Not by the Book | Architecture | Chicago Reader

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Not by the Book

Seattle just bought itself the central library Chicago didn't have the guts for.


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By the time Rem Koolhaas heard about the competition to design the new Seattle Public Library, it was hardly a competition. A Seattle native, Steven Holl, who'd designed the splendid Saint Ignatius chapel on the Seattle University campus, already had the inside track. But chief librarian Deborah Jacobs and the members of the board were so wowed by the work done by Koolhaas's firm, Office for Metropolitan Architecture, that the project was soon in the hands of Koolhaas and his partner Joshua Ramus.

Jacobs is an object lesson in how a great building requires a great client. She had lobbied tirelessly for the new building since being named chief librarian in 1997. She persuaded local voters to approve a $194 million bond issue they'd recently voted down and raised another $82 million from private donors--all to fund the central library's construction and expand the city's branch libraries. She guided the project through a change in administration and converted the mayor from skeptic to strong supporter. And she managed to add 70,000 new books, DVDs, and other items to the library's collection even as the new building was being finished.

Too bad Chicago didn't have someone like her to save us from the postmodernist lump that's now our central library--the end of a long, sad story where the greatest priority wasn't making a great building but risk management.

In the mid-70s the central library had been exiled from the Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge palace on Michigan Avenue it had occupied since 1897, the explanation being that the collection had outgrown the building. But the mad rush to vacate suggested that someone wanted to raze the building and replace it with a skyscraper, since there was no new library--bigger or otherwise--to move into. The books were boxed up and sent to a "temporary" facility, the old Mandel Building behind and south of the Tribune Tower. (The story goes that it was only because "Sis" Daley urged her husband, Mayor Richard J. Daley, not to discard the ornate old library that it was saved; it's now the Cultural Center.)

The Mandel Building in fact remained the library's home for 13 years, until 1988, when its owners decided to demolish it to make way for the new NBC Tower. The 4,700,000 items in the library's collection were packed up and hauled to yet another temporary facility, a loft building behind the Merchandise Mart. Administrative offices were set up at 1224 W. Van Buren, almost two miles away.

In 1981 Mayor Jane Byrne had held a design competition for a new library only to scuttle the results in favor of carving a library out of the old Goldblatt's store on State between Jackson and Van Buren, now the DePaul Center. That idea was killed by Mayor Harold Washington; people worried that the floors of the 1912 building might not be able to bear the weight of the books, but they also believed the city deserved something better.

A second design competition was launched in 1987, and its rules almost guaranteed mediocrity. Most design competitions judge the quality of the designs submitted by architects. But the city, eager to end the embarrassment of having a perpetually temporary central library, committed itself to opening its replacement in 1991, less than three years away. In an attempt to ensure the job would be done on time and to avoid the kind of massive cost overruns it had seen at McCormick Place and O'Hare, it made the contractor, not the architect, the primary player. The usual result of such "design-build" projects is bargain-basement architecture, like the ugly condo towers that have risen in River North over the past several years. Quality of design was less important than building within the $140 million budget.

Unlike Seattle, Chicago relegated its librarians and library board to a secondary role. The rules of the competition were so unappealing that its first stage became amazingly simple: having expected to narrow hundreds of entries to five, the jury received only six submissions. (By comparison, the competition for the new Ford Calumet Environmental Center and the Graham Foundation competition to extend the lakefront north of Hollywood Avenue each drew more than 100 entries.)

The five library finalists were put on display at the Cultural Center (they can still be seen on the eighth and ninth floors), and public comment was solicited. Within the first several days more than 5,000 people filled out cards. Tribune architecture critic Paul Gapp favored a design by Dirk Lohan, grandson of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. The public was reported to have favored a modernist if impractical design from Canadian architect Arthur Erikson. A design by Helmut Jahn that leaped the el tracks was the last to be eliminated before the 11-person jury decided on the entry submitted by Hammond Beeby and Babka, the firm of Chicago architect Thomas Beeby.

