The Seattle Public Library

The Seattle Public Library represents a turning point in the way library architecture is conceived. It is no longer a universe of the book but a universe of all learning media. It proposed to bring together the new realities of our society regarding storage of information, our society’s technological progress and fastness. The old-fashioned books are brought together with the internet and also with other functions such as the meeting point or the bar.

The building that is the Seattle Public Library is not easy to understand. It amazes as a task of engineering, but also because of a geometrical form that puts one in mind of a sculpture. However, this was not the idea that the architects were trying to get to. “Although the library is sculptural, it is not in any way an attempt to make a form. The library’s appearance comes from pushing boxes around to stay within the height and setback restrictions and zoning codes.”[1] For some the overall shape may seem a bit strange, for others quite alien. “From the outside, especially at night, the library is like something large and alien in the city.”[2]

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The concept behind such an extraordinary building resides in thinking about the purpose of the library, the function it serves and how it evolved or can evolve in order to be actual and present in the life of the city. The architects found firstly that the library is the “guardian” of the book, meaning by this: of the knowledge in the book. “The Library represents, maybe with the prison, the last of the uncontested moral universes: communal accommodations for ‘good’ (or necessary) activities… The moral goodness of the Library is intimately connected to the value of the book: the Library is its fortress; librarians are its guardians… As other mediums of information emerge and become plausible, the Library seems threatened, a fortification ready to be ‘taken’ by potential enemies. (…) The Library’s insistence on one kind of literacy has blinded it to other emerging forms that increasingly dominate our culture, especially the huge efficiencies (and pleasures) of visual intelligence” [3] But in our time the book is no longer the only means to store knowledge. There are faster ways to reach information and smaller ways in which you can package it. A disc can contain hundreds if not thousands of books and the internet can be used to track practically any information. So the next step for the library, in order to survive, is to find room within itself for these new concepts. “Unless the Library transforms itself wholeheartedly into an information storehouse (aggressively orchestrating the coexistence of all available technologies to collect, condense, distribute, ‘read’ and manipulate information), its unquestioned loyalty to the book will undermine the Library’s plausibility at the moment of its potential apotheosis.”[4]

The desire of the architects was to create a new type of library, not just on the level of the form, but also in terms of the spaces it includes. “Our ambition is to redefine / reinvent the Library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store, where all media – new and old – are presented under a regime of new equalities. In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and the professionalism of their presentation and interaction, that will make the Library new.”[5] If we think of technology not as the enemy but as a way to bring together under one roof  the new means of communication and learning than it may be possible to think of the library as a new kind of building. “Technology is not a threat, but it enables the realization of ancient ambitions – totality, completeness, dissemination, accessibility”[6]

Through the concept underlying this building it becomes a pioneer, a starting point and a model. It brought new ideas like flexibility: dividing the building into compartments that can change their function according to need and further development. ”Change is possible by deliberately redefining use, rededicating compartments to new programs.”[7] Another idea was that of compression: “new forms of storage enable the space dedicated to real books to be contained; new forms of reading enhance the aura of the real book.”[8]. One other idea is that of the social role of the library as a place for meeting and gathering: “The Library has been transformed from a space to read into a social center with multiple responsibilities.”[9]. Furthermore the idea of “new equalities” brings to light the reality that nowadays books have to share space with digital media as well.

In materializing such ideas in this building it becomes a landmark to the city. It is certainly authentic and innovative. It is new in concept and new in shape, revolutionary even. In a way it is also in the “style” of its authors, the architects of OMA, who are known for their conceptual work and strange shapes backed by original ideas that try to change the way people perceive the world.

The library is unique in shape, maybe even strange, an alien in the cityscape of Seattle. By being such it is also representative for it, becoming something to remember and record. The fact that it is also new in concept makes it even more memorable. If we think of what a library should look like, perhaps what comes to mind isn’t the concept presented by OMA, and maybe we are the ones in the wrong. We expect something that is no longer of actuality. What is to say what a library should look like, what shape it should be, but the function it houses. And then the fact that this function changes itself, incorporating other functions as well, should tell us that the form we expect isn’t actual anymore. The new library must have a new form, one that represents its new ideas and concepts, and by this standard the Seattle Library is representative and also provoking.

By being a model, the new library proposes a concept that in itself expands over to the city; it has a certain aura that also envelops the city and its development: “During the past decade, Seattle has played a pioneering role in the definition of a new society. In addition to the typical library, there will be ‘attractions’ that exploit the location of the library system in Seattle, in the heart of its emerging culture.”[10]

There is a strained relationship between these three characteristics of the building. They interlink each other, deriving one from the other and even against each other. The fact that the building is authentic, that it is so unique, makes it unusual and therefore less representative of a library. The building is not representative for the function of a library, at least not the library as it was thought of so far. The architects propose a new kind of library, one that unifies the books and the new media and technology, so the building they created was meant to be “representative” of that new kind of thinking. And by doing so they actually created something new, something authentic. The fact that it is representative of a new kind of thinking about the library and its role in the city makes it have an aura that it also spreads within the city. This relationship with the city, the social and educational role it has within the life of the city, the aura that it transfers to the city, all these also makes it an authentic building, and even a representative one for the city, in the sense that it is something one can appropriate. So the fact that it is authentic means that it is representative, at least for that new something it proposes, and the fact that it is representative of a new idea in relation to the city makes it contribute to the life of the city (the aura it has). This new idea about the contribution to society and the city makes it authentic. They go together, gaining weight from their relationship with each other, the way one derives from the other or can contradict the other. The building itself gains value from this with every layer of meaning that is uncovered, as well as giving the viewer a better understanding of the construction.

The library might be an unusual shape to the untrained eye, but in fact the functions are the ones that dictate the overall shape. The new concept of what a library should be in this time of instant communications proved a winning idea that gave the city an iconic building and its citizens a place of meeting and information.