The Seattle Public Library

Read a PDF of the article at Metropolis Magazine.

The new central branch of the Seattle Public Library isn’t a building. Don’t think of it that way. It’s a set of theories, tested and retested, battered about in debate after debate, transformed into a conceptual model. What you see glinting in the sun, on a steep slope of Seattle’s downtown, is a system of adaptive space, agreed upon long ago and dressed up now in materials and circulation patterns.

That’s how it had to be. Perhaps no profession has seen so much of the world, and had to adapt so quickly and completely to its shifting tides, as that of librarian. As a result no cookie-cutter box can support the program of a library. It must carry on several simultaneous functions—warehouse, airport, school, department store, and town hall—and all of them will change over time.

“You simply never know when new bodies of knowledge are going to come about,” Seattle city librarian Deborah Jacobs says. “Who knew, in 1959, that every major library collection would have to include a huge base of books on Middle Eastern studies?” Toss in the Internet, video, and recorded music, and a library’s contents balloon out of control. “Around the country,” Jacobs adds, “in large libraries like ours, you see rooms for the humanities that have had to push right up against—and sometimes through—load-bearing walls.”

In 1998 Seattle voters approved a $196.4 million bond measure to improve the city’s library system—the largest public library bond in U.S. history. For a new central branch—the centerpiece of the improvements—the Seattle Public Library board of trustees decided that it required an architect who possessed problem-solving skills, played well with others, and could maintain those qualities under the burning gaze of a skeptical, vocal, and protest-prone public.

Rather than hold a design competition, which would only result in a predigested plan for a warehouse of books, the board announced a public call for architects. It narrowed the field to five firms, which were invited to Seattle. The scale of the project meant it would undergo intense public scrutiny, and the board had to reassure itself that any firm in the running was tough enough to take it. As soon as they arrived, the firms were given a lengthy design problem and a day to work on it before presenting the results to a town meeting. Two of the entrants withdrew as soon as they found this out, and after the presentations, a third was eliminated. Rem Koolhaas’s Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) and Steven Holl Architects were left. Holl is a Seattle native, but it was OMA’s reliance on research—and Koolhaas’s ease in presenting ideas to a crowd of 1,500—that won the librarians over. Then, in almost the same breath the architects used to thank the board for the commission, they asked for three months to cooperatively research the future of libraries.

“Essentially we said to them, ‘You have a huge public mandate for this project, but none of us—neither the architects nor the board—should be speculating blindly about the future of a library in this technology-savvy city,” says Joshua Ramus, partner at OMA and, alongside