At the time architecture was still in the throes of postmodernism, which was less about creating a valid new architecture than about indulging an anything-but-Mies reaction to the profusion of knockoffs of his sleek glass towers. Skyscrapers were sprouting ironic versions of classical pediments and arcades--architecture based more on parodistic commentary than original thought. Beeby, the highly capable architect of the Sulzer Regional Library on North Lincoln and the new Harris Theater for Music and Dance in Millennium Park, presented a design that in some ways stripped postmodernism of its excesses. It was restrained to the point of torpor, its brick facades ponderous, its elegant glass curtain wall relegated to the side facing the alley. But the roofline design went a little nuts, with gargantuan owls that looked like they'd just flown in from a Batman movie. Contradictory and confusing, the library was a clear reflection of its time.

As Gertrude Stein once said of Oakland, "There's no there there." The interior is unrelentingly gray. Even the great hall on the ground floor, with its mezzanine and central opening to the floor below, is square and colorless and claustrophobic. You have to travel up a sequence of three escalators just to get to the main entrance floor, where books on many shelves have been replaced with potted plants. The floors that hold the books are spacious and open, and serene reading alcoves, one of the design's best features, line the east wall. But there's no central reading room. What should be the library's great space, the graceful, light-filled Winter Garden, is curiously disconnected from the library proper. It seems designed primarily for revenue-producing rentals, and you can get there only from a separate escalator or elevators buried deep in the building.

The Harold Washington Library is what you wind up with when a city lets its most vibrant impulses get trumped by timidity and compromise. In contrast, Seattle played to its strengths. "It's a very specific culture here," says Koolhaas. "There is a very highly developed common sensibility and a highly developed sense of solidarity between the rich and the poor. I think it's the only part of America where the rich are angst-ridden and want to do good. It is also a culture where many people have been involved in the digital world. What connects everyone is a dedication to reason and to reasoning, and I think that enabled us to do the project and explains the way it turned out."

The Seattle library is Koolhaas's antidote for the relentlessly horizontal sameness of modern life--the mall, the parking lot, the subdivision. He seems to understand that the verticality of the great old spaces--seen here in places such as the Palmer House lobby and the Union Station waiting room--gives people room to breathe.

He's been thinking about libraries a long time--several unbuilt projects show the evolution of thought that led to the Seattle design. An entry in the 1989 competition to build the new national library in Paris included a spiral of reading rooms inside an enormous cube of floors and floors of bookshelves. Four years later he submitted a design to another Paris library competition, and the entire building had become a spiral, what he called a "warped interior boulevard that exposes and relates all programmatic elements." A visitor could stroll along the boulevard "inspecting and being seduced by a world of books and information."

The Seattle library is 11 stories high and consists of five stacked and staggered enclosed boxes that house, according to Koolhaas, "those elements and programmatic components that we assumed would remain stable over time." These include below-grade parking, a ground-level entrance floor with an auditorium and children's library, a floor of meeting rooms, a four-story book stack, and a penthouse of administrative offices. On the roofs of the boxes are open floors that can "mutate and change their character fairly quickly." Wrapped around everything--separate from the primary structure holding up the building but serving as additional bracing against earthquakes and wind--is a continuous fabric of steel and inset four-by-seven-foot diamond-shaped windows. Its multiple planes make the exterior shimmer like a jewel box around the stunning interior spaces.

The building, which takes up a full city block, is set into a hill so that the basement on one side becomes a street-level entrance on another. This entrance leads to a grand staircase whose treads become a 275-seat auditorium, its aisles forming stairways to a lower-level entrance.

The higher level contains the first of the library's three great spaces--Koolhaas calls it "a living room at the scale of the city." Its reception area has a large flat monitor display with male and female virtual guides who greet you; the same guides pop up on screens throughout the library. To the right is a coffee cart where homeless teens train to be baristas and a gift shop that's mounted on tracks to allow its five components to close into a solid box after hours. To the left is a spacious reading room, over which the steel diamond facade soars, flooding the space with light. A teen center offers two sound domes where listeners will be able to blast music at ear-splitting volumes without disturbing other patrons.

As in the Paris designs, the books are placed along a "book spiral," a continuous four-story ramp. Joshua Ramus calls it "probably the most unique element of this building." He compares the process of finding books in a conventional library to being "led along a trail of tears. You're handed the Dewey decimal system, which is already obtuse to all of us, and the next step is that the building doesn't even support that very obtuse classification system. Our aim was to create a system for physical organization that matched the organization of the Dewey. At the bottom of the spiral is 000; the top of the spiral is 999. It's always directly obvious to the patron how to find the books." Indicators in the elevators show the Dewey numbers covered on each of the four floors. There's enough room to double the current holdings of around 750,000 books, and the shelves are brightly lit, with wide aisles that give the stacks a sense of openness and space.

