Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Whaddya mean it wasn't made for people and books

When the new Seattle Library was opened several years ago, it was hailed as a groundbreaking, iconic example of breathtaking civic architecture (Not by everyone, certainly) Now, even one local architecture critic who initially praised the building has changed his tune — now that he's actually had to USE the building, he's discovered that it's less than friendly and inviting to people. Imagine that.

An article in the Seattle Times from opening day has a comment from a fellow architect inspecting the library for the first time:

Yesterday he traced his hand along the library's walls. He sketched drawings and jotted ideas in a black journal. He said he admires Koolhaas because he doesn't rely on precedent or formality."
Not relying on precedent or formality is very often what leads to buildings like this.

A critic from the P-I has reevaluated his view on how the library works after he realized "when I need to spend a working day at a library, I retreat to the Bellevue Regional instead of Seattle's downtown flagship."

He concludes:
There's something missing from the art in this building, and it's so basic and simple that it can be captured in one word: warmth. A great 21st-century library building should stretch our imaginations and aspirations beyond the book-centered technology of the past, and this one certainly does. But we depend on buildings to remind us from where we've come as well as where we might go. The Central Library breaks so radically with the character of the traditional public library that nothing remains as an anchor except the books themselves -- and they seem almost like afterthoughts, dust specks adrift in deep space. This library feels communal and theatrical instead of personal and contemplative, focused so outwardly on the world that it has no time for the individual.

Based on this other quote from one of Koolhaas' colleagues who worked on their library, they're quite confused. "Question from P-I reporter: What is the one thing that you hope that the public will notice about this library? That it is not willful. That its design is totally in service to making a great library ... and that its form is an answer to how it functions."

So they threw out the book on library design for the last 200 years, but somehow managed to insist that they came up with a design where form follows function? If you wanted to make a building where the design is truly in service to making a great functional library where PEOPLE will enjoy spending time, maybe they should have paid attention to convention, precedent and history.

There's a good lesson here for DC Council members who are even now in the throes of figuring out what to do with the Central Library. While the building may carry some significance due to its creation by black box-creator extrordinaire Mies Van der Rohe, it's an abysmally-designed space inside for books and people — which by the way — are what libraries are for.