Vanity is the Quicksand of Reason

Leave it up to a starchitect like Rem Koolhaas to create engaging, lively, useful public spaces like the pivotol corner of 4th Avenue and Spring Street.  Someone tell me how this promotes an active street face? I don’t know whether to blame the City of Seattle for being so ga-ga over the Dutchman and allowing this to happen or the vanity of such a blow-hard (I’ve listened to his lectures) who doesn’t understand the context to which his buildings sit.  Form over Function?  You got it.  Too bad such a master couldn’t bridge the gap between both – or simply didn’t care to.  And don’t get me started about the interior.

Central Library 4th Avenue

23 Responses to “Vanity is the Quicksand of Reason”

  1. Spencer

    Is that a dog “using” the “lawn”? Where’s his helmet?

    WB, I’m not sure why you are singling out one corner of this building. The 5th ave side and the SW corner are quite active in contrast to the NW corner. If you really want to see a bad example of the Library being a poor neighbor to pedestrians try the whole south side. An entire concrete wall with a service entrance. That makes the NW corner look pretty darn inviting.

  2. joshuadf

    How is 4th and Spring a pivotal corner? Up the hill from the symphony? Sure, I wish it were the new cornerstone of a real urban neighborhood with a better street presence, but I have to disagree about the interior. Heavily used sections are on the bottom. The book spiral elegantly prevents the common large library problem of constantly shuffling stacks of books around to make room. The historic NYPL and Multnomah Co Library in Portland have that problem, so does Vancouver’s 1995 central library.

    If you don’t like the decor, wait 20 years and I’m sure they’ll have to get new furniture.

  3. dorian gray

    whoa whoa whoa. you mean the homeless shelter loans books too?

  4. Matt the Engineer

    I agree with [josh] about the interior, but I do think this could have been a well used corner. They did a great job with City Hall, and there are new residential towers in the area. It’s now a long boring walk past the dead library block.

  5. BrianM

    It just strikes me as mean-spirited and anti-public. Not a very nice street presence.

    David Sucher has a nice take on the library. He hates the interior, too (mean materials and finishes, confusing floor plan).

  6. michael

    non-durable materials yes, but mean? give me a fucking break!
    you people whine way too much…but i do agree with db vanity gave us a sucky public building.

  7. dan cortland

    Yes, mean. It’s the first public building to truly embody movement conservative ideology: it’s the civic building that the public uses most and it is both cheap-looking inside and ill-functioning. It’s a right-wing political statement. That it induced orgasms in Deborah Jacobs and others in this supposedly liberal city is an embarrassment. It looks like a project by Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich.

  8. keith

    Not a fan of Koolhaas’ architecture or his opinions on architecture (see his essay in the Harvard Design Guide, available at SPL, for his take on retail), or the street presence of the building, but at least people use this this library. The Denver Library looks somewhat better but is typically empty (ah, and please don’t mention Libeskind’s Denver Art Museum across the way, part of which I designed structurally).

  9. Sabina Pade

    Seems WB has a bee in his bonnet about Koolhaas and the Central Library. Beauty is of course ever in the eye of the beholder….

    But I wish WB would explain what he means by context, in the present case. The Central Library sits in the heart of the banking district. There is little sidewalk activity here after dark, and even during the day only the homeless and the occasional tourist actually loiter here; everyone else is going speedily to or from work. To whom would a more engaging 4th & Spring street face address itself?

    Dunno whether WB remembers the previous Central Library building. Personally, I think Koolhaas did a brilliant job, quite literally re-sculpting Seattle’s own built history, and energizing it in the process. Certainly the new building is not less engaging than the previous one!

    Inside, I find the Central Library a great pleasure to use. It’s a stimulating interior, and among the rare large libraries in which the stacks are conveniently accessible and which offer abundant naturally-lit reading areas. One can approve or disapprove of its functionalist decorative aesthetic, but it is very intelligently conceived for its users.

  10. Kate G.

    The missing or inadequate signage is especially unwelcoming. My first visit there, I knew precisely where to find the building and precisely the design to be looking for, yet the steeled gridwork at the Fifth Avenue street level utterly failed to convince me of the building’s function as a public library.

    The building’s zigzag exterior grid and its squandered interior space (who needs 30 feet of empty overhead space to comfortably browse and read?) strike me as beyond redemption, but the outside atmosphere could easily be improved with even a thousand dollars worth of prominent and inviting entry signage.

  11. David Sucher

    And it is not as if the City wasn’t explicitly warned that the design was anti-urban. See article:

    citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/cities/files/koolhaas_library_design.pdf

  12. NBeacon Jon

    …and it presents a giant middle finger to all structures in the immediate vicinity.

    #7 needs to pull back from DNC coverage a touch it seems.