Koolhaas says the spiral system encourages people "to browse through the entire trajectory, so that you don't always move with a particular aim." Ramus adds, "There was a study done that made the claim that something like 70 percent of all positive hits in a library were actually through serendipity--people do not take out what they came to the library to look for in the first place. You can now browse the entire collection, and you're not shunted into a small fiefdom in the control of a single librarian."

Librarians here all work together on an open floor that Koolhaas has named the "mixing chamber." Ramus says, "In time, the reason you will want to access a library like this will not necessarily be the physical materials or even the technology but the ability to curate information." Koolhaas describes the mixing chamber as being based "on the model of the trading floor, where the librarians are the experts in a trading room of information." Librarians who are specialists in a subject will be able to offer what Ramus calls "interdisciplinary help," allowing patrons to refine their searches. There's even a dumbwaiter to carry books between the spiral and the mixing chamber.

Koolhaas has made the library a showplace for the strong colors and varied finishes he loves. Floors are made of bamboo, wood scraps, poured polyurethane, and aluminum. The steel of the diamond facade is painted robin's egg blue. The library's circulatory systems--the stairways, escalators, and elevators--are an almost neon chartreuse, making them easy to find. From a distance the escalators, which are lighted from within, glow, and the one connecting the living room and the mixing chamber includes a Tony Oursler freak-you-out installation that projects videos of heads, eyes, mouths, and ears onto soft, egg-shaped screens. The meeting-room level has corridors with amorphously shaped walls in shades of deep red and purple; walking along it is like walking through a model heart. The seats in the auditorium are lime green. The curtain, a warm cream with green pleats, is by longtime Koolhaas collaborator and companion Petra Blaisse. Her firm is called Inside/Outside, which is fitting, since she brings the landscaping she designed for outside the library into the building on carpets that consist of giant two-tone photos of plants in hyperintense green, maroon, blue, red, and purple.

Questions remain: Will librarians really want to work so closely together? Will users really be able to take advantage of their expertise? Will the Rube Goldbergian stretch of conveyor belts that feeds the automated checkout system break down?

A few glitches have already been noted. Koolhaas was visibly perturbed when an escalator ground to a halt under the weight of the mob following him on a press tour, and while people easily made their way to the higher levels on the up-only escalators, they seemed confused about how to get back down. The glossy floors in the elevators already show scuffs, and older eyes will probably find the LEDs displaying floor information all but impossible to read in the glaring light of the cars.

Still, more than 25,000 people passed through the library on its opening day, May 23, and the media reported that most were awed and delighted. They found a library buzzing with activity, as most people undoubtedly will. But Koolhaas's achievement may be best appreciated on a slow day. Sitting in the far corner of the tenth-floor reading room, atop Blaisse's deep-hued floral carpet, you see the sweeping wall of diamond windows rise at a soothing 45-degree angle to a height of 40 feet at the top of the administration box; there the walls that overlook the reading room are covered in square white pillows that muffle sound, though they look like something out of a harem. The pillows continue along the ceiling underneath the box, from which simple square white columns descend to the floor. At points where the diamonds of the steel-frame window wall are subtly doubled to strengthen the load, reinforcing columns slope to the floor, where they're encircled by low steel railings. In the middle distance is the happy chartreuse splash of the grand staircase and escalator; farther off the elevators glide noiselessly up and down in their glass wrappers.

The rap on modernism is that it comes in just two flavors--the cold perfection of Mies or a cacophonous experimentalism that often seems more about fashion than architecture. The Seattle Public Library points to a third way, a new maturity. As you take in all the funky shapes and angles and textures and colors, the look-at-me bravado suddenly dissolves, and you become aware of how deeply harmonious these spaces are, how they both nurture and resolve the contentious multiplicities of modern life. Like a Gothic cathedral or a Greek temple, the library has a grace that's profoundly moving.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Judith Bromley.

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