The first view of Seattle Central Library is at night. It rises from sloping terrain as a multi-splayed parallelepiped. Zigzagging or sashaying upward, the library is glimpsed as a set of hovering protrusions framed by the orthodox walls of adjacent buildings.
Is it some mysterious work of engineering? An igneous eruption from deep within Earth’s crust? The latest interactive entertainment complex?
Orthogonal facades, and the extensive sloping planes that connect them, are all made from a diagonal steel web in-filled with dull glass. The taut, contiguous skin gives the project a certain uniformity or morphological unity.
In close-up, the giant fishnet membrane – part-honeycomb, part thin x-ray lattice – is mechanical yet sexy: it reflects back the tops of passing automobiles and blinking walk signs whilst also allowing strange, filmic views into the library interior.
The second view of Seattle Central Library is at mid-morning. Oceanic air. Gentle wash of rain.
Architect Rem Koolhaas and some collaborators from his Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) are about to lead a group of the architecturally curious throughout the complex.
We’re in The Living Room, the principal civic volume of the library, entered directly from Fifth Avenue, the uppermost perimeter of the site. A soaring space edged by vast screens of crisscross membrane canted inwards. Recollections, perhaps, of the geometric confidence of such American architects as pre-Postmodern Kevin Roche and I.M. Pei.
A cubic auditorium digs downward to connect with a second entry hall, one storey below on Fourth Avenue. Above us, a floating glass wall screens a bright red interior. Directly overhead, an expansive soffit is propped by gigantesque tilted columns.
Within architecture, what is the inverse of vertigo? Ascension Voyeurism? Vertical-Take-Off fetish?
Our third view of Seattle Public Library is inside the narrow raked tube of an escalator that connects The Living Room with The Mixing
Chamber two storeys above.
Rising perpendicular to the auditorium, the escalator pierces an entire floor – that box with its innards saturated red as in a horror movie or 1960s boîte de nuit.
It’s an optical and kinetic experience, a narrow mobile stairs wrapped in glistening chartreuse panels.
The envelope is seamless except when punched open, mid-flight, to reveal a parallel "secret" chamber with a trio of ovoids on which projected faces squirm and wink. This installation by artist Tony Oursler is one of three commissions for the library. The others are a wooden floor, with raised letters, by Ann Hamilton and a video projection by Seattle resident Gary Hill.
We are now on the raised apron or plateau of The Mixing Chamber. On top of the lowermost of three tethered boxes, each a distinct structure or even building in itself. This fourth view positions us at both the spatial centre of the library and at its programmatic heart (the building also descends into concrete parking trays underground).
Dispensing with notions of a centralized librarian, of the authoritarian Panopticon, Seattle Public Library here offers an extensive computer lounge for information retrieval and research. This open planning, this acceptance of – if not faith in – technology, and this flow of the urban realm deep inside the institution all recall the ambitions of Piano & Rogers’ Centre Pompidou in Paris (1971-1977). Now, akin to club DJs and wired shoppers, librarians roam the interior connected to The Mixing Chamber and each other by portable communication devices.
View Five is above the deepest of the three trussed boxes - all veiled by that flat diamond skin. It’s evening. Koolhaas is thanking the mother of OMA partner Joshua Ramus – she lives locally – for bringing Seattle’s plan to erect a new library to the Dutch practice’s attention.
Views down onto The Living Room floor (hints of Macchu Picchu terraces) and up to The Headquarters (the belly of these private staff offices like some Hollywood spaceship).
We’re standing not on a sealed, rectilinear container but a calibrated ramp, a contiguous ribbon floor that rises through the equivalent of four storeys. It’s marked out, like a giant measuring tape, in the consecutive number of the Dewey Decimal book cataloguing system.
Here, high above city streets, the majority of the library’s printed books, its traditional contents, are arranged as a pragmatic promenade architecturale.
View Six consists of two vignettes. Where the outer skin is hit by isolated vertical struts, its normative diagonal members are reinforced by additional steel splices. Creating intensifications, Koolhaas says, like small clouds across the surface.
The crisscross grid of the exterior provides lateral stability and houses twin panes of glass between which an almost imperceptible mesh aids solar protection.
The geometric resolution of this skin as it folds and abuts is almost casual (as, for instance, in the difficult corner at Fifth Avenue and Spring Street).
The other vignette is strangely emotional. The red, red, red interior sandwiched beneath The Mixing Room is pierced through suggestive orifices. It accommodates public meeting rooms behind wall membranes that curve seamlessly to become floor and ceiling surfaces. This sensory maze is released by that sheer, flush vitrine first noticed from The Living Room far below.
The final view is down below The Living Room. It’s now Sunday morning: the opening of Seattle Public Library to its public.
Out on Fourth Avenue, the sun is shining.
Citizens are waiting in a long snaking line to gain admittance to their 165 million dollar facility. There are steel bands, and smiling volunteers to distribute information leaflets. Library staff is waiting.
Alongside furniture designed by Maarten van Severen (Ghent), Petra Blaisse (Amsterdam) is responsible for vividly coloured carpets, some of which continue the geometry of external planters into the interior.
There’s a book drop-off system with exposed conveyor belt. And the children’s section continues into the concrete undercroft beneath The Living Room, next to the now-ascending auditorium, with translucent bookshelves, pod-like cushions, and a story-telling corner behind a perforated timber screen.
Skewered by a lift shaft for equilibrium and ease of access, one end of the OMA spatial construct is The Headquarters, with its penthouse offices, far above. The other is here, next to the messy reality of street life, with key future library users.