October 1, 2004
Who makes architecture? We reveal the usually hidden collaborations that create excellence.
How long did it take to design, build, and furnish the Seattle Public Library? “Five years, three months, six days,” replied Joshua Ramus, recalling the process that produced this now famous building. As Ramus—a young partner in the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, which created the building—dug down to reveal the complex and fruitful relationships between many skilled and dedicated people, we at Metropolis couldn’t help but contrast his story with the many pieces that would be written about the heroic Mr. Koolhaas as the architect of the library.
Through the years, Metropolis has produced its share of single-focus stories, but we have been unhappy with the approach for some time now. We feel that such pieces are incomplete, one-dimensional—a kind of white lie about what makes design great. How, we asked ourselves, would we go about creating a full-bodied, layered narrative and commentary about the relationships, discoveries, obstacles, and triumphs behind a breakthrough project?
The cover story of Metropolis’s October 2004 issue is our first attempt at fully examining the making of a high-profile building. We chose this particular one, not so much for its star quality, but to find its untold stories. We think we have brought the dialogue on architecture, culture, and design to a higher plane; we hope you agree.
In the course of our many interviews, we heard collaborators use words like “respect” and “trust.” They often talked about making “compromises for the good of the project,” about pushing for excellence on a tight budget, and feeling, at the end, that they made a significant contribution to the success of the building, as well as to their own professional advancement.
Though telling such a complex story is similarly difficult, it, too, has its rewards. Just as the Seattle librarians challenged the architects and their collaborators to reach new heights of inventiveness, we felt challenged by telling their story and presenting it graphically. Laid out like the library’s Book Spiral, which organizes books as one continuous ribbon of information, our story sprawls across 20 pages of the magazine in a continuous flow of text and illustration.
To convey the idea of the many hands it takes to make a building, we asked D.J. Stout to design our cover. As we talked about our concept, he recalled a recent project where his firm, Pentagram, made major contributions with their signage and way-finding designs, yet only the architect was credited. D.J.’s cover design, with the many different hands building the library, is a heartfelt and memorable illustration of collaboration.
As we worked on the story, each of us found a fact or two that had a special resonance. For me, it was the story about how the building’s window washers are actually rock climbers, an important resource in towns like Seattle. It is up to these local specialists to keep the technically sophisticated façade on their public library sparkling. That, too, is part of the story of architecture.
Some thoughts from those who helped shape the library:
“I think the process worked because the library and the architects agreed almost immediately on what the questions were. They instantaneously grasped what we were trying to achieve and what our goals were, which was the celebration of the library as a public place” — Linda Larson, Seattle Public Library Board of Trustees
“Good design should not cost more—it should cost less. It should be thought out, and thought should add value. What we do as engineers is ask: How do you solve as many problems as possible with one act? That requires collaboration.” — Tim MacFarlane, Dewhurst MacFarlane and Partners
“The building was an urban statement. In a way, we were asking the library board to set a precedent for what a good civic building should be.” — Joshua Ramus, OMA
“We were able to completely integrate the signage into the architecture, since everyone was committed to the idea.” — Henry Hong-Wui Cheung, Bruce Mau Design
“One important thing that happened was we developed a common language between ourselves and the client. Throughout the process there was a kind of language and issues inventory.” — Rem Koolhaas
“The biggest challenge for a lighting designer is making sure the ‘best solution’ achieves the architect’s objective, fulfills our vision, and makes the client feel good about the space.” — Suzan Tillotson, Kugler Tillotson Associates
“When the floor was being poured in March and everything was pretty much finished, one of the things Rem said as we were walking down the chartreuse stairs was, ‘You know, each of us won the right battles and lost the right battles.’” — Deborah Jacobs, Seattle City Librarian