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March 05, 2008

Seattle Central Library Revisited

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of years ago I kvetched here about the then-new central branch of the Seattle Public Library. It was designed by red-diaper starchitect (hey! how's that for a double ad hominem whammy?) Rem Koolhaas and greeted with praise by the local media and cultural establishment.

Some of the enthusiasm has cooled. The Wikipedia entry current when this post was written (see here, scroll down a ways) mentions that a Seattle Post-Intelligencer writer was rash enough to mention that not everyone was happy with the building.

I happen to think that the library was a horrible aesthetic mistake that Seattle will have to live with for the next 40 or 50 years (that's how often central libraries seem to last hereabouts). Actually, it might be around much longer than that if the usual fools declare it a "landmark."

Today I'll try to set aesthetics aside for the most part and deal with function -- how well the building works. I'm afraid this will be pretty superficial in that I only entered the place to do one task. Still, it might represent what other citizens experience if they aren't steady library users.

Speaking of steady use, let me footnote that I went to the central library a lot when I was in high school. (That building was two generations removed from the present one, being a Carnegie-funded library that came on line about a hundred years ago. It was torn down and replaced by a conventional Modernist structure in the late 50s.) I would catch a bus near my high school, ride downtown, walk to the library and browse until it was nearly time for my father to leave work. Then I'd walk the block to his office and hitch a ride home. Much of my browsing was in the art / architecture areas (the low 700s, for you Dewey Decimal System fans).

A couple of weeks ago Nancy was attending a big garden show in town and I had two or three hours to kill. The thought hit me: Why not go to the library and see what they have in those low-700 stacks these days. So I did. This was perhaps my third visit to the new building since it was opened and my first attempt at actually using the thing.

Let's switch to Gallery mode. These are images I grabbed from the Web.

Exterior view, daylight
Seen from Fourth Avenue, looking northeast.

X-ray diagram
Same geographical orientation as photo above. The green colored part takes in the non-stacks part of the library -- children's room, reading room, meeting rooms, etc. Note the slope of the site indicated in gray. Fourth Avenue is to the left, Fifth Avenue is uphill towards the right. Entrances are on Fourth and Fifth avenues. The pink floors are the stacks that form a vertical zig-zag pattern: it's sort of like folded computer print-out paper. However, the north and south sides of these numbered floors are slightly offset vertically from one another. That is, the north portion of the seventh floor is higher than the southern part (if I recall correctly). An escalator (see below) forms the dividing line between the north and south floor segments.

Exterior view, twilight
Again looking northeast. The stacks floors can be seen along with some angled bracing.

Reading room
This is on the Fifth Avenue entrance level. When I was there a coffee shop and reading / lounging area had been added. Also on this floor are lots of computer terminals on tables. The original plan was to make the building ultra high-tech, but the budget wasn't large enough and a number of planned features were never included. The diamond-shaped windows were getting pretty dirty when I visited. Perhaps cleaning is being delayed until spring when rains are less frequent. In any case, I suspect that all those smallish windows would be more of a chore to clean than normal windows.

Escalator to stacks
Well, this looks like that escalator. It runs upwards through the stacks floors with at least one exit point en route. Note the icky chartreuse color; all the escalators I noticed had the same color scheme. Restrooms had other, equally unpleasant colors. Here, the idea was to make people less inclined to loiter, or so I've read.

The chartreuse to the right indicates the escalator corridor. Yes, the floor is sloping gradually upwards.

After consulting some handy directories I eventually made it to the 700 section and did my browsing. It was an okay experience and filled an hour of the time I needed to kill. Then I started to leave and encountered problems. When I got to the bottom of the zig-zag stacks area, I couldn't find an escalator to take me back down to the Fifth Avenue entrance level. I groped around and, the best I could figure it out, the only two ways down were (1) really crowded elevators and (2) a concrete stairway in a drab, concrete stairwell. I took the stairs.

Perhaps I missed something. But if not, then it seems odd that there would be a clearly marked escalator taking me up to and through the stacks floors and no escalator taking me down. Why?

I'm fairly sure that all would become more clear to me if I were a regular library user. But the place doesn't strike me as being user-friendly from a navigation standpoint. It's needlessly annoying. The thought of the big, fat commission Koolhaas and firm got from this project makes me sick because the building seems to be a failure in so many ways, both aesthetically and functionally.



posted by Donald at March 5, 2008


I'll see your Seattle Public Library and raise you one Atlanta Public Library...

