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Architecture & Engineering

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December 16, 1999

Koolhaas gives city first look at library design

  • Says his angular structure will complement Gehry's EMP
    Journal A/E editor

    A lunchtime crowd of about 650 people packed an auditorium at Benaroya Hall on Wednesday to see architectural luminary Rem Koolhaas offer the first glimpses of Seattle's new central library.

    Rather than a conventional high-rise with straight, vertically stacked floors, Koolhaas' preliminary design features a building with five main "platforms," or levels, that are pushed and pulled out, creating an angular effect. Between these platforms are four "floating layers," which provide public spaces for a children's room, a "mixing chamber" and a living room.

    Library sketch
    The design calls for five platforms. Starting from the bottom, they would contain parking/operations/kids' room, "living room," "mixing chamber," reading room, and office space on the top level.
    Photos by Annu Mangat
    The building appears transparent, clad in two layers of glass -- between which are steel tubes that join together to form a lattice of diamond shapes.

    Koolhaas said he considered Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project in designing the new library, thinking about "how the two would resonate and talk to each other." He said the "warped quality" of Gehry's building and the angularity of the new library complement each other and, he implied, are evidence of Seattle's growing architectural maturity.

    The steel-tubed skin of the new library, he said, not only provides the main structural support for the building but also modulates light and, with built-in coolers and filters, controls internal air temperature. He noted the building is "pre-quaked," with its irregular shape helping to counteract the movement of an earthquake.

    Regarding the buildings that surround the site of the new library, Koolhaas remarked that "it would be a pity to be as boring as the context."

    But, he said, the new library shouldn't be "simply eccentric" either. He described it as "logical" in its organization but "rich and mutated" visually. The building will be similar in scale to its larger neighbors, and should be visible from Interstate 5, as well as affording views of the water and Mount Rainier.

    Rem Koolhaas
    Rem Koolhaas
    Each platform, Koolhaas explained, contains several programmatic functions. A "kids' platform" includes not only a children's room on the street level but parking below grade. The children's area, for example, is shaped like an inverted pyramid, with the floor gradually sloping downward to a storytelling area. Koolhaas said the space should "treat children seriously" but could also incorporate whimsical elements, such as slide as an entry for children and a stairwell for adults.

    The library of the future needs to be reinvented, he said, noting that libraries will need to become less reliant on books in favor of digital information.

    On his tour of libraries in the United States and in Europe he said he observed that libraries are usually mounting a "Sisyphean fight against disorder." With that in mind, he said, the design team sought to figure out how the new library could contain an ever-growing collection of books and other media. The solution includes digitally storing information and creating space specifically designated for books that can be expanded without encroaching on public space.

    The new library contains several other public areas in addition to the kids' platform. An area he called the "trading floor" could function like a bar or nightclub as a place to exchange information, he mused.

    Though books would be located on each platform, the main repository would be housed on the fourth level, which would also feature a reading room. The terrace platform, on the fifth level, would contain administrative office space. A special area of the library would be dedicated to information about Seattle, serving as an attraction for visitors, he said.

    Other design features of the new library include a vertical atrium, cut through each platform. Some floors, said Koolhaas, might be made of glass, though that, like other design details, has not been determined.

    City librarian Deborah Jacobs said Koolhaas' overall design is very responsive to the library's program needs.

    Koolhaas said actual design work began just six weeks ago. Koolhaas' firm, the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, formed a joint venture with Seattle-based LMN Architects for the library. LMN architects working on the project are John Nesholm, Bob Zimmer and Jim Brown. The structural engineer is Skilling Ward Magnusson Barkshire of Seattle.

    Library model
    The 355,000-square-foot building will be covered by steel tubing sandwiched between two layers of glass. Construction for the $159 million central library is scheduled to begin in mid-2001 and end in 2003.
    Library officials stressed that the design unveiled Wednesday is preliminary and is the first phase of a two-year design process. Alexandra Harris, the Seattle Public Library's capital programs director, said despite the preliminary nature of the design, she didn't expect major changes in its basic configuration. "I would describe it as an evolving process, not a transformation," she said.

    She said the library is seeking comments from the public on how the new library can serve their needs. An open house with Koolhaas, other design team members and library officials will be held from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 18, at the Central Library in the Lee Auditorium.

    Construction for the new central library is scheduled to begin in mid-2001 and end in 2003. The construction cost of the 355,000-square-foot library is $90 million, with the total project cost estimated at $159 million. The library will be built on the site of the existing library at 1000 Fourth Ave.

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