Let’s start with the good. When you enter the main public space, which is dubbed the “Living Room,” from 5th Avenue, you realize, with something of a shock, that Seattle has never really had much of an adequate indoor public space before. And this is a very nice one. Yes, there are the sports stadia, but they are of course event-driven and they’re not free to the user. Likewise with Benroya or McCaw halls. We have the Seattle Center Arena, but that is mostly for the young, the old, and the passing-through. It’s not a space you would normally think of hanging out in. We have various private spaces – my favorite is the garden room in the Four Seasons – but they are private and someone may ask you to leave. The downtown Seattle Art Museum could have provided a public living space, but it doesn’t. So the new library’s Living Room is it. And it’s well done. Another good item is the book spiral. When you experience it, it becomes a kind of no-brainer. Why didn’t anyone think of this before? It’s useful now and will become more so as the library’s collection grows. It’s hard to imagine other new libraries not copying this innovation. -- There are also lots of little things that Rem (or somebody) got right. Lots of computers. Translucent books shelves. Glassed elevator shafts (although you can’t see out from the elevators which is a shame). Exposed book conveyors. Cool rugs. Etc.
The bad. These are all the smaller design items that could have been done better, and in fact can be changed as time goes by, some with very little money or effort. The children’s section doesn’t have any comfortable couches or cushions for the kids to lounge around on. Likewise, the low-headroom space next to the slanting walls in the Living Room could have been utilized as adult lounging space rather than being fenced off (it doesn’t say “do not enter” but that’s the psychological message). The lemon-yellow escalators will likely get old in a hurry. The floor in the Living Room is white wood, which was trashed within hours of the library’s opening. The bathrooms (or at least the men’s) have lime-green floors, ceilings and walls and make you feel kind of sick as soon as you enter them (maybe that’s the purpose?). The acoustics in the Auditorium, which is open to the Living Room, are just abominable and bleed noise into that space. I’m not sure when parking-garage sheik entered our design esthetic, but the Living Room features a 10-story, unadorned concrete elevator shaft. In an earlier day this would be marble. Concrete that is tinted and polished can look quite nice, and in a latter day, faced with budget constraints, the marble could have been downgraded to that treatment. Of course other ideas such as a soaring water-fall are easily imaginable (which would also deal with some of the noise coming from the Auditorium).
Then there is The Ugly. These are serious design flaws. In my mind there are two, a missed opportunity and a major circulation problem. The missed opportunity is the 4th Avenue entrance, which is the main entrance for most people. The ceiling is low. The pillars are concrete. It’s shabby. The low ceiling height is a result of cramming the book-sorting-floor between the 4th and 5th Avenue levels. Although the Living Room is spectacular, entering it from 4th Avenue is sort of like entering your living room at home from a trashed-out garage. This is a strange flaw because there were some pretty easy solutions at hand to rectify it. The easiest would have been to bring the shell of the building straight down to the ground on 4th (I wonder if this was rejected with a command from Rem: “No right angles”) and/or moving the sorting floor somewhere else. Alternately the up-escalator, which currently gives one the birth-canal experience one gets from going up the long escalator at SeaTac’s south satellite terminal, could have been placed on the outside of the building, entering the Living Room through the 4th Avenue overhang. Either way one would be arriving with some presence rather than, metaphorically speaking, skulking past the trash cans in the alley. -- The second design flaw concerns the connection between the Book Spiral and the “Mixing Chamber,” ie what in an earlier day was the card-catalogue and information section. Or rather the lack of such connection. You can take an up-escalator from the Mixing Chamber, and you can take stairs down from the top of the library where there is a reading room to the bottom-most floor of the Book Spiral, but then ….but then…”Hey, how do I get out of here?” There is no down-escalator and no stairs from anywhere in the Book Spiral to the Mixing Chamber. If the elevator are running slow, well too bad. The only other alternative, which was opened up for the library opening, is an emergency stairwell (“Alarm Will Sound”). This flunks a fundamental tenet of architecture 101: you have to be able to get from here to there. It is particularly hard to understand when the downtown Seattle Art Museum, which uses fire stairs as the main circulator between floors, suffers from a similar shortcoming. Can’t we learn from our mistakes?
The crucial question was asked me by my 15-year-old son: Would you rather keep the library or take back the money it cost to build? Well, I’ll keep it (not that I have any choice of course). Even the Ugly design flaws are correctable (put in some new escalators), albeit at a considerable post-construction “remodeling” cost. While it seems a shame that a fair amount of the $165 million construction tab (three times the cost of Vancouver’s new library) was probably runthrough to eradicate right angles from the building and create a design that Darth Vader would approve of, at least Seattle now has a gracious public Living Room. It’s about time.
-- Guest Post by Donald F. Padelford