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SEATTLE CENTRAL LIBRARY
Seattle, Washington

KEY AWARDS American Institute of Architects, National Honor Award, 2005; American Library Association, National Building Award, 2005; American Counsel of Engineering Companies, National Gold Award, 2005; LEED Silver Certification, 2004
CLIENT Seattle Public Library
PROGRAM Central library for Seattle’s 28-branch library system, including 33,700 m² (363,000 sf) of (from top to bottom) children’s collection, auditorium, staff floor, living room, meeting rooms, information services, publicly accessible book storage spiral, reading room, and administration headquarters; and 4,600 m² (49,000 sf) of parking
AREA 38,300 m² (412,000 sf)
COST $169.2 million (project)
STATUS Commenced 1999; completed 2004
ARCHITECT OMA | LMN
KEY PERSONNEL Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus (Partner-in-Charge), with Mark von Hof-Zogrotzki, Natasha Sandmeier, Meghan Corwin, Bjarke Ingels, Carol Patterson
CONSULTANTS Arup, Bruce Mau Design, Davis Langdon, Dewhurst Macfarlane, Front, HKA, Hoffman Construction, Inside/Oustide, Jones & Jones, Kugler Tillotson, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, McGuire, Michael Yantis, Pielow Fair, Quinze & Milan, Seele

The Seattle Central Library redefines the library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store where all potent forms of media—old and new—are presented equally and legibly. In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and, more importantly, the curatorship of their content that will make the library vital.

The Seattle Central Library redefines the library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store where all potent forms of media—old and new—are presented equally and legibly. In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and, more importantly, the curatorship of their content that will make the library vital.

Flexibility in contemporary libraries is conceived as the creation of generic floors on which almost any activity can occur. Programs are not separated, rooms or individual spaces not given unique characters. In practice, this means that bookcases define generous (though nondescript) reading areas on opening day, but, through the collection’s relentless expansion, inevitably come to encroach on the public space. Ultimately, in this form of flexibility, the library strangles the very attractions that differentiate it from other information resources.

Instead of its current ambiguous flexibility, the library should cultivate a more refined approach by organizing itself into spatial compartments, each dedicated to, and equipped for, specific duties. Tailored flexibility remains possible within each compartment, but without the threat of one section hindering the others.

Our first operation was to comb and consolidate the library’s apparently ungovernable proliferation of programs and media. By combining like with like, we identified programmatic clusters: five of stability and four of instability.

Each platform is a programmatic cluster that is architecturally defined and equipped for maximum, dedicated performance. Because each platform is designed for a unique purpose, their size, flexibility, circulation, palette, structure, and MEP vary.

The spaces in between the platforms function as trading floors where librarians inform and stimulate, where the interface between the different platforms is organized—spaces for work, interaction, and play.

By genetically modifying the superposition of floors in the typical American high rise, a building emerges that is at the same time sensitive (the geometry provides shade or unusual quantities of daylight where desirable), contextual (each side reacts differently to specific urban conditions or desired views), and iconic.

The problem of traditional library organization is flatness. Departments are organized according to floor plates. Each floor is discreet; the unpredictable fits of growth and contraction in certain sections are, theoretically, contained within a single floor.

In 1920, the Seattle Public Library had no classification for Computer Science; by 1990 the section had exploded. As collections unpredictably swell, materials are dissociated from their categories. Excess materials are put in the basement, moved to off-site storage, or become squatters of another, totally unrelated department.

The Book Spiral implies a reclamation of the much-compromised Dewey Decimal System. By arranging the collection in a continuous ribbon—running from 000 to 999—the subjects form a coexistence that approaches the organic; each evolves relative to the others, occupying more or less space on the ribbon, but never forcing a rupture.

The Spiral’s 6,233 bookcases housed 780,000 books upon opening, with flexibility to grow to 1,450,000 books in the future (without adding another bookcase).

The problem of traditional library organization is flatness. Departments are organized according to floor plates. Each floor is discreet; the unpredictable fits of growth and contraction in certain sections are, theoretically, contained within a single floor.

In 1920, the Seattle Public Library had no classification for Computer Science; by 1990 the section had exploded. As collections unpredictably swell, materials are dissociated from their categories. Excess materials are put in the basement, moved to off-site storage, or become squatters of another, totally unrelated department.

The Book Spiral implies a reclamation of the much-compromised Dewey Decimal System. By arranging the collection in a continuous ribbon—running from 000 to 999—the subjects form a coexistence that approaches the organic; each evolves relative to the others, occupying more or less space on the ribbon, but never forcing a rupture.

The Spiral’s 6,233 bookcases housed 780,000 books upon opening, with flexibility to grow to 1,450,000 books in the future (without adding another bookcase).

The problem of traditional library organization is flatness. Departments are organized according to floor plates. Each floor is discreet; the unpredictable fits of growth and contraction in certain sections are, theoretically, contained within a single floor.

In 1920, the Seattle Public Library had no classification for Computer Science; by 1990 the section had exploded. As collections unpredictably swell, materials are dissociated from their categories. Excess materials are put in the basement, moved to off-site storage, or become squatters of another, totally unrelated department.

The Book Spiral implies a reclamation of the much-compromised Dewey Decimal System. By arranging the collection in a continuous ribbon—running from 000 to 999—the subjects form a coexistence that approaches the organic; each evolves relative to the others, occupying more or less space on the ribbon, but never forcing a rupture.

The Spiral’s 6,233 bookcases housed 780,000 books upon opening, with flexibility to grow to 1,450,000 books in the future (without adding another bookcase).

The traditional library presents the visitor with an infernal matrix of materials, technologies, ‘specialists.’ It is an often demoralizing process: a trail of tears through dead-end sections, ghost departments, and unexplained absences. 

The Book Spiral liberates the librarians from the burden of managing ever-increasing masses of material. Newly freed, they reunite in a circle of concentrated expertise. The Mixing Chamber is an area of maximum librarian/patron interaction, a trading floor for information orchestrated to fulfill an essential (now neglected) need for expert interdisciplinary help.

The Mixing Chamber consolidates the library’s cumulative human and technological intelligence: the visitor is surrounded by information sources.

Children’s Collection

Auditorium

Living Room

Meeting Floor

View to Mixing Chamber

Mixing Chamber

Entry to Book Spiral

Book Spiral

Reading Room
 

Image Credits: 1, 3, 12, 13, 17: Ramon Prat, ACTAR; 2, 9, 15, 19, 21, 22: Philippe Ruault; 10, 16, 18, 20: Iwan Baan; 14: floto+warner

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