I’m just back from three days in Seattle, where I was at a workshop organized by the World Business Council on Sustainable Development. During these workshops, I like to get out and take a walk during lunch: I find it helps my mental state to be able to walk around, get some air, and focus on things that aren’t post-its or roadmaps.

Yesterday I meant to go to the waterfront, and the new Seattle Public Library main branch, designed by Rem Koolhaas and OMA. I never made it to the waterfront.

via flickr

SPL is one of the most amazing buildings I’ve seen in years. I think it’s as impressive as the Sydney Opera House, though for different reasons. It’s just a shame it’s constrained by its site, and is surrounded on all sides by other buildings; at the same time, that downtown location and accessibility is critical to its success as a working library.

Looking down from the 10th floor, via flickr

The most striking thing about it is the amount of energy the program devoted to, well, books. It’s interesting to compare the building to another well-known modern public library closer to home. When it opened a decade ago, the San Francisco Public Library was criticized for being a building that wasn’t really very book-friendly. (Not only that, but author Nicholson Baker, whose Vox is one of the most brilliant pieces of erotic writing ever, wrote about a large-scale destruction of portions of the SFPL book collection.) Indeed, SFPL was basically out of space when it opened; and its high-minded schizophrenia about what a library would be in the future resulted in a building that’s hard to navigate and make sense of.

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Living Room, via flickr

In contrast, the Seattle Public Library is designed with the assumption that it has to be a space in which physical, printed media and electronic resources coexist, and are used by librarians and patrons alike for the lifetime of the library. As Koolhaas later explained (in the beautifully-produced book about the library), “Our ambition is to redefine the Library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store where all potent forms of media– new and old– are presented equally and legibly.” (11)

Mixing Chamber (signage by Bruce Mau) via flickr

This is clearest in the fifth floor Mixing Chamber, which is “located at the interface between the Library’s physical and virtual collections” (111) (the main entrance is on the third floor, and the stacks start on the sixth). The Mixing Chamber also pulls together reference specialists, with the aim of minimizing the number of steps patrons have to go through to get questions answered or find resources. (Koolhaas architects Joshua Ramus and Dan Wood visited other libraries, and searched for a David Halberstam book or federal document; it usually took them six stops, thanks to the “infernal matrix of materials, technologies, [and] ‘specialists'” that define the conventional library.)

Mixing Chamber, via flickr

As the book puts it, “The Mixing chamber is… a trading floor for information ochestrated to fulfill an essential… need for expert, interdisciplinary help. The Mixing Chamber consolidates the library’s cumulative human and technological intelligence: the visitor is surrounded by information sources.” (38)

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Living Room, via flickr

Koolhaas and Ramus also make the good point that there’s been a tendency with recent libraries to create spaces that are completely generic, that could just as easily be reference departments or conference rooms or stacks. This reflects a lack of faith in the future of libraries, and tends to result in spaces that are uninspiring, and quickly become crowded and confused. In contrast, they’ve created a combination of spaces, some quite flexible and dynamic (like the main entrance and Living Room), and others with a more fixed program (the stacks, most notably). The result, I think, is a wonderfully varied and interesting building, and one that beautifully captures– and serves– the current hybrid state of libraries.

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