Posted by: Charlton Griffin on March 5, 2008 8:37 AM

It's worse than an aesthetic mistake. It so chills the inner spirit that usage will surely decline radically. I hope someone is keeping track of usage: books checked out, patrons using any facility in that grim building. I am pretty sure what the data will tell us.

Posted by: Richard S. Wheeler on March 5, 2008 10:57 AM

Thanks for the update.

Among other things you've hit on one of my pet peeves -- the way some "advanced" buildings need to be decoded in order to be used, let alone inhabited. Traditional buildings generally do a good job of being intuitively obvious (in terms of what they're up to) yet delivering more with time. You can blunder your way around them successfully very quickly, but the better you get to know them the more they reveal to you. Nice.

But a certain kind of modernist-po-mo-decon building drives me nuts. It's conceptual, it's abstract, and it generally has lousy (if any) detail work. So it's initially hard to blunder around; it requires conscious effort to puzzle out (er, chartreuse=stairwell? Why? And it's not as if knowing that chartreuse=stairwell at the Library serves you in any way once you move to a different building). And as you get to know it, there's little there to discover. It's like a bad piece of software -- in love with showing off and with conceptual cleverness, disdainful of stepping aside and serving, let alone easing a person's experience of the day.

Charlton -- That's a beaut. Nothing like making a library look like a cellblock .... It's as if the powers that be really don't want anyone to read, as Richard suggests.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 5, 2008 11:01 AM

Charlton -- That Atlanta library looks like one of those German Flak structures from WW2. I suppose the theory was to protect books from damaging sunlight or some such excuse.

Richard -- The Seattle library was pretty busy when I was there -- and it's a lot larger than the previous building. If folks need info, they'll do what they have to to get to it, I suppose. What was interesting was that much of the activity I noticed was people using all those computer terminals. Not too many were browsing the stacks as I was.

Michael -- Industrial Designers worry a lot about "human factors." In theory, architects should too. Makes one wonder if that is even taught in architecture schools. Or perhaps being a Starchitect means that no rule need apply except, one in a while, the law of gravity.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on March 5, 2008 11:55 AM

"The Squire Law Library ... is located in the magnificent state-of-the-art, Lord Foster-designed Law Faculty Building on the [Cambridge]University's Sidgwick Site." Alas, the building has one grave defect for a library - it is a state-of-the-arse sound amplifier. You walk in and the first notice to greet you says something to the effect of "Hush. No conversation louder than a whisper, please."

Posted by: dearieme on March 5, 2008 12:52 PM

It's also worth visiting
to see the potted description of the problems of James Stirling's History Faculty Building at Cambridge. In part: if you stay inside, you roast; if you walk outside, tiles fall on you. Roast or toast?

Posted by: dearieme on March 5, 2008 12:59 PM

Not having been in the building I'm in no position to make any generalities about it. That said, in the photo of the reading room, it appears to me that it must be uncomfortable to sit in any of the chairs positioned right under that massive angled glass roof at its low point (where it meets the outer wall). Not physically uncomfortable; psychologically uncomfortable, threatened by that massive thing swooping down on ones head.

Posted by: ricpic on March 5, 2008 1:52 PM

Oops. I see that the massive angled ceiling meets the floor, no vertical outer wall at all. Even worse if you sit close to the meeting point of ceiling and floor.

Posted by: ricpic on March 5, 2008 2:11 PM

Thanks for this interesting "inside" and "in-use" look at the Seattle Central Library.

I find it amazing that so much of the architectural criticism that gets published in the general media -- almost all of it, so it seems to me -- virtually ignores how buildings work functionally and aesthetically on an everyday level. I also find it amazing that newspapers and general magazines print so much architectural criticism without also providing floor plans, site plans or sections, etc. It seems to me that, as a result, most of what gets published -- even stuff by the best of writers -- is pretty vague and uninformative. Perhaps with the growth of criticism on the internet -- where it is less uneconomical to include such things -- what is expected of general (non-academic) architectural criticism will change.

By the way, if anyone is looking for an example of a very large open stack library that works very well, both aesthetically and functionally, on an everyday level, I'd like to propose NYU's main library, the Elmer (?) Bobst Library -- one of the largest open stack and / or university libraries in the country. This building was designed by Philip Johnson in the mid- or late-1960s, when he was in his neo-classical modernist mode and it is, in my opinion, both a very pleasurable aesthetic experience -- actually, quite impressive architecturally (especially with its large, spectacular 12 (?) story central "atrium") -- and extremely easy and pleasant to use.

