words Marcus Fairs
Seattle has set a new standard for public architecture in America with the opening of Rem Koolhaas’ Central Library.
The $200m project is the largest to date by Koolhaas’ Office for Metropolitan Architecture, and has been hailed by outgoing New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp as the most exciting building he has ever reviewed, adding: “If an American city can erect a civic project as brave as this one, the sun hasn’t set on the West.”
The library takes Koolhaas’ programme-driven rationality to new extremes. OMA began by analysing each of the building’s functional demands, rejecting standard solutions where they were felt to be inadequate.
“We first looked at what the library is today, and basically libraries are no longer dedicated only to books but are now welcoming an almost infinite variety of different media,” Koolhaas says. “This necessitated some kind of reinvention.”
For example, the practice of categorising books by subject in different departments was deemed to be outdated, as it is unadaptable to swelling collections and the emergence of new categories.
Instead, the library’s entire collection is arranged in an 800m-long “book spiral” on a four-storey ramp that currently holds 780,000 volumes but can accommodate twice that number.
“The terminology that is used in libraries is very stale: terms such as humanities, which are very uninspiring and off-putting,” Koolhaas says. With the spiral system “you move along the subjects and therefore are exposed to every book. It is much more flexible than floors.”
The building’s irregular form is a direct expression of its internal functions. Koolhaas grouped the spaces together as separate levels according to use – meeting, parking, reading and so on – and then decided the shape and size of each. With the storeys stacked in such a way as to maximise views across the city, the toppling form was then clad in a figure-hugging jacket of glass and steel.
Seattle’s library is the latest example of showpiece civic architecture in a country that until recently seemed mainly to be producing standardised malls and themed leisure developments. Zaha Hadid’s Contemporary Arts Centre opened in Cincinnati last year; Los Angeles has been busy building itself a centre of gravity with buildings by Rafael Moneo and Frank Gehry; and Chicago’s Millennium Park – billed as the largest city-centre regeneration scheme ever – opens this summer.