Monday, June 17, 2013


The Seattle Central Library -designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, members of the Dutch Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), in conjunction with the Seattle firm LMN Architects- is certainly one of the most influential public buildings today. Controversial, as many of the works by Koolhaas, it attracts followers and detractors; however, with more than 2 million visitors per year and the huge catalyst effect in the revitalization of the urban environment, no one questions its social success.

Its angular and provocative style and its exposed structure forming a diamond pattern, strongly evoked some of Koolhaas' other works, such as the CCTV building in Beijing or the Casa da Musica in Porto .


Andrew Carnegie, the steel magnate who built libraries across the U.S. sponsored in 1906 the construction of the Seattle Carnegie Library, made in neoclassical style in a plot located on the Fourth Avenue.

Over the years it became necessary to have an extension, so that in 1960 a 5-story building was erected in modern international style, designed by Bindon & Wright, replacing the old library. Again, the demand exceeded the capacity of the library, coupled by the scarcity of parking areas and the seismic risk, which determined the need of constructing of a new library in the late 90s.


Joshua Prince-Ramus highlights three key ideas in the design of the project:
a) A hyper-rational process of design, in which rational ideas acquire an independent logic and result in images that seem irrational (at first glance the library seems product of a designer's whim rather than an analytical process).
b) A team work in the design process, leaving aside the image of the architect-genius, but an interactive work between several members of the office.

c) Confronting the traditional view of flexibility in modern architecture which, according to him, makes spaces more generic where almost anything can happen within them, but in practice they are filled by the most immediate need, which ends imposing itself to other activities. Instead, he proposed the "compartmentalized flexibility", which identifies a number of places that, even if an activity is prominent, it can be ensured a spectrum of multiple functions.

OMA based its design on the idea that books are the most important source of information that people use in the library, without neglecting many other forms of technology that are available today by the user. But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect was its idea that the library should also meet social roles (something to which librarians were reluctant at first). OMA reorganized the program proposed by them in 5 platforms whose function could be predicted to be stable in the future (administration, books storage, meeting space, information and parking ). On top of each platform four open spaces were located , whose function could become more unstable.

The conceptual model has these two types of spaces defined inside boxes, with open spaces at the top and circulation systems linking the various elements. These boxes are moved in order to make better use of natural light and enjoy views of the city. Since each of these platforms houses different functions, various areas were assigned to them. Note the similarity with the diagram of the program with the actual section of the building.

Subsequently these compartments were covered by a "skin" of glass and metal structure providing shade or light according to the required needs.

This was one of the things that I liked about the library, its visual integration to the surrounding urban landscape and its clear understanding of the interior spaces, that dramatizes the tension between them. Other contemporary libraries, such as the Sendai Mediatheque and the Tama Library , both designed by Toyo Ito in Japan, have also chosen  transparency and a clear integration to the environment.


The building contains 38,300 m2 of built area in 11 stories and a basement parking.

Something that is not very evident in the pictures is that there is a pronounced topographical difference between the 4th and 5th Avenue, which can accommodate two levels.

Especially in the front of the Fourth Avenue can be seen the imposing overhang, 14 m. long, generating a covered plaza, an effect that somehow reminded me of that square generated in front of the Peckham Library in London .

The lowest level, to the southwest, which is accessed from the 4th Avenue, contains an auditorium, a language center and a Children's Center whose decoration aims to "be appreciated by children, although it is not condescending to them" (this allows a 11 years old child  not to feel uncomfortable by sharing the same space with a 5 years old).
The second level corresponds to the administration and it is practically not seen by the public.
The third level, which is reached from the 5th Avenue, is the reception area. Outside, the skin of the facade is anchored to the floor forming a sort of entrance porch.

Upon entering the building we were welcomed by a large square bathed in light, adorned with fountains and gardens, providing a warm refuge from the cold climate in Seattle.

The space becomes a large room where users can enjoy reading in a comfortable chair, sipping a coffee (which is a local favorite... it is not by chance that this city is the birthplace of Starbucks Coffee).

The fourth level contains meeting areas, arranged in more organic spaces which can accommodate up to 200 people.
The fifth floor houses the largest number of public computers, where users can get access to more specific research materials, for which there are several librarians ready to help. Spatially, it is located in the middle of the building, overlooking the square and allowing visual contact with the street and with the upper levels.

From the sixth to the ninth level lies one of the most innovative areas of the building: the spiral of books. Contrary to the classic horizontal library, the shelves are organized in large sloped platforms, which run continuously through ramps (a "cheap parking for books," says Joshua Prince-Ramus). Reading rooms, which for reasons of function have to be horizontal, are placed staggered along the ramps.

The tenth floor, which is the highest level that can be accessed by the public, is the reading area​​. From here stunning views of the city can be enjoyed, particularly to the Elliott Bay. Here is also a small balcony at the end of a corridor which, according to Joshua Prince-Ramus "it was designed it in order to ask my wife to marry me... and she accepted." Actually this small space is a viewpoint to appreciate the spatial richness of the building and its wrapping glass and steel skin. I think the designers created this small balcony just for us architects to enjoy this remarkable space.

Photo courtesy of Katya Palladina


The building represented a particular challenge, as the region is prone to earthquakes and strong winds, and the shape of the building has large overhangs that give it a light appearance, but require a special structural design. The structural solution is based on a solid concrete core holding cantilever slabs (a solution also frequently applied in skyscrapers ). This solution allows to minimize the number of columns needed inside the space.

In addition, vertical and inclined columns and trusses were created. The floors that make up the Spiral of Books and Reading Room (6-10 stories) use leaning columns in order to transfer the weight of the upper floors.

Finally, the wrapping diamond shaped grid serves as a structural clamping element. It contains a glass coating which has a thin metal layer that allows transparent views only from the inside.

A external steel grid is superimposed to an aluminum inner grid to hold the glass, both painted light blue. I must say, however, that the finishing is a bit rough.


Bright orange stairs, yellow escalators, colored carpets and a light blue grid show Koolhaas' predilection for color.

Additionally, there are works of art such as that of Ann Hamilton, who designed a 670 m2  carved wooden floor containing phrases written in 11 different languages, which suggests a "tactile experience of the book in the digital age".

It is also fun, going down the escalator, to find some  "Talking Egg Heads" called "Braincasts", made by artist Tony Oursler.
Outside, the Tsutakawa fountain, also called "The Power of Wisdom" was sculpted in bronze by noted local artist George Tsutakawa.


Despite some criticism due to the way Koolhaas and OMA perceive architecture, different than traditional approaches, it is clear that the library in Seattle is a social success. Our visit occurred during a week day and we found the library was full of people. I was pleased to find users of all ages and social groups (including many homeless who frequent the library on cold days).



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