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Bassel Hamieh
Nikola Boscanin
Architecture 100
5 March 2014
The Seattle Central Public Library


Rem Koolhaas, the Seattle Central Public Library master architect, is a conceptually
compelling man with an approach in aesthetic and building performance. By constantly striving
to be bold, daring, and new, Koolhaas can take on any project and turn it into a form and idea
that has not been done before. Although architecture came later in his life, Koolhaas has an
amazing ability to utilize every component of architecture and structure, to bring his vision to life.
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In a competition to determine who can become the architects of the new Seattle Public
Library, Rem Koolhaass design won against the other semifinalists leaving his Office for
Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and its local partners LMN Architects, to design the
downtown library. This library (363,000 square feet) was placed in the spot of Seattles two
previous central libraries and opened May 23
rd
, 2004. Some of its features are its 11 levels, its
49,000 square foot underground parking space, its mesh like steel and glass outer shell, and its
cost of 165.6 million dollars (Ouroussoff, 2012). Through carful analysis of communication,
order, topography, climate, politics, ideology, and consumerism, Koolhaas was able to build one
of the most prestigious libraries in the world.

1. Communicating Architecture
Architecture is born when one is able to imagine what isnt there and proficiently transfer
that strong image into a material surface. Rem Koolhaass team and partners were very
successful in bringing their vision and strategic architecture to life. Usually architecture is used
to frame its subjects, however in this building, the architecture is so irrational that it almost
overshadows the subjects. Especially with the textures of the glass walls, the grandness of each
room, the openness, the natural and artificial lighting, and the enormous use of color, it is hard to
miss the architecture all around. And Despite how large the building actually is, it still embodies
a very airy, structured, and light quality to it.



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2. Representing the Order of Cosmos
Systems of order are very stressed in the building both physically and conceptually:
When I first took a tour of the library, it seemed that it is compartmentalized into different
departments that dealt with
different social demands and
activities. As seen in figure 1
and as explained by Joshua
Prince-Ramus from a Ted Talk
video, the library is sectioned
into 9 different compartments within 11 levels (2006). These levels are the parking, the kids
level, the staff area, the living room, the meeting rooms, the mixing chamber, the spiral, the
reading rooms, and finally the head quarters and offices. The building seems to be ordered
through indicative bright colors and large letterings and signs. Some good examples of that are
the chartreus colored escalators and stairs. Wherever
the chartreus color appears in the building, I directly
recognize that it is an area for means of
transportation, since it is the only one with that color.
The book spiral is another way the architects decided
to place order in the library. When I first came across
the Dewy-Decimal Book Spiral, I thought it looked
like a parking garage for books, which is respectable
because I was able to familiarize myself with the
supposedly new and unusual idea behind organizing
Figure 1 - Compartmentalization
Figure 2 - Dewy-Decimal Book Spiral
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books. However, I found the spiral to be a bit confusing, long, and unattractive. I also agree with
the worries that the many librarians originally had, which are not having subject departments,
and just using the sections, which are not as clear and easy to find (Jacobs, 2007).
Through all of the compartmentalization and placement of objects around, the layout
gave me anticipation and excitement to see what there is in each different level, especially when
I was on the very long escalators. The library felt like it was set up to be read like the lines in a
book - each level being a chapter. Though there were some excellent ideas and concepts behind
Koolhaass vision on how to organize the library, in my opinion, there were still flaws.
Navigating throughout it was difficult and the amount of transportation routs such as escalators
and stairs were not enough nor consistent nor in the right places. For example, when I went up
the top level to read, there was no way for me to go back down easily other than going through
the whole spiral once again, which was a pain.
3. Responding to Topography and Climate
I believe that topography and climate worked harmoniously in this building. First the
location of the library being straight in the middle of downtown Seattle made it the jewel and
highlight of the city. Another
factor is how the climate is heavily
emphasized in the building. The
transparency of the walls made the
environment around very visible.