  13. BrianM

    Keith: But is the lack of use of the Denver library (which I have never visited) because of the design or a difference in reading culture in the two cities? Denver doesn’t strike me as a very “literary” place, sorry. :)

  14. Dan Staley

    Denver and Seattle are not comparable wrt literaryness. When I lived in Seattle, the gray skies lent impetus to read and visit the liberry. In Denver, the blue skies and fine weather lend impetus to go outside. Plus, the transit systems aren’t comparable either and h*ll if I’m going to drive down to the Denver library, and the distance from the light rail-shuttle makes it annoying on a hot or cold day). My book reading is off since I moved here, because it is so easy to be outside doing something.

    The central libraries aren’t comparable either, as the Denver is of a more traditional design, and you can actually find your way around in there, as it has all the expected qualities and features you need in a library: bookshelves, card catalogs and signs to get you to the book you need. There are some features of the Seattle library that I like, but I wish that some of these features weren’t found in a library – it’s an interesting building, but typically disconnected from the surroundings and not designed well to get you to the book you want.

  15. Bob

    This is 100% object building that could have been plopped down in any city anywhere. I agree – it’s rude to the street and clearly doesn’t care about setting or context. I put the blame on the City – they could have required better street-level treatment but it seems they were happy with a starchitect’s object. (I happen to find the interior interesting but that was just as a visitor, not as a library user.)

  16. David Sucher

    Very heartening to me to hear such widespread disgust with the library building design and also the City’s (Library Board, technically) decision.

    So many design-types in Seattle were just “Oh! Wow!” when it was brand new.

  17. Matt the Engineer

    I wonder if it’s the same reaction that you’d have if a coworker came in with their head shaved and painted silver. It’s a bit rude to tell them it’s strange and ugly, and maybe you’re just not used to the new style yet.

  18. michael strangeways

    I like the building but have to agree that it doesn’t fit the space at all well…it’s a building that belongs on a promontory overlooking the harbor…

    the interior is highly successful…for the production design of a Kubrick film.

  19. dan bertolet

    The Project for Public Spaces published an insightful review of the SPL:

    http://www.pps.org/info/newsletter/july2004/july_2004_feature

  20. keith

    Brian M. and Dan S.: No doubt that Seattle far surpasses Denver in “literaryness” (thought Denver does have a the Tattered Cover, which is a wonderful book store). I was just commenting on the fact that our library here actually gets used, despite its design flaws and the propensity of the architect to blow hot air. And Dan S., I agree thoroughly about the superiority of Seattle’s bus transit in relation to Denver’s, but the latter does have the advantage of a fairly comprehensive bicycle infrastructure.

    And back to SPL. I personally find it somewhat like a casino in Vegas: very easy to enter but difficult to exit.

  21. BrianK

    As neither a supposed Koolhaas idolater, nor a self-congratulatory scold of Koolhaas-idolaters, I have to wonder how much we should expect from our rare public buildings to make up for the deficiencies of all the crappy private ones. The PPS review Dan links to rips the SPL for not single-handedly rejuvenating streetlife in the downtown office core. But which Library activity do they wish could have “spilled” out onto the street? Reading a magazine? Or perhaps a children’s story time? I wish when I was a kid at my local library that we could have heard the roar of rush-hour traffic while the nice librarian lady read us a story. And please don’t tell me there should have been a coffee shop on the sidewalk.

    I go to the Library. As I arrive, walking, I AM the streetlife. I go in and out of the building. I AM the pedestrian activity. But when I get inside, I want a book, not a New Urbanist love-in.

    The place is a bitch to escape, signage sucks and it is hardly gives you a warm squishy hug on the sidewalk. Agreed. Take that Rem! But I love going up inside anyway and going to floor to floor, street to street and looking down into my city from endless perspectives. I love walking by, seeing it reflect the city like no other surface in town can.

    For a stodgy program (store and share recorded knowledge), and mundane context (gray 5pm high-rises) the design showed ambition and new attempts to solve tough problems. I watched Rem Blowhard unveil the design and it was a super-analytical, program-driven response. In fact, it was extreme reason that drive the design, not vanity. That should not excuse the building’s real failures, and most likely is responsible for many of them. But as a rare Object in a sea of Bland, I’m still glad it happened to this whiny little town.

  22. Chris Stefan

    Could the library design have been better? Perhaps, but as others have pointed out it is light-years ahead of what it replaced.

    Considering all of the horridly bad design going in around Seattle these days I actually wish we had more Koolhaas designed buildings.

    While NBBJ can design some real gems such as city hall and some of the neighborhood libraries they can also do some really awful work such as the Four Seasons (or to a lesser extent the WaMu/SAM building across the street). The other problem I have with NBBJ is they have a definite “house” style that seems fairly bland especially in a city like Seattle where there are so many buildings done by them or that emulate their style.

  23. joshuadf

    I just watched the TED online video of Joshua Prince-Ramus’ Designing the Seattle Public Library and he mentions in an aside that that awful 4th and Spring “public plaza” was a city requirement for the project! I’m sure SPL could have pushed back on that, but that total lack of understanding of what works on the street just makes me angry.

    Prince-Ramus also is on the record stating “The way-finding (signage) wasn’t done perfectly, to put it kindly.” Not that it helps us now, but at least he knows it was a mistake.

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