If you’re as good a writer as Rem Koolhaas, the problem is that occasionally you will be expected to build something that lives up to the quality of the copy. If it’s a library, then all the more so. In Koolhaas’s case, the Seattle Public Library is that building.
This is a building of a million spurious justifications – and none of them really matter. Like most of OMA’s buildings, the Seattle Library is a diagram constructed in 3D. The areas are blocked out and labelled, jiggled around to look like a credible exercise and then a complex structure is engineered to allow them to be built in a staggered pile of precarious boxes. The whole thing is then shrink-wrapped in a diagrid shell which becomes both cladding and structure, like a fishnet bodystocking on a stacked suburban housewife.
The staggered sections are linked by the building’s most provocative feature, a squared-off spiral ramp that rises with the Dewey Decimal classifications. Combining Enlightenment rationality and sci-fi structure with something of a Tower of Babel feel, this was a building that attempted to mix a tangible bibliophilia (the shelving system means the book capacity can keep expanding until almost 2 million volumes) with 21st-century angst about the future of media and information. The central floorspace is entitled the “mixing chamber” in a nod to music, social networking and a developing cocktail of media – some yet to be imagined.
The envelope’s odd structure of wrapped cantilevers induces a subtle sense of vertigo, of walking on surfaces you shouldn’t quite be on and of looking down on the city as if in a dream, or a film. This is very much a building about the city it is in, with constant views down to the streets and across to the sea. It is also a resolutely public space. And it is in this that it finds its greatest success.
The room at the top, with its great glass canopy, like an overblown faux-Tudor leaded window, is ostensibly a reading room but its most intensive users are the homeless. They doze slumped over tables or with papers in easy chairs and are occasionally prodded by guards if their snoring becomes too operatic. But otherwise this is as generous and democratic a space as you will find in any contemporary building – radical architecture for all the inhabitants.
The Seattle Library, completed almost a decade ago now, is not perfect. It is shoddily detailed, occasionally looking like a second-rate commercial building in a second-tier Chinese city – Koolhaas was never interested in detail. And some of its spaces are cramped, oppressive and unsuccessful – there have been the usual stories told of dissatisfied occupants. But despite all of this, it is one of the few great buildings of the last couple of decades, a hybrid of IM Pei’s late modern megastructures, French Revolutionary visionary ambition, theatrical structure for the sake of it and a kind of middle-finger disrespect to its neighbours, which paradoxically allows it to fit wonderfully well in a city used to change. Open, daring, democratic and intelligent, it is one of the few genuine contemporary masterpieces I can think of.