Whatever the weather is outside
will be showcased and reflected
inside the library just as figure 3
Figure 3- Topography
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shows. The use of topography and the positioning of the geometric shapes of the building were
exquisite and well executed. I have realized that the design team placed the compartments in
ways where they would be able to control the light condition that the building allows in as well
as how the light moves through the building and decorates the floors and walls. I definitely
noticed this on the day I visited as the sun filtered through the metal mesh windows, which gave
warmth, patterns, and excitement to the floors in the living room on the third level.
The temperature in the library is always cool and one drawback is the very loud sounds
that resonate through the building from the people and from the traffic outside. It was too hard to
concentrate because of the echoing that reverberated from the glass walls, emptiness, and high
sealings. Visually speaking, the building is very pleasing to look at and walk around. The
building itself makes me a bit agitated because of the chaotic feel with all 2000-3000 people who
walk in through its doors everyday (Jacobs, 2007). I do also believe that it succeeded in meeting
the Hanover Principles, especially environmentally.
4. Bearing the Weight of Tradition
I do not consider the Seattle Public Library as a modernist building. I see it more as an
industrial one because it does not fit into the rules of modernist architecture, or any other type
of architecture in that case - such as containing a solid outer skin. Nevertheless, the architects
and designers did try and incorporate tradition through the replacement of different art pieces
from the previous libraries to the new one such as the first fountain designed for the old library
by George Tsutakawa, works by Glen Alps and more by internationally recognized conceptual
artist Ann Hamilton, who designed the seventy two thousand square foot floor for the Evelyn W
Foster Learning Center on level one. This level struck me because it featured five hundred and
fifty six lines of text in eleven different languages and alphabets (Murphy, 2006). This not only
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brings people back to the memories of their childhoods and roots, but also ties in the worlds
traditions through letters and visuals.
In contrast, I do not believe that this library successfully achieves tradition, but represents
a rare and new form of ideology and architecture. This library currently does not hold ritual, but
soon, it will to all the Seattleites who will gow up with it. Thought it is an incredible piece of
architecture, to me this library was not ideal because it is not warm, inviting, or cozzy enough,
instead it feels cold and too foreign.
5. Incorporating the Primacy of Technology
Technology is very evident structurally, externally, and internally throughout the library,
especially for sustainability and efficiency. I remember walking to the third floor and seeing a
very large room with hundreds of computers. More specifically, according to Ramus, this room
is the nineteen thousand five hundred square foot Charles Simonyi Mixing Chamber, which
houses 135 public computers (2006). And later, I found out that the whole building contains 400
computers for public use with
electrically wired tables. This
is something that I believe
brings immense amounts of
value to the library because it
indicates just how resourceful
it can be. Another simple but
important technological
addition is that it contains
free Wifi, which is always in
Figure 4 - RFID Book Sorting System
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the favor of the building. Lastly, the architects were successful in achieving accessibility -not
only for the disabled, but the blind and the deaf. There were ramps for wheelchairs, translators
for the deaf, and a program called LEAP for the blind. The librarys most profound and
expensive technology, however, as show in figure 4, is the state of the art RFID Book Sorting
System for handling and circulating books, called tech-logic(Marshall, 2008). It is a machine
that places books into different slots, which go on combater belts and then sorted and recognized
through sensors and vacuum technology.
6. Encompassing Politics and Ideology
The most important aspect to look into with this library is the fact that it is public and
offers a physical place or hub for the residence of Seattle, that it is designed democratically
and based on the principles of universal access (Mattern, 2003). However, how public is the
library actually? I have realized that there are three floors that are blocked from the public
including meeting rooms, the administrative level, and the fifth level which makes it less public
and results in complaining and suspicion about their tax dollar spending. Before this library,
Seattle was becoming very monotonous and architecturally uninteresting, which is why city
officials longed for something that would make their city well established and know around the
world. This is why they decided to build the Seattle Central Library, and the best way to do that
they figured was to higher a world-renowned architect to do the job (2003). However, this was a
delicate situation since it was going to replace the old, traditional, Seattle public libraries.
