Why I Like the Seattle Library

Our author—who’s had her issues with monumental modernism—lets down her guard.

Two years after its much ballyhooed opening, the Seattle Public Library continues to cause arguments here in the Northwest. People who wouldn’t recognize Rem Koolhaas if he stood ahead of them in a coffee line laud or curse his name as if he is an old friend—or enemy.

Mentioning the library polarizes an audience and can be a useful tool, say, if your book signing question-and-answer period suddenly stalls for want of hot air. Just a quick “Rem” and you’ll have people jumping up with voluble defenses of the library’s facade, erupting about the horrendous paint colors in the bathrooms, or decrying the elitism of benches that keep homeless people from lying down. Give them another minute and they’ll describe the nauseating tremor of the stairs or the high-colonic atmosphere of the circular meeting-room floor. All of this can be entertaining to people who are living through another sunless winter.

I like the library. This comes as an annoying shock to people who may have read my recent book, Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time (Metropolis Books), and expect me to detest all things modern. I like the library, and I have my reasons.

More from Metropolis

Looking at pictures of a building, reading about a building, or jetting in to visit a building are all ways to experience architecture. But they are not the same as living in a city where old known places are razed for that building, where cement is poured and traffic snarled for that building, and where cars and pedestrians are rerouted while that building is being built. A public building has a gestation period during which a city’s populace accustoms itself to change, in the same way that a woman accustoms herself to future motherhood during the long months of pregnancy. Often the daily experience of the building as it goes up has residents warming to it or beginning to dislike it long before it opens its doors. And that’s what happened to me: my affection for the library grew as the building took shape.

During its construction I taught at the University of Washington. By the time my class ended, early night had settled in, and I’d walk down from the campus and wait at the stop for a long half-hour before the bus came. When I finally boarded I was cold, hungry, and questioning the value of teaching as an avocation. However, Seattle hires friendly bus drivers and keeps its buses well heated. By the time we took the sharp turn down the hill toward the ferry—the air pleasantly warm, the driver telling me about the new meatless meatballs he’d found at Trader Joe’s—I’d be thinking of my students’ intelligence, and that perhaps I should stock up on meatless meatballs.

As the bus turned and came down the hill, it went by the library site. At first, and for a long time, we’d drive by floodlit construction and see nothing but a deep complexity of unfinished steel crosshatching. Later as the building reached completion, lights came on inside and sparks from welding torches lit up the scaffolding. We watched the library take shape. It became a glass polyhedron set on a hill overlooking Puget Sound: it looked like a deep jewel or a grounded star. Passing it on the bus day after day I found it incredibly beautiful, warmed as I was by the bus’s heat and the talk of the driver. Context made me like the library before I ever set foot in it. I associated it with warmth, with going home, with meatballs.

Because I work and am busy and never get around to things, I did not see the inside of the library for months after it was finished. And when I did see it, I ran out of room on my little critic’s notepad of “Things to Mention.” The interior finishes clearly got the short end of the budget. The huge letterforms of the Bruce “Mauhaus” typeface on the librarian desks and wayfinding signage make people seem small and insignificant. Someone decided to paint the walls of one entire floor red. Various shocking spot colors seem stolen from the palette of a McDonald’s playground. You can’t figure out which floor you’ve come in on or what escalator gets you to the next one. I missed the purposeful ambiguity of the video installation in the middle of the escalator’s ascent because I was trying to figure out where the hell I was. And Ann Hamilton’s beautifully crafted Floor of Babble, a flat typographic sculpture of a floor, is an expensive example of the flawed “If You Make It Difficult, They Will Become Intrigued” philosophy so lauded by design professors in the late 1990s. When I stood on it, no one was looking intrigued by it—or even looking at it. Everyone was clustered around the industrial shelving placed on it. Oddly, they were looking at books.

The inside of the library is flawed because it is built on an assumption only a visual designer could make: if it succeeds at being a lighthearted theme park, a place that aims to make reading fun—entertaining, amazing—that it will somehow rescue reading from its lowly place on the technological totem pole and allow it to survive. This is a big error.

Most designers do not read, they make. Their brains are not wired for reading, they don’t settle in with it the way they settle in to designing. Graphic designers see copy as blocks of type. Architects see books as little objects. That’s why design books have big pictures. Top designers read, and that’s part of what puts them on top. But most designers don’t read by choice. They design by choice; they read if they have to.

For those who read comfortably and frequently, reading is not about fireworks. It is about breaking the boundaries of self. It is about discovering the kinship of like consciousness, though the owner of that consciousness may be half your age or have lived 300 years ago. It is about linking minds, arguing with respected enemies. That linking, that arguing, is what reading creates. It builds a person’s internal landscape. It has nothing to do with black walls and aorta-like hallways—nothing at all.

The designers who created the inside of the Seattle Public Library worked from their experience with the arithmetic of reading, from their own visual need to liven up the joint. But the users of the library are not doing arithmetic; they are doing algorithmic notation. A designer who devotes most of an interior’s budget to distraction and entertainment is one who does not understand the seduction of reading. Or worse, he or she is a designer working for a client who is in the library business but fundamentally questions the validity of reading in this age.

And yet I like the library. I like that Seattle put a big whomping marker in the sand that says this city cares about knowledge. I like that the librarians are excited to be in the new building, that they’ve issued more library cards than ever before. I like that the building itself is not too big, not the all too usual Modernist phallic construction. Even if its innards are lacking, it has done a lot right. I like the chance it gives us.

“What chance?” you ask. “The building’s built.” Ah, but interior architecture is not forever. Far better to have a lovely form and a nonworking sinside than the reverse. After the furor has passed, after a few people have retired or moved off the project, we can take another stab at the inside and make it work with the outside—because, really, for every soaring height, there must be a private space. For every cool reflection, there must be a warm comfort. Someone tried for balance—tried to mitigate the glacial coolness of the facade with a festive interior. But the Post-Modern playtime feeling of the inside architecture just does not live up to the idealism of its carapace. The balance lacking in this building is not one of cool versus fun but of cool versus inclusive, pragmatist versus idealist, form versus content.

Right now the library does not provide the warm nook, the comfortable interchange, the back-to-the-wall safety that people need to settle down and read. Perhaps that’s why Seattleites read on buses. The Seattle Library is a building out of balance; it is form with confused content. But when I look up and see its windows reflecting the evening light on the Sound, it is a beautiful building, and I like it.

Read a sample of Natalia Ilyin’s book, Chasing the Perfect: Thoughts on Modernist Design in Our Time, by clicking here.

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