As an architect my reading of cities is embedded into the artefact of architectural production or what we mundanely call buildings. However buildings aren’t simply brick and mortar enclosures that hold space and control your environment, they have cultural resonance beyond just their use. To understand the essence of a city one need not look beyond some of the publicly commissioned works of architecture. For buildings, such as museums, libraries, concert halls and other public spaces have the power to reinvent the city. Popularly known as the ‘Bilbao Effect’; seen in the complete rejuvenation of Bilbao, Spain by the building of the Guggenheim Museum, designed by Frank O Gehry. Another project on the anvil is the new Louvre by French architect Jean Novel set to open in Abu Dhabi. Whether every building can have the Bilbao effect or not we cannot definitively say but it is necessary that every building should address the metropolitan context in which it is situated. In a previous post we covered the High Line park by DSRNY, which had a similar catalytic effect on Chelsea and the Meat packing District in New York. In this post I do a deep dive into examining the Seattle Public Library, designed by OMA with LMN architects, that I visited on a trip to Seattle.
While by no means as iconic for Seattle as the Space needle, the Public Library which was completed in 2004, examines the very necessity of such an institution in the era of ubiquitous access to information. Prior to winning the design competition for Seattle OMA had participated in other competitions for libraries, namely the Tres Grande Bibliotheque in Paris and the Jussieu Library. In both proto proposals, the designs had investigated the intersection of the public space with the traditional book-stacks. In the first project the public space is created by scooping out voids from the thickness of the book-stacks; and in Jussieu the diagram is of two meandering helical paths that intersect the science library and the humanities library. Seattle embodies both its intellectual predecessors as well as addressing the metropolitan space of the city by opening up the insides of an institutional building to the public and allowing the city inside it.
Images of the OMA Two Libraries at Jussieu, Paris from their book SMLXL
The thing that strikes one the most on encountering the building is its large size. Situated in the midst of a busy urban setting, it appears as a faceted gem, emerging from the ground, and reflecting the bustle of the world around it. Because of the large panels of reflective glass it would appear that the building is made of the city that it reflects. One moves off the urban street into the main space of the building without realizing that the outside is left behind because there is no significant grade change. The sidewalk moves alongside the glass and you can reach a hand out and touch the face of the building, lean on it, sit against it…. Once inside you feel like you are in a large covered city square. It is a completely transparent building and so the boundaries between the inside and outside of the city are completely blurred. At every instance inside the building you are always acutely aware of the city happening outside. It refrains from framing views like conventional glass buildings do. In fact the faceted nature of the steel and glass envelope avoids any kind of deliberate framing. At points you view the city and the sky outside simultaneously almost as if you had lifted your head up on the street to look at the sky.
A large floral printed carpet of the waiting space mimics not only the urban park directly across the street but also gives one the feeling of having arrived in a large communal living room or porch. The high tables arranged along the glass, had several office goers sitting with their laptops and working or waiting for their next meeting, not unlike what one would see at any urban coffee shop. Imagine sitting there and engaging a stranger in conversation, making a friend or a possible contact. As you moved up through the building you encountered other spaces where people of different demographics were invited to interact. Self learning stations designed as if they were gaming kiosks inside an arcade, had young kids lounging and browsing digital content. But the part that I was most excited about, was encountering the “continuous circuit” book ramp winding through the library, that resembled an urban street. Had I had a pair of them handy, I would have been tempted to skate down the winding book ramp.
The building invites the user to behave completely unlike one would in a traditional library. With no attendant to shush you if you talk loudly, it in fact engages you to have that chance encounter with another citizen. Browsing the shelves feels like you are in a bookshop versus a traditional library. The use of vibrant colour within the spaces and on the escalators and the media room calls forth the playfulness and ease of access that is emblematic of information in the digital age. Maybe the building didn’t create the Bilbao effect for Seattle. But in my opinion it provides a communal space for the city-dwellers of Seattle where they can come together and witness each other and the city. The building and specifically its interiors has had a continuing impact on how architects have engaged with public buildings. The impact of the interior space can be seen in how lounges, coffee shops, co-working spaces and even the offices of corporations like Google and Facebook have come to be designed.
Having passed the hallowed neoclassical central library in New York several times and felt it’s gravitas, the central library in Seattle invited me to engage with it in a whole different way. The building regarded me as a flaneur, to be “seduced” by books and information and I was more than happy to give in. As I had to leave it, I wished I had longer to spend in the building. I wished I could have visited it over and over to have many more chance encounters. And while I had that thought it occurred to me that, that’s what it meant to live in a city and Seattle’s Central Library had captured that in its essence.
Other architecture projects to visit in Seattle are the Chapel of St Ignatius in the Seattle University campus by Steven Holl, Frank Gehry’s Experience Music project, the Seattle Space Needle and the art museum by Venturi Scott Brown.
All images courtesy the author unless otherwise mentioned.