Officials knew that the public would have wanted to be as involved as possible within the
process of building the library. As mentioned by Murphy, Throughout the design process, the
publics input was solicited and cataloguedbut because the library and design team controlled
both the major design decisions and the discourse surrounding that design, the publics input had
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only limited effect (2006). In addition to that, a 196.4 million dollar self-taxing bond measure
was passed to rebuild and expand Seattles library system in 1998, which caused a lot of
speculation where some detractors still undoubtedly felt as if they have been cheated of hard-
earned tax dollars and still nurse wounds to their civic pride inicted by a library that seems to
disparage the city by declaring nothing northwestern (Mattern, 2003). A small scale, but good
example of the control OMA and LMN architects have over the library and over its people is
their decision to add bright red lights in the bathrooms in order to ward off homeless and
undesired citizens.
7. Responding to Fashion and Consumerism, Tourism and Popular Opinion
The most current, liked, popular, and demanded type of brand in this decade is
environmentalism and going green. In my opinion, this is the brand that the Seattle Public
Central Library is trying to pursue to attract people because of their efforts to keep it sustainable.
Figure 5 Branding and Consumerism
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What sold the brand is that the library is truly efficient, and environmentally friendly. For
example, all the toilets are water efficient, the urinals are waterless, which saves 40,000 gallons
of fresh water per year, the garage has two spaces for electric vehicles, and the irrigation for
landscaping is provided by rainwater that is collected from the exterior and placed in a forty
thousand gallon tank (Jacobs, 2007).
In addition, as shown in figure 5, the librarys utilization of plant like carpets and plants
all throughout enhances the vision of the buildings brand. Another aspect that strengthens the
consumer and tourist attraction is in the transparent, organic, and diamond patterned outer skin of
the building, which resembles mesh and fabric that ties into a fashionable look. With all certainty
though, the strongest consumer selling point is the building and architecture themselves.
Through his talent with the usage of glass and steel to make his outer skins, to his ability
to bring innovative ideas to his architecture, he has build a gem in the middle of the city of
Seattle, that will remain a landmark for decades to come. Rem Koolhaas built one of the, if not
the most interactive, engaging, and intelligent libraries in the world. He has created a public hub
for all ages, to enjoy learning, researching, and developing their minds. Though for many, the
design simply did not make sense, and they found commiseration for their confusion through the
press (Ouroussoff, 2012), or found it impersonal, cheesily detailed, and uncomfortable, and
though I slightly agree with some of these critiques, I still believe that this library is an incredible
sculpture and a piece of art that is one of a kind. Koolhaas did not want to build another regular
library, which is why he took the chance and redefined what libraries should look like and how
they should work, all while doubling the predicted volume of usage.


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Works Cited
Jacobs, Deborah L. "Virtual Tour." The Seattle Public Library. N.p., n.d. Web. 06 Mar. 2014.
<http://www.spl.org/media/videos/virtualtour5-10-2007/virtualtour5-10-2007.htm>.
Joshua Prince-Ramus:Behind the Design of Seattle's Library. Perf. Joshua Prince-Ramus. Joshua
Prince-Ramus: Behind the Design of Seattle's Library. Ted Talks, Feb. 2006. Web. 07
Mar. 2014. <http://www.ted.com/talks/joshua_prince_ramus_on_seattle_s_library>.
Marshall, John. "A Moment with ... Joshua Prince-Ramus/Architect." Seattlepi. Hearst Seattle
Media, LLC, 11 Sept. 2008. Web. 06 Mar. 2014. <http://www.seattlepi.com/ae/article/A-
moment-with-Joshua-Prince-Ramus-Architect-1284976.php>.
Mattern, Shannon. "Just How Public Is the Seattle Public Library?" Journal of Architectual
Education (2003): 5-18. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.
Murphy, Amy. "Seattle Central Library: Civic Architecture in the Age of Media." Places: Design
Observer. Observer Omnimedia, 15 Dec. 2006. Web. 05 Mar. 2014.
<http://places.designobserver.com/feature/seattle-central-library-civic-architecture-in-the-
age-of-media/813/>.
Ouroussoff, Nicolai. "Why Is Rem Koolhaas the World's Most Controversial
Architect?" Smithsonian Magazine (2012): n. pag. Smithsonian. Sept. 2012. Web. 06 Mar.
2014. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/why-is-rem-koolhaas-the-worlds-
most-controversial-architect-18254921/?no-ist>.