At a moment when libraries are perceived to be under threat from a shrinking public realm on one side and digitization on the other, the Seattle Central Library creates a civic space for the circulation of knowledge in all media, and an innovative organizing system for an ever-growing physical collection – the Books Spiral. The library’s various programmes are intuitively arranged across five platforms and four flowing “in between” planes, which together dictate the building’s distinctive faceted shape, which offers the city an inspiring building that is robust in both its elegance and its logic.
OMA’s ambition is to redefine the library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but rather as an information store where all potent forms of media – new and old – are presented equally and legibly. In an age in which information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of media and (more importantly) the curatorship of its contents that will make the library vital.
Our first operation was to “comb” and consolidate the library’s apparently ungovernable proliferation of programmes and media. We identified five “stable” programmatic clusters (parking, staff, meeting, Book Spiral, HQ) and arranged them on overlapping platforms, and four “unstable” clusters (kids, living room, Mixing Chamber, reading room) to occupy interstitial zones. Each area is architecturally defined and equipped for dedicated performance, with varying size, flexibility, circulation, palette, and structure.
The Mixing Chamber, centrally located on the third floor, is an area of maximum librarian-patron interaction – a trading floor for information orchestrated to fulfill an essential (though often neglected) need for expert interdisciplinary help. Librarians guide readers up into the Books Spiral, a continuous ramp of shelving forming a co-existence between categories that approaches the organic: each evolves relative to the others, occupying more or less space on the Spiral, but never forcing the ruptures within sections that bedevil traditional library plans. Upon the opening of the Seattle Central Library, the Spiral’s 6,233 bookcases housed 780,000 books, and can accommodate growth up to 1,450,000 books in the future, without adding more bookcases.
When we began working on the Seattle Public Library project in early 2000, we started by wondering: “What is the future of the library in the home of Microsoft?”
We knew we had to hit two moving targets: the explosion of media and information; and expanding civic roles for libraries. Our creative breakthrough came from something City Librarian Deborah Jacobs said about libraries: that they are not just depositories of books, but cornerstones of democracy. True democracy – based upon the informed consent of the governed – cannot exist without full free and public access to knowledge.
Working with architect Rem Koolhaas and Seattle-based LMN Architects, we applied this principle to every aspect of the creation of this new public space – including the actual design process. All major decisions were conducted with total transparency, with open meetings and televised presentations where input was sought from the public.
Our design was integrated seamlessly into the architecture of the building, including playful supergraphics and title walls, a glass wall for the children’s area and a sandblasted wordmark overlooking the plaza outside. For the “Spiral” (Collections Area), made up of garage-like ramps, we devised flexible “stack mats” made from die-cut rubber that could be picked up and moved to accommodate expanding collections. Instead of increasing shelf space for reading, listening and viewing materials, we used digital storage technology to free up human space where visitors could interact with both cultural knowledge and each other.
When it opened for the public in 2004 New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp called the library the greatest new building he'd ever had the pleasure of reviewing.
Today the Central Library sports a contemporary look and feel that is innovative in both form and function. Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and former Seattleite Joshua Ramus were principal designers on the project, working closely with the Library's board, staff and the public during its development phase. Although the library is an unusual shape from the outside, the architects' philosophy was to let the building's required functions dictate what it should look like, rather than imposing a structure and making the functions conform to that. Central Library's total program area now sprawls to 362,987 square feet, with an additional 49,000 square feet for underground parking for about 143 vehicles. In comparison, its predecessor was 206,000 square feet and had no public parking.
Inside Outside was commissioned to design the enveloping exterior areas - the urban landscape - and major interior objects such as carpets, floors, acoustic walls and auditorium curtains for the new Central Library in downtown Seattle. We were also interior advisors, meaning that we participated from the first conceptual design phase onward to think about material and color use throughout the building.
The appointed landscape area consisted of a thin slither of space parallel to the sidewalks and encircling OMA’s building footprint, running along two major avenues and up and down two connecting streets; widening only underneath one of the sculptural building’s overhangs at the main entrance. We created a stepped landscape, in which each level is filled in with a field of local perennials and grasses, each one different from the other. These fields – or ‘carpets’- of varied heights and structures introduce smell and color but also movement and change through the different seasons and weather conditions. Where the building’s overhanging facades, together with the green carpets, create a condition of shelter and protection, seating areas occur.
Where the usual street trees along the city’s sidewalks were planned, we proposed to change the usual repetitive typology into a “library of trees”: a different story line of tree families, native to the area, along the four roads that define the library area. As the landscape widens to form an entrance plaza, the street trees multiply into small groupings of trees, creating little urban ‘forests’.
Moving into the library’s main entrance hall, the landscape literally continues into the interior in the form of large ‘garden carpets’, imprinted with (our own) photographs of grasses and plants. These ‘soft areas’, inlaid into the different wooden floors and moving up through the various levels, change color from greens to burgundy/blue to red/pink as they move more into the heart of the building - until they reach the roof, where they transform into a garden of grasses and succulents.
The way the landscape moved into the building as textile carpets and one ‘flying carpet’ (a large, square, floating planter filled with ferns) , it was also represented in the polyurethane floor finishes: a splash of shiny black represents a pond, and the warm brown floor that runs into the auditorium represents Seattle’s fruitful soil. The green chairs (by Maarten van Severen) of the auditorium form a hill, and the green/cream ‘finned curtain’ , with its bear-hair print lining, represents Seattle’s forests and wildlife. The shape of the curtain track – an S-like form – allows the curtain to take on many roles: it is a sound-absorbing wall covering when stored; a festive stage curtain with central slit when pulled in front of the stage; and a sound-reflective backdrop when pulled – and turned - along the back-wall of the space.
Each level and each room of the Central Library has its own material, light, sound and color composition. The choices were made to trigger changing ‘routes’ of experiences and atmospheres, while at the same time (of course!) complementing the architectural intent. For the main steel structure that is at the same time the building’s façade, a lively blue-grey was chosen to compensate for Seattle’s frequent grey skies and rainy days.
Seattle Library comprises three rectangular boxes, with a void in between acting as public space. As the forms above ground slide over each other in the horizontal plane, unconventional framing is needed. To resist the earthquakes generated in the area, the zigzag exterior provides excellent bracing planes between the boxes. Where each box is a mini building, architecture and structure co-exist and bounce off each other in this project, with external cascade and internal drift – the void corresponding as the shaping factor.