Seattle Public Library

The Koolhaas Kage

I recently characterized the new Seattle public library, designed by Rem Koolhaas, as a “disasterous” structure. Is the adjective over the top? Perhaps, but I want to counter what was the initial response among architectural critics, from the New York Times to my home paper the Oregonian, which I would describe as over the top adulation.

I think it is great that Seattle invested in a new downtown library that is more striking than the uninspiring box it replaced, and also great that the library is well used. I’ve observed people lining up by the dozens waiting for it to open, as well as packing its banks of computer terminals. I suggest as a thought experiment, however, that any well equipped central library would get the same use in our current economy and information ecology. Certainly Portland’s central library does, in a renovated building from the 1910s.

The Koolhaas exterior is a matter of taste. It doesn’t excite me, but it is interesting in a relatively bland downtown, and it does have to cope with one of Seattle’s steeply sloping blocks.

It is interior arrangements that I fault. The lower level entrance spaces and reading room spaces are strike me as poorly arranged for efficient circulation and ease of finding the standard library components (checkout, reference services, and the like). From the entrance spaces to the stacks you ride an escalator up past an isolated, mysteriously color-coded middle floor whose access and purpose are hard to read. Get to the top of the building (nice views, of course) and it is difficult to get from one level of the stacks to another without convoluted maneuvers. The stacks themselves were built to show off an architectural conceit rather than designed to be easy to understand. Elevators and stairs are hard to find. I’m sure that regular users figure out the tricks, but a building of this sort should be easy to use, not a puzzle box.

I’m told that the librarians who work there are some of the most critical of the building’s users.

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