I travelled to Seattle over the holidays and had the pleasure of visiting the wildly contemporary Seattle Central Library designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas.
Good architecture successfully meets the requirements of program through a creative formation of space in response to form and use. Great architecture, as this building exemplifies, transforms this dynamic into poetry.
When I ask people to explain what they remember most about a building, they generally don't recall the specific characteristics of the structure but instead remember how the building made them feel and why.
When we move through a building we experience its personality and come away with a distinct perception of place. It's like meeting someone for the first time, we have a superficial recollection that's easy to convey but we often come away with a less coherent gut feeling as well.
The perception of architectural character goes far beyond the obvious discernible features of structure and material and begins to touch on the more nebulous concept of the poetics of place.
For individuals untrained in architecture this may seem like an ethereal concept but this essence of character is generally the defining feature of any great building.
The Seattle Central Library is profoundly different than any other building in its context with its multi-faceted structure of glass and steel resembling a roughly cut gem in an urban jewelry box of more somber orthogonal-cut stones.
The angular form of the exterior composition is almost entirely covered in a diagonal grid of metal and glass that, at first glance, seems incongruent to its internal workings but these seemingly random pushes and pulls have their function.
Joshua Ramus, the partner in charge of the project, states that, "although the library is sculptural, it is not in any way an attempt to make a form. The library's appearance comes from pushing boxes around to stay within the height and setback restrictions and zoning codes."
Upon entering the library through its main entry off Fifth Avenue, visitors finds themselves in a large unprogrammed public space that welcomes lounging, relaxing and free wireless computer use. This is a public building that truly encourages public use.
Rem Koolhaas has taken the architectural program and acted upon it dynamically, taking standard elements and reinventing them in an unorthodox way.
The Mixing Chamber, the space where librarians meet the public, is centralized, open and expansive and becomes the heart of the building.
Koolhaas has designed the building to have 75 per cent of its collection accessible through a continuous, square ramp that ascends four levels in height, giving easy access to the collection while creating a dynamic circulation system that ties the building together. The Books Spiral is a functional and pragmatic solution that becomes a graceful architectural expression.
The architect has introduced a sense of whimsy to the composition as well. Stairs and escalators have been painted in a luminous yellow, almost overwhelming in its colour, but very clear in its function. A singular red grand stair, sinuous and organic in form, drops into the bowels of the building where arterial red corridors, rounded in section, lead to functional meeting spaces
below. Carpets depict scenes of vegetation that are a simple tapestry to the pedestrian user but are intense landscapes to viewers from above.
The Central Library in Seattle is a spectacular example of a successful modern building that needs to be fully experienced to be adequately understood. Next time you're in Seattle I encourage you to take an hour and walk through this fascinating building and hopefully get a sense of that special something that makes a unique piece of architecture transcend from the prosaic to the inspired.
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