May 23: the library that hates us back

2012/05/23 § 2 Comments

On this day in 2004 the new central library in Seattle opened.

This is the first building by Rem Koolhaas/OMA that the Muse visited and thought hmm, this may be the work of the worst architect alive.  Mr. Koolhaas has done little to disappoint her since that trip to Seattle.  It was an interesting day, and certainly the library suffers the comparison of having visited Steven Holl’s delightful Chapel of St. Ignatius first.  And then this monstrosity.  What an aggressively ugly pile.  As if Mecha-King Ghidorah pooped on the sidewalk.  The whole conceptual framework with the winding circulation and bleeding function is all well and good for your theory class, but boots on the ground, what a disaster.  Rule of thumb: when librarians have to tape signs all over the place that show patrons how to find the books and the bathrooms, your building doesn’t work.  But mostly it’s the image of the library that is so horrifying.  Sure, the role and task of libraries has changed with the advent of digital gizmos; some colleges are even doing away with these book sepulchres altogether.  But that doesn’t mean a new library needs to go to such lengths to look not like a library; just because we have GoogleBooks does not mean we should throw out the ActualBooks, or make the process of retrieving them so soul-crushing.

Whatever the image of the twenty-first library is or ought to be, it’s not this. The last time we were in Boston we spent some time in McKim’s old library, the one with all those paintings by Sargent and Abbey inside, the marble lions and barrel vaults and whatnot.  And the whole time, we felt like we needed to stand a little taller as heirs to a long heritage of the seeking and finding that exemplifies human thought.  And the whole time, we had access to right-now technology.  Wireless and digital have no form, which make them comfortable in a beautiful building, very much at home in an environment that inspires one to take part in the grand legacy of intellectual culture–even if they were designed as palaces of the printed page (which is, of course, the manifestation of the last great technological development of the information age.)  Research and reading is the liturgy of the mind, and that liturgy deserves a proper church.  The Seattle library has all the comfort of a concourse at O’Hare and the charm of a Dubai shopping mall.

We have heard it said that the definition of library is the place where the books meet the people.  We couldn’t agree more.  We delight in being introduced to books in glorious buildings that celebrate human inquisitiveness as well as in smaller institutions on a more intimate scale, the kind of place where you might cozy up with an old friend.  OMA’s library is the kind of impersonal, wide-open place that you might choose to meet the guy you’ve been chatting with on-line, to make sure you don’t end up in little bags in his freezer.

Image: inside of it (from this source)


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§ 2 Responses to May 23: the library that hates us back

  • Susan Barsy says:

    Clio–I share your aversion to this terrible building. I often stay in downtown Seattle and, once (being an academic), I thought, “Gee, why not go to the new library to relax?” Never have I been in a space more unsettling or unwelcoming. The sense of precariousness the design creates is very much at odds with mental concentration. Give me Regenstein any day.

    Yours truly

  • Guest says:

    I so agree, any buildings which make it hard to find out how to get inside are an abomination, especially a building whose chief function is to serve the public, those of us tiny pawns who actually PAY the taxes for these big buildings.

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