The first official building to house Seattle’s public library was built in 1891 on Pioneer Square, eventually moving to a block bounded by Fourth and Fifth Avenues and Madison and Spring Streets. In 1998, Seattle voters embraced a $196.4m makeover of the library, dubbed ‘Libraries for All’.
The initiative includes plans to double the square footage in Seattle’s 22 libraries, including the building of new branches – but the icing on the cake is the new $169.2m Central Library at 1,000 Fourth Avenue, designed by Rem Koolhaas’ Netherlands-headquartered Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in joint venture with local LMN Architects.
Partnering Koolhaas on the OMA team was another well-known name, Joshua Prince-Ramus, now of REX Architects in New York. 37 library staff groups and 11 public work groups were involved as well, according to a library statement.
OMA / LMN’s creation opened in 2004 after 2.5 years of construction as an 11-floor, 412,000ft² library.
It includes such innovative features as a ‘book spiral’ on levels 6-9 that displays the entire non-fiction collection in a continuous run, and a 50ft-high living room alongside Fifth Avenue, all housed in a distinctive diamond-shaped glass and steel skin.
4,644t of conventional steel columns not only carry the weight of the building but support lateral loads such as wind and earthquake movement and the weight of the exterior building skin or curtain wall. The diamond-grid ‘smart glass’ was made by Okalux and custom-made by Germany’s Seele.
Five platform areas allow form to follow function, each corresponding with different aspects of the million-book Central Library programme. The interior has been described as awash with natural light and space, inspiring users to read and borrow actual books in today’s world of online texts and multimedia presentations.
The ‘Mixing Chamber’ on level 5 hosts a customer help centre, including 132 of the building’s 400 public computers.
The ‘Living Room’ on level 3 features a teen centre, family fiction collection, shop, coffee bar, auditorium, the Library Equal Access Project and spaces to read or study. ‘Living Room’ flooring uses a recycled product called Worthwood made by Oregon Lumber.
A ‘Seattle Room’ on level 10 houses Seattle history and genealogical services. This level also houses the reading room, which has panoramic city views. Level 9 hosts a map room and writers’ room. A children’s centre on level 1 has special reading rooms.
“By modifying the superposition of floors in the typical American high-rise, a building emerges that is at the same time sensitive (the slopes will admit unusual quantities of daylight where desirable), contextual (each side can react differently to specific urban conditions) and iconic. Its angular facets form a plausible bracketing of Seattle’s new modernity,” OMA wrote.
Black wall tiles were made from a porous bead foam sound silencer called EPP-ARPRP sold by Acoustical Surfaces. Carpets were designed by Petra Blaise of Inside / Outside in Amsterdam, using Ege carpet of recyclable nylon or polyamid, from the UK. Level 10’s ‘pillow’ ceiling is acoustic panels wrapped with ripstop nylon.
There are 731 seats at study tables without computers and 190 lounge seats, not counting seats for meeting rooms, out of a total $6.4m furniture budget. It includes a 275-seat auditorium and parking for 143 vehicles. The Central Library now sees two million physical patrons a year.
According to a statement from OMA, the library seems threatened, a fortification ready to be taken by potential enemies. “New libraries don’t reinvent or even modernise the traditional institution; they merely package it in a new way,” the architects wrote.
OMA’s vision was to redefine the library as no longer exclusively dedicated to books but as more of an information store, where all media can be presented. “In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and the professionalism of their presentation and interaction that will make the library new,” OMA wrote.
Seattle’s new Central Library has won various awards, including the American Institute of Architects 2005 Honor Award, the American Council of Engineering Companies’ 2005 Platinum Award for Innovation and Engineering and achieved a silver rating from the US Green Building Council.
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