May 14, 2014

The Seattle Public Library celebrates its 10th anniversary


The Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaus, occupies an entire city block.

The Seattle Public Library, designed by Rem Koolhaus, occupies an entire city block.

The history of the Seattle Public Library can be traced back to 1868, but the past decade has been particularly exciting. That’s because on May 23, 2004, the new downtown Central Library opened to the public. This month, the library will celebrate the ten year anniversary of the building which was designed by Rem Koolhaas.

In 1998, Seattle approved a bond measure for a 196.4 million dollar overhaul of the city’s library system — the largest issue that had ever even been raised in the United States. That meant Seattle could build four new libraries in parts of the city that didn’t have library access, and the money could also go toward building a brand new Central Library. As plans geared up, the competition was stiff:

Twenty-nine major national, international and local firms sought the opportunity to design the new Central Library… The surprise winner was Rem Koolhaas and his Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, in partnership with the Seattle firm of LMN Architects. The iconoclastic Dutch architect had no major buildings built in America when the Library Board selected him over two other finalists, but the board’s choice seemed insightful a year later when Koolhaas was awarded architecture’s highest international honor, the Pritzker Prize.

On May 16th, 2004—a week before the library opened—New York Times architecture critic Herbert Muschamp praised the design and celebrated the launch of the brand new library in the city where Amazon was just taking hold in a review titled “The Library That Puts on Fishnets and Hits the Disco.”

At a dark hour, Seattle’s new Central Library is a blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon. If an American city can erect a civic project as brave as this one, the sun hasn’t set on the West. In more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review….  You’ll want to walk around the library a few times before plunging in. The site is steeply raked. This plays tricks with the eyes, making it nearly impossible to register the building’s scale accurately… it may be useful to see the Central Library as a series of episodes in urban space. There are crowd scenes and moments of intense solitary absorption. Intense vertigo gives way to erotic stimulation. Over here, you’re an actor, over there a spectator. Don’t look now, but the library could be reading you.

(Muschamp’s review—with lines like “Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project looks like something that crawled out of the sea, rolled over and died” and  “Eat your heart out, I. M. Pei. Compared to the Central Library’s soaring atrium lobby, the entrance pyramid at the Louvre looks like a gadget from the Sharper Image catalog”—is worth reading in full.)

According to the Seattle Times, today the “library has 748,000 books in its central building and an additional 711,000 in its 26 branches.” The Central Library has 11 floors, is 326,987 square feet, and has Koolhaas-designed features like a “Books Spiral” which is a concrete spiral of shelving that holds the entire nonfiction collection in a continuous and accessible way or the “Mixing Chamber” where librarians greet patrons and help them find books.

To celebrate the anniversary, the library is hosting a week of events starting this Thursday, May 15. The lineup includes music, architectural talks, and something called “Authors Gone Wild” — an evening with readings, performances, and book signings.

See more photos of my recent visit to the Seattle Public Library on the Melville House Library Tumblr.


Claire Kelley is the Director of Library and Academic Marketing at Melville House.