Library as work of art

Seattle Central Library is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and is very different from any library I have visited on my travels. Although there was a lot of public input, the design is mostly the work of Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, who thought Seattle’s architectural landscape was “boring” and wanted to give the city a modern, exciting structure.

Well, he certainly did that. The exterior is a stack of glass cubes, offset from one another, encased in a steel mesh, from which views of the city can be seen in all directions. The interior includes soaring spaces, such as the third floor “living room” and the tenth floor “reading room.” The fifth floor “mixing room” is the gateway to the “library spiral,” where the non-fiction books are housed on a continuous Dewey Decimal ramp four stories high.

To counteract Seattle’s many drizzly gray days, Koolhaas introduced bright colours, with yellow escalators, bold graphics, and a completely red fourth floor with curved aortic-like hallways to indicate the “heart” of the building.

I have to admit that the new building is a very dramatic and stunning piece of architecture. But for me, it is not so much a library as it is a work of art, where emphasis on the structure’s form, height, colour, angles, and textures place books and materials in a minimal role.

However, after reading Place of Learning, Place of Dreams: A History of the Seattle Public Library by John Douglas Marshall (2004), I learned that this had been done on purpose. When Koolhaas was designing the building, he felt that “the territory for books extends at the expense of the public programs.” So in his design, books were contained (in the library spiral) and programming spaces, like children’s areas, reading and study spaces, an auditorium, and meeting rooms, were given priority.

As much as this doesn’t sound like a good thing to book lovers, the lack of emphasis on reading material is not a new one for the library. In the 1860s, when the Seattle Library Association was established to foster “mental culture and social intercourse,” it offered lectures, readings, debates, and music before it bought any books.

Although it was not his intention, Koolhaas may have been channeling this heritage at the same time that he was looking ahead to the future. Modern libraries are changing from book storehouses to people places, so the Seattle Central Library, with its public spaces front and centre in an artistic envelope, may be a harbinger of what libraries will look in the future.