ANDYou don’t have to look far to find evidence of the diversity of visitors to Seattle’s Central Library. In the basement, in the midst of a global DVD collection, there is a work by the artist Ann Hamilton, which enables visitors to scroll through the first 556 lines of books in Arabic, Chinese, English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Vietnamese. Yes, it is a small detail in a large building that could literally get lost under your feet. But it’s such embellishments that make Seattle Public Library-Central the newest choice for The Daily Beast’s monthly series, The World’s Most Beautiful Libraries.
The Seattle Central Library, which opened in 2004, was a turning point for Seattle. Funded by a $ 196.4 million bond called Libraries for All (with a $ 20 million grant from Bill Gates), all of the libraries in the area have seen some sort of upgrade or expansion. However, it was the central library that had outgrown its previous dig, which first opened in 1972, that received an eleven-story, 362,987-square-foot makeover. Which, of course, isn’t to say that previous iterations weren’t impressive. The library was once housed in the former home of the city’s richest resident, Henry Yesler, before it burned down, and it housed a Carnegie library until the 1970s.
After fifteen years in the job, Valerie Wonder, downtown regional manager, has seen the joy of having a functioning library in the community. It’s a third place, also known as a hangout, that is neither work nor home, and where buying a latte isn’t the price of admission.
“I think people are incredibly proud of their public library system like never before,” she says. “I’ve lived in Seattle since the early 1990s, that’s different, I think because of this library.”
Philippe Ruault, courtesy of OMA
Designed as a series of three rectangles stacked on top of each other at slightly inclined angles, by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus, the building is a striking addition to the downtown office building. Koolhas is of course the Pritzker Prize-winning architect behind the CCTV headquarters in Beijing and the De Rotterdam complex. With walls made of 999,996 panes of glass (a fact that Wonder visits without hesitation), the library looks more like a greenhouse than a library, which, given Seattle’s notoriously bleak weather, might have been the point. The view from the upper floor into the airy atrium, the areas of which are only separated by carpets, also gives the building an additional sense of space, as emphasized by the guests stretched out on the various chairs and sofas in the building. This is a library that welcomed social distancing before it became a preferred lifestyle choice.
As with most creative leaps, it took time before the unorthodox design of the central library was adopted. In 2008, one resident remarked that “the library is an insult to the volumes of great literature it houses,” while another local creatively remarked that it was “a gigantic fist sticking out of the downtown floor, its 20- tiered middle number “raised to infinity.”
But there is something new to say. Since opening, the film crews for the comedy Cate Blanchett 2019, the comedy Where’d You Go, Bernadette and the illustrious iCarly have both been shooting in the library. A legion of influencers also stopped by. With over 25,219 items on #seattlepubliclibrary and an endless stream of photos if you check the location tag, the Seattle Public Library is one of the most Instagram-Instagramed libraries in the world. (Wonder encourages snapshots as long as visitors aren’t blocked.) Finally, why not take a selfie in what the New York Times called “The Library That” dons its fishnet stockings and go to the disco? “
Philippe Ruault, courtesy of OMA
What makes the library stand out is that Koolhaas and Prince-Ramus have rethought common elements. As with the Center Pompidou in Paris, the functionality of the building is not hidden, but emphasized. Bright. Corridors are washed red. And transportation through the building is highlighted in other primary colors.
“The architects actually wanted the stairs or escalator to be that bright green color,” says Wonder. “The elevators are yellow, the color of the vertical movement … I think it was a bit romantic to feel your way through the building.”
She laughs at that. “Signs were added later.”
Traditionalists will be reassured that the upstairs reading room reflects the conventional aesthetic of a university library. As a whole, however, the building functions as a dramatic rethinking of the library tropes. (For evidence, see Lynne Yamamoto’s “Of Memory,” a sculpture made from disused card catalogs hanging next to Hugh and Jane Ferguson’s Seattle Room.) Levels six through ten hold a large portion of the collection’s 1.5 million books spiral pattern accessible via a series of interconnected ramps. While the Dewey decimal is still king, so you can actually find what you’re looking for, the configuration allows for a certain amount of bookworm-friendly randomness.
“It was about creating some kind of single, undivided sequence because we felt that one of the things about a library is that there are accidents and you are in areas you didn’t expect and where you are friendly Looking at books that aren’t necessarily the books one goes for, Koolhass told the Seattle Times Walk in 2008. “
As Wonder points out, form – no matter how conspicuous – never outweighs function. Since its inception, the Seattle Central Library has become a major hub, and not just for people looking for books (or souvenirs from their well-stocked gift shop). Often, on the way to a meeting, she is serenaded from the library’s music rooms. And in response to the pandemic, when guests complained about lack of internet access or power outlets, fast cell phone chargers were installed on the fifth floor, which is where the majority of their 400 computers are located.
Her favorite elements, however, are the community programs held in the 275-person Microsoft Auditorium. While notable writers like Anna Quindlen, Amy Tan, and John Green have attended these events (and are often available as podcasts), the most notable events are those that capture the spirit of the community. Panels such as “Exploring Black Brilliance and Black Joy Through Storytelling” and courses on finding a path to citizenship are regularly planned and frequently attended. After all, according to Wonder, a beautiful building is nothing if it doesn’t reflect the people who use it.
“It’s the work the team has done to get the community’s voices across,” says Wonder. “As in every big city, homelessness has been increasing for a decade and a half. We put a program in place to address this, probably five years ago. We have had a panel and we always try to make sure that the people who are hardest hit by the problem are the ones whose voice has a platform. So we had a panel of parishioners who shared their experiences with homelessness for about 300 people. That kind of spirit that creates community, that’s the kind of thing that makes me proud. “