One For The Books

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SEATTLE: The glass walls of the library are covered in a steel lattice

If you expect a public library to sit quietly with its hands folded, the new Seattle Central Library is not for you. It has a lunging, irregular exterior wrapped in folds of glass covered with a honeycomb of steel. There are hook holes all over it, so the window washers can scale the angled surface like rock climbers. As buildings go, this one manages to look both precarious and enduring, headlong and immemorial. If Picasso ever painted a library, it might look like this.

Actually, it's the biggest U.S. project of Rem Koolhaas, the influential Dutch architect-thinker and hipster-polemicist. "For me it's a building that accommodates both stability and instability," he says. "The things you can predict and the things you can't." What he means is that the library is designed to accommodate whatever new technologies and purposes it may have to serve in the future. And Koolhaas is somebody who understands all too well the power of things you can't predict. The library, which opens officially next month, is not just a new symbol for the city. It's a personal vindication for the architect, an announcement that, at age 59, he is thriving in the American phase of his career after a period in which several major U.S. projects abruptly fell through and his views on the future of building got notably sour. Opening this summer is Koolhaas' second Prada store, in Beverly Hills, Calif. And last September saw the debut of his McCormick Tribune Campus Center at Chicago's Illinois Institute of Technology. Another instant icon, it's topped by a massive corrugated-steel tube intended both to muffle the noise of the railway line that passes overhead and to encourage another sound — wow!--from anybody passing by.

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These days Koolhaas' firm, the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), has busy operations in Rotterdam and New York City and massive new projects under way in Europe and Asia. But for years Koolhaas was far better known as a theorist than as a builder. His 1978 book, Delirious New York, an approving account of the uncontrolled development of the Manhattan streetscape, was that rare thing, a big seller about architectural theory. Even now he remains the very model of the oracular modern architect, given to panoramic pronouncements on modernity ("If space junk is the human debris that litters the universe, junk space is the residue mankind leaves on the planet"). His highest goal is to restore possibilities for human interaction of whatever kind. Congestion and sprawl he sees as advantages. The posthuman megalopolises of the 21st century — Tokyo, Atlanta, Shanghai — are just so many jumbo opportunities. On the other hand, he is sick to death of skyscrapers, which he considers vertical cylinders that isolate people instead of putting them into circulation with one another. "It's hypocritical for anyone to argue that skyscrapers are part of civil society and public space," says Koolhaas.

The Seattle library began five years ago with a series of public hearings at which Koolhaas refused the role of genius architect and adroitly played it anyway. Early in the process, Joshua Ramus, the OMA partner who collaborated with him on the design, offered the people of Seattle a very Koolhaasian view of architecture. "We're looking for ways," he said, "to lose control of the design process."

Of course, they never actually did. After three months of research into libraries around the world, Koolhaas and Ramus concluded that the two chief challenges the building would have to address were the unpredictable future proliferation of new technologies that the library would need to encompass and the new social functions that it may have to serve. The solution was a library organized as a series of five internal enclosed "platforms," from basement to upper-level administrative areas, each to serve a function such as parking, offices and meeting space. Instead of being stacked neatly one atop another in a rectangle, they are shifted, some thrust forward, others back, which accounts for the building's irregular silhouette. Alternating with the platforms are four open areas for a children's library, reading rooms and reference desks. The largest of the platforms, the one holding the books, is actually a continuous, gentle spiral of shelves, a kind of interior avenue for the library stroller. Rather than segregate different subject areas on separate floors, the spiral presents the entire collection in a continuous flow designed to encourage people to move freely among topics, to have those serendipitous encounters Koolhaas loves.

Once the platforms and interspaces were decided upon, it remained only to arrange them and wrap the irregular stack in a glass skin held within a latticework of steel. That lattice functions as an exterior structural support, reducing the need for interior trusses and columns, which in turn makes possible wide sweeps of free space inside, including an upper-level reading room with views onto Puget Sound.

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