Two things that should be mentioned however:

1)Some of the original interior finishes don't live up to the rest of the building. In other words, the concept of the library is much better than the original interior design scheme. In parts of the building, it almost seems like they ran out of money and/or good ideas. But, as it turns out, in the grand scheme of things, this is actually a relatively small problem -- especially as some important areas (e.g., the two large underground levels) have been very nicely redesigned.

2) Jane Jacobs and others have very justifiable criticised the urbanism -- especially the siting -- of this library. It's tall and very bulky and blocks quite a bit of the sunlight (especially winter sunlight) that would otherwise go into Washington Square Park. It also has large expanses of relatively windowless exterior walls that are somewhat deadening -- but not nearly as bad as Philip Johnson's near contemporaneous "New York State Theater" at Lincoln Center. Plus this city-block-sized library has only a main entrance on Washington Square Park and a loading dock entrance on W. 3rd St. -- so it has a deadening effect on three of its four block-long sides.

But accepting the facts a) that such problems are almost pretty inevitable with any large library building and b) that the library really should have been built elsewhere in the area, it seems to me the architect nevertheless did a good job with the program that he was given -- and, as a result the library is, in my opinion, both attractive inside and out and probably one of the easiest very large libraries in the world to use.

For instance, the books are arrayed around the atrium, from bottom to top and from east to west, in pretty strict alpha-numeric order (using the Library of Congress system). There are signs in the elevators and on each floor telling you where the various call letters are located (which floor and which wing). And because of the atrium, you can see not only where most of the books are, but you can also see where the reading rooms, stairways and elevators are located.

Also, although the exterior walls have large expanses of windowless walls, much of the interior is surprising light-filled, with really nice (sometimes spectacular) exterior views -- it's not claustrophobic at all.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 5, 2008 2:24 PM

Donald, I thought I could offer some notes re: escalators and chartreuse color scheme.

Escalators: same story in NY subway: on a newer stations you often have dangerous disrepair) coming down. I think it's the result of what's called "Value Engineering" phase in design process, very common in government projects. The architect is never given an exact budget at the start, just a vague estimate. The work itself takes from half-a-year to a year, then the Client review begins, which might take another 6 months, then you receive your set back with direction to "value-engineer it', because a)the budget was not approved higher up in bureaucratic corridors b) there is a new administration in town/county/state c)consultants' fees ate up most of the budget d) all of the above. So you start cutting living, breething, bleeding organs from your design: you have to compromise to get it built somehow.
Escalators are expensive. You reason that it is difficult to walk up, so the escalators "up" stay - but it's not as difficult to walk down, so instead you propose the least expensive stair - bare concrete and galvanized metal railing. So on.
Of course, that's only one of possible explanations; thre are also perverts who genuinely LIKE the repulsive brutal-industrial style, the uglier the better. They are sick people, and I feel sorry for them - and more for the public they victimize.

Weird color:
Some time ago I went to a trade-only event, color trends'projection by Pantone color policy director. She talked, among other fascinating things, about yellow-green color family, how trend is focusing on it recently. "Just don't call it avocado ", she said, "your clients will appreciate it much more if you give it such names as lime, lemon pie golden olive, , etc. 10 years on, she said, the generation that is now 10, will list yellow-green as their favorite comfort color - because they will associate it with (you guessed it!) Schrek!"

Posted by: Tatyana on March 5, 2008 2:37 PM

A few years ago I had occasion to visit San Antonio and its new public library. I found the building easily enough and then spent about fifteen minutes circling the place on foot looking for the g.d. entrance. As I recall, there was nothing in the design itself that helped one orient to the building, just lots of featureless walls and blind-seeming alleys.

Here in Memphis we also have a new central library, which in my opinion is a fairly good example of modern or neo-modern (is that a word?) design, and it doesn't require a merit badge in urban navigation to find the doors. I was impressed when the director presented the plans to a group I was in, and said that their first requirement to prospective architects was not to design an award-winning building--they wanted something that worked, not something that the critics would admire.


Posted by: Narr on March 5, 2008 3:50 PM

A central library that works both aesthetically and functionally is the Los Angeles Central Library which was designed by Bertram Goodhue.

Posted by: Pat Hobby on March 5, 2008 6:46 PM

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