Friday, August 19, 2005

Seattle revisited

Well, this week's issue of Library Journal takes another look at Seattle Public Library's central branch, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas, a year and a bit after it opened its doors. I've always had a few opinions about the building, too, so why not continue the conversation? Although the title of the article, After Seattle, might suggest an investigation of the building's impact on libraryland, the focus is definitely on what's happening inside the building, rather than what's going on outside in the rest of the world. If I get around to it, I might pull together some thoughts on this latter idea as well.

I've always been a bit ambivalent in my opinions of the building. The art historian in me goes absolutely gaa-gaa. As architecture goes, it's spectacular. If buildings are your thing, it's definitely worth a pilgrimage. Whenever I find myself in Seattle, I go out of my way to ensure that I at least catch a glimpse of it. If I'm walking around downtown, I'll stop by to use the bathroom. And once I'm inside, I always visit my favorites:

  • The red floor. If this metal and glass building manages to be cozy anywhere, it's the 4th floor. Cozy in an all-enveloping, slightly goth, regressive womb-like way, absent of any square corners. This is also my favorite place to use the bathroom. The color is so overwhelming, it's almost like walking around with weights on your shoulders. But the bathrooms are the perfect counterfoil: bright and cheerful pastel. So cheerful, in fact, that you might start to wonder if there isn't something the teensiest bit sinister about the red outside. I just love the contrast.

  • The elevator buttons. These are a slice of genius. Literally. The button panel is a cross-section of the building, so to select your destination, you push a button that looks like the floor you want to visit.

    Not on my list of favorites is the book spiral. Maybe it just didn't live up to the hype. Maybe I pictured something different. C'mon, mention spiral and architecture in the same breath, and who doesn't think of this? But in this case, really, it's just slanted floors. Granted, the Dewey labels on the floor are cool, and it really makes sense from a shelving point of view. But shouldn't libraries be about making things easier for the user, not just what's easiest for the people who work there? (Oops. That sounds more like a librarian than an art historian.) Now don't get me wrong, I'm not saying we should abandon everything that's beneficial for staff in favor of what our users might prefer. But it's not enough for one group to say "Neato" while the other remains nonplussed.

    LJ on the book spiral: "The spiral presents the collection in one continuous Dewey run on series of gently sloping ramps—a parking garage for books." Hmm. Parking garage? Lovely. That's exactly where I want to hang out for the afternoon.

    Enough of the art historian. Let the librarian have her say.

    Well, to be frank, what the librarian has to say is, "hmm." That, combined with a scrunched up face and furrowed brow. No drooling mouth agape, much to the chagrin of the art historian.

    Let's start off with something they did right. Lots of computers. It's just about guaranteed that you can walk in and sit right down at a computer. I've done this once or twice myself with a temporary visitor login. But...whenever I'm in the mixing chamber, with its 148 computers in row after row, the lyrics to Pink Floyd's The Wall always seem to come to mind. The stark orange and black of the decor only add to the sense that I'm a drone in a hive. (The art historian interrupts: you gotta love the Dutch for their garish sense of color.)

    Hmm. As long as we've segued into the criticism portion of the evening...

    The building just isn't intuitive. Now, I'm not a Seattle denizen, so perhaps it all starts to make sense after repeated use, but I can't escape the feeling that I don't know how to get to where I want to be. To avoid confusion, I just use the elevator. It may also be the reason that I always use the bathroom on the red's the only one I know how to find. It doesn't help things that the exit on one side of the building is a floor higher than the other side, but that's just Seattle. And I'm not the only one who doesn't get it. There are dozens of homemade signs (of the sort that used to raise the hackles of my former library director) with arrows telling you how to get out of the bloody rabbit hole you lost yourself in. Which might be understandable in a new building. It might take time for the traffic patterns to establish themselves, and I can see the logic (okay, maybe this is a stretch, but who doesn't enjoy rationalizing?) of waiting to make the permanent signs until you get a sense of the directional aids that people really need. But c'mon people, it's been over a year.

    My biggest critique of the building? It's a place where you go to be alone. Alone with other people, but alone nonetheless. And I really think they missed the boat on that one. It just doesn't feel like a community gathering place. Drive a couple of hours north to Vancouver, and you get the exact opposite without even trying. The central library there just had its 10th anniversary. And for all my complaints about Vancouver Public, I just love Library Square. People congregate. They bring their lunch. They sit. They sunbathe (yes, sun in Vancouver). They read. And even if you're alone, you somehow feel together. Compare that to Seattle, with its chairs that force you to face away from your neighbor. Aesthetically, they're pretty neat. A big squishy foam plus sign. And I always love it when architects design the furniture for their buildings. But whatever happened to form + function? Even the mixing chamber. Despite its name, there's very little mixing going on.

    The art historian wants to say something about the language of glass and steel versus the imagery of a Roman coliseum and their relationship to our perception of public space, but I'll leave that one alone for now.


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