the city, a tremendous achievement in a world where skyscrapers are increasingly closing their doors to the public. All the more important, therefore, to stand back and ask why could it happen here? In a highly transparent process the commissioning bodies, city librarian Deborah Jacobs, and the board of the library chose an architect who speaks the same language about the ‘library’ phenomenon, who had the same aspirations and saw the same dangers. In selecting an architect, they ruled out the usual design competition, instead they were looking for a particular attitude. Does that point to a new moral? Is a competition only for clients who don’t know what they want? OMA was selected from a shortlist of architects such as Norman Foster and Arata Isozaki, finally beating the other remaining candidate Steven Holl.

 

OMA soon discovered that there was an issue of considerable importance involved that was of particular significance here in Seattle: under the impact of digital communication, books are simply fading into the background. This raises an ominous question – have books perhaps had their day in the history of mankind? If so, the social geometry of the library must also change: the relationship between books, architecture, the public and library staff. Nonetheless, many people maintain that the popularity of the library as an institution is fundamental, and there is absolutely no need for reinvention and certainly not in terms of its outward form. In which case, Rem Koolhaas maintains, the library is in danger of losing touch with the present. In his view, the library can only survive by itself becoming the place of the present, by embodying public space.

 

Disappearing and seeking

 

OMA has been exploring the library phenomenon since 1989, first with the competition for the Très Grande Bibliothèque de France (TGB) – intended to contain all the books ever published in France – then with the design for the library for the University of Jussieu, also in Paris. Here in Seattle it seems that OMA’s uncompleted project has finally been realized. When the brief was reexamined in a new context, the fundamental issues emerged once again. With the TGB, the crux of the matter for Koolhaas was that the architectural representation should disappear along with the fading phenomenon of physical presence. That disappearing process was embodied in the thin, semi-transparent elevation that would withdraw from representation. Koolhaas explains that in Seattle, too, the design research took as its springboard the question of disappearance;2 the disappearance of the books through the uniform grey plastic covers (customary in America), but also the disappearance of the classified distinction between books which increasingly address subjects that reveal ‘overlap’ (either in category or discipline). And now that digital communication has developed even further, accessing information will also become not site-specific.

 

Picking up on this, the architectonic programme is bluntly divided into two complementary sections: a stable and a variable section. This takes the form of five floating boxes, containing the stable programme (offices and meeting spaces). The platforms above these boxes provide space for the transforming activities; they introduce an ambiguous urbanity into the library, underpinning the flexible way in which ‘contact’ is made with the books, both digital and physical. The library thus becomes a ‘social condenser’.

 

OMA and the library representatives came to the mutual decision that the old-fashioned classification system should be replaced by an alternative numbered structure (000 to 999), thus making it possible to follow a quantitative design strategy. Each book – out of a potential maximum of one-and-a-half million – would be allocated a permanent place for the rest of its life. Books would be housed in identical cases, released from the straightjacket of the ancien régime of the category. No new bookcases would be added, and ‘old’ books would no longer be moved to a depot. The spiral-shaped circulation route – familiar from such projects as the Kunsthal, Jussieu or the Berlin Embassy – also appears here to articulate the new classification. Moreover, it keeps the travel route short and allows for wandering along books, random browsing. The new logical numbering system would largely relieve library staff of the task of searching for ‘misplaced’ books.

 

Searching for specific books takes place in the so-called Mixing Chamber – a central hub hanging below the Book Spiral. The aluminium floor hazily reflects the image of the city centre, the image of a mysterious metropolis. The space has been configured as a ‘trading room’ where library staff, provided with individual communication systems, can ‘trade’ knowledge directly. Digital communication not only reduces search-time, but also alters the relationship with the visitor. The thankless task of continually reorganizing categories, tracking down books and moving sections of the collection to depots, is now a thing of the past. The role of the staff is that of curator, who defines the meeting between book and visitor. This is the first library in the world with a system like this.

 

Programming urbanity

 

Architecture’s archetypal role is to provide accommodation. The Seattle library, however, has been built to create a public space at ground level, a place for communication. This approach expands the library programme: as an alternative to staying at home and watching television, you can go to the library to be ‘updated’. This takes place in the Living Room on the level of 5th Avenue – a large space carved out between the books – where you can eat and drink, talk and play loud music,3 and where you can relax and attend public events.4

 

The rest of this level is also given over to public accessibility. The Microsoft Auditorium, which is only separated from the other spaces by a curtain, connects 4th and 5th Avenue, thus forming a path cutting right through the building. Because of the height differences in this part of the city, the level of the two avenues differs by nearly two whole storeys. This difference is bridged by the auditorium – a ‘hollow’ that functions as a venue for events of topical relevance. The children’s library on 4th Avenue has tilted columns interlinking the various grid systems of the library and the car park. And the passage that runs under the overhang of the building invites you to look in and see the activities going on inside. The elevation, with its fishnet-like structure, points up the elimination of the conventional separation between inside and outside, between public and private, between lost and informed.

 

OMA is currently designing and building polymorphous sculptural forms of this nature in a number of places. The polymorphous design shakes up the cube, a sign for the plot to release the programme from its constraints. The absence of partition walls on the platforms turns a quantitative given into an impressive experience: the library is staggeringly deep, the full dimensions of a city block! The deep interior is pleasantly lit by the glazed roof, the skies above you; a public garden from a nearby skyscraper lies at your feet. Situated on the highest platform above the Book Spiral, the Reading Room offers a panoramic view of downtown Seattle. This is a new type of terrain in which depth equates with openness.

 

I have the idea that the way the volume has been stacked and shifted challenges the limitations of the Downtown Athletic Club that Koolhaas discussed in Delirious New York. It seems to me that Koolhaas has replaced the closed interior for metropolitan individuals by a public space. Is that an affirming or a critical act? While you can read a book in comfort at the top, this interior, as it were, invites you to address city life. One could say that this architecture brings urbanity to a climax, by elevating the role of the metropolis for the social being to a theme.

 

At one time Koolhaas used the programme as a method for reading Manhattan. But from the Globe Theatre, the Perisphere and Raymond Hood’s Black Brick Wall to the Kunsthal, the Villa dal’Alva and the House in Floriac onwards, he seems to be aware that the visible, manifested structure materializes human activities (i.e. the programme). His polymorphous form liberates the library from the restrictions of cubiform confinement, clarifying differences with a mysterious cubic paradigm of current European critical regionalism, a trend that was declared defunct 15 years ago, but still dominates the local scenes.

 

Naked architecture

 

Given the fancy, low cost claddings it favours, OMA architecture was repeatedly criticized for a lack of craft. But here in Seattle the regime of the traditional surface has been replaced by designs with just construction. This method of a ‘naked architecture’ seems to deliver the desired expressions: polygonal corners, a cloud that locally supports the façade by doubling the ‘I’ beam mullions, slanting columns that tie back cantilevers, a black ceiling that reveals switching of the construction system (from concrete to steel), horizontal cross braces to redistribute the horizontal shocks from an earthquake. The elements are articulated to form vocabularies; all reveals an approach of naked architecture that grants sheer construction a taste of reasoning.

 

This library continues a certain type of spatial experience: the Dutch Embassy in Berlin, the Seattle public library and perhaps the Kunsthal in Rotterdam. The architecture contains an unusual interior condition, it alters the convention of working with gravity. This produces surprising interiors: the intersecting walls that take the load path, obscure voids, three-dimensional balance disciplines, a stacking of floors that no longer follows the conventional repetition. It currently forms a new language of construction. It establishes spatial anthology as an alternative architecture.

 

In the TGB in Paris, OMA sought to achieve a critical mass, a ‘bigness’, wrapped in a thin osmotic skin, thereby generating dynamics and an interplay between solidity and disappearance. For Koolhaas, Manhattan represented a metropolis where the continual appearance and disappearance of skyscrapers guaranteed a never-ending sense of the present, a permanent modernity. The appearance of this library and the enthusiasm it has engendered could very well point to a constructive interconnection between us – as contemporary creatures – city life and architecture. Within it there lies an essential element that we can recover and that would enable us, once again, to engage in a vibrant relationship with the city. I saw a glimpse of it and can’t wait for the next step in the journey.

 

Yushi Uehara is an architect, and his office (Yushi Uehara Architect) is located in Amsterdam.

 

    • 1. As a comparison: the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, for instance, attracts one million visitors a year, that is around 1700 a day. Seattle, with 571,900 inhabitants, anticipates some 8000 visitors a day. See the

‘Seattle Central Library’

    .

  • 2. In his book L’Horizon négatif (1985) Paul Virilio placed this phenomenon in a wider context in an alarming way.

  • 3. To accommodate this, there is the Sound Dome, a mushroom-shaped thing in the Starbucks-sponsored Teen Centre.

  • 4. Among the anecdotes that emerged from the design process is the story that provision was also planned for the homeless in the Living Room. But for the client that was going too far.