I wrote earlier that I wouldn't comment on the Koolhaas design until the building was complete. And what's the rush? It will be with us for years. In fact I visited last week because I had been told that it was sufficiently finished to sense the final effect. I walked around it. I took pictures. But the lack of glazing made me hold off public comment; the glazing will have a significant impact on its appearance. And I want to be rigorous, try to drop any psychological "investment" in my adverse already-stated opinion about the building as a piece of urban design. I saw that construction still had a way to go. So I decided to, and will try to, hold-off comment on the design itself until the work is done. Fair?
But then (this morning) I read former-Mayor Charles Royer here cheer-leading for the design in such a backhanded way that I assume that there must already be tremendous adverse comment about the Library circulating in leadership circles. Mr. Royer is exceedingly well-connected and seemed to me to be making a preemptive strike in anticipation of a huge public outcry when the Library is in fact finished.
Just up the street from the new City Hall, an even riskier design is taking shape in the form of the new Central Library. Like City Hall, this building reflects the values of conservation and efficiency. But it is unabashedly designed to break new ground in architecture, to challenge and inspire.
Designed by Rem Koolhaas, the Dutch architect and winner of one of architecture's highest honors, the Pritzker Prize, the $156 million Central Library will be one of those buildings people may love and perhaps hate. But when Aunt Em comes to town, people will surely take her to see it. It will be an important building, reflecting the changing nature of architecture and the new age of information systems.
A city playing a leadership role in the new information economy will have a leadership building to store and dispense information. And this city will have a new icon.
These new public buildings are doing what public buildings are supposed to do. Even before they are finished, they are political and controversial, sending out messages and symbolism, eliciting comment pro and con.
Royer appears to be trying to persuade us that hiring Koolhaas was a good idea and that the money was well-spent (so give us some more.) But you notice he says nothing nice about the building. He's an honest man and he can't express a positive opinion of the design even in an op-ed. It's called "damning by faint praise" and the "barking dog" syndrome.
The idea that public buildings are supposed to be "controversial", "challenging" and elicit "comment" sounds like a make-weight to defend a foolish design which stemmed from a naive decision to hire Koolhaas in the first place. ("Well you don't like the Library? That's understandable -- few do. But that's why we built it --- so we could have something to discuss.") Public consensus that a building so visible in every way (Seattle likes its libraries) was ineptly handled undermines future appeals for public money by showing that the decision-makers were not up to the job. (Koolhaas was hired, btw, well over a decade after Royer left office.)