May 23: The Library that Hates Us Back

2016/05/23 § Leave a comment

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

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 grad school architecture 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 while once-great municipal libraries turn their attention to interests that are hardly bibliophilic.  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. Classical buildings continue to function as commodious libraries that can accommodate new technology, while maintaining an expressive and symbolic quality that Modernism cannot.  Among countless fine libraries, witness the Boston Public Library and the Library of Congress, stuffed with paintings and murals, marble lions and barrel vaults.  This environment encourages a reader to straighten her posture as heir to a long heritage of the seeking and finding that exemplifies human thought. This does not come at the expense of technology: wireless and digital features 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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