Sunday, May 3, 2009


Okay, they say confession is good for the soul, so I may just as well go ahead and admit it. I am a library addict, a junkie that jonses for her next fix. At no time is this as evident as when traveling. Vacations must include library visits. Oh sure, I say it's for the public access computers and internet access, but now you and I know better. Somewhere there is a 12-step program for people like me, but if loving libraries is wrong, I don't want to be write. (With apologies to Homer Banks)

Combine this admitted addiction with a certain fondness for revolutionary architecture and bravado and you may understand why the central Seattle Public Library makes me weak in the knees. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and the team at OMA, the new library opened in 2004 to mixed reviews. Paul Goldberger, a New York architecture critic called it "the most important library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating." Meanwhile, some Seattle residents worried that the library might amount to nothing more than an expensive greenhouse for the homeless.

After using this architecturally unique library many times and finally going on a tour lead by a docent, I assumed that Rem Koolhaas was this famous, big-deal luminary. That may describe his status now, but research shows that for a long time he was better known for his theories and his writings than his completed projects. Earlier in his career, Koolhaas had a series of bad-luck projects that were canceled due to changing political circumstances. His firm OMA, Office for Metropolitan Architecture almost closed down.

Remmert Koolhaas began his formal education studying scriptwriting at the Netherlands Film and Television Academy in Amsterdam. And before studying architecture in London and at Cornell University, he worked as a journalist for the Haagse Post. Published in 1978, his first book espousing theory is titled Delirious New York : A Retroactive Manifest for Manhattan. The book looks at how the combined ideals of material honesty, human scale and carefully crafted meaning put forth by urban design and architecture fare in a world that seems to value material economy, machine scale and random meaning.

It is only perhaps in the last decade, as more of Koolhaas's projects are being built, that the world shows its readiness to embrace his vision.

From the outside the Library suggests nothing more than a a variation on the big glass box, perhaps one constrained by an odd corset. It isn't until you get inside, use the facility and contemplate details, that it becomes evident that many clever people thought long and hard to achieve this melding of form and function.

Nonfiction books are organized in a book spiral. A four floor ribbon runs the Dewey Decimal numbers continuously from 000 to 999. This floor slopes gently around the perimeter of the stacks on floors 6 through 9. The Dewey Decimal numbers are clearly visible on the floor. Searching for nonfiction books becomes more intuitive and the sloped ramp accommodates wheelchair use.

As the shelving system is continuous and the floor markers movable, specific areas can expand to meet changing needs and display more books without major relocation logistics. Shelving capacity is designed to hold 1.4 million books, many more than currently in this area.

There is a very interesting use of intense color within the library. Fourth floor public meeting areas are an all encompassing red. The floors, the walls, ceiling and even stairs, red.

For me there was something very visceral about this setting, like being in a womb or maybe a heart. I felt sort of squeezed, with an accelerated heart rate and breathing.

Escalators, elevators, staircases and large transition areas are bright yellow which serves as an aid to navigation.

The men's restrooms are chartreuse green, a shade that is supposed to discourage loitering. Restroom doors are deliberately located within the direct sight line of staff work areas to prevent illegal activities such as drug dealing.

When building this library was built, sustainability served as an organizing principle for both architects and contractors. Multiple features and elements endeavor to lessen this buildings energy and environmental impact on planet Earth.

Site Selection
  • Built on the site of the previous library, erosion was carefully controlled during demolition and rebuilding.
  • Over 75% of the demolition and construction waste was recycled.
  • The library is located on major bus routes and has ample bicycle parking.
  • The landscaping and exterior design work to reduce the buildings "heat island effect".
  • Automatic lighting controls minimize electrical consumption and reduce light pollution.
Water Utilization
  • Landscape plantings include many drought tolerant groupings. When watering is required, it is delivered through an efficient drip irrigation system using an on-site 38,500 gallon rainwater collection tank.
  • Interior water use is minimized through the use of metered faucets, no-flush urinals and low flush toilets.
  • Mechanical equipment was selected with an eye toward efficiency.
Energy Efficiency
  • The library was engineered to outperform Seattle's fairly ambitious energy code by 10%.
  • The air conditioning system uses alternatives to chloroflurocarbons-based refrigerants.
  • There are no halon gases in the fire suppression system.
  • In areas that receive direct sunlight, expanded aluminum mesh sandwiched between plates of insulated glass deflect 90% of the suns direct rays. Areas not exposed to direct sun contain triple-glazed insulated glass.
  • Computerized control systems monitor and maximize the efficiency of HVAC, water use and energy performance.
Building Materials
  • Significant quantities of recycled materials were utilized in library construction.
  • More than 20% of the building products used in constructing the new library were manufactured within 500 miles of Seattle. This supported the local economy while reducing the impact of transporting supplies and materials over long distances.

And to finish up the tour

The fiction book section has an area entitled the Floor of Babble. Designed by Ann Hamilton, this hardwood flooring contains in raised letters, the opening lines of books in the foreign language collection. The letters lay backwards, appearing as they would on a printing press.

400 public access computers are located within the library. The majority are located on Level 5 in the Mixing Chamber. Computers can be reserved for up to 90 minutes per day and a library card is required for Seattle residents.

Luckily for us out-of-townees a guest pass can be obtained.

So maybe, just maybe, it is about the computers and internet access after all.


Attributions - My personal photos from the library were less than adequate for this post, so some have been borrowed from Flickr. My thanks to Jeanine Anderson and Scott Larsen. The Rem Koolhaas photo is by Domnik Gigler.
Research and facts regarding the library came from multiple sites. If you need specific citations contact me via the comment section.


  1. How sweet of you to give a shout out to our library! PS....they made sure that it wouldn't become just another hangout for the homeless by painting the bathrooms in really awful colors. And they are awful colors.
    I think it is cool that you are a Library Junkie

  2. Thank you for writing this, and I didn't even get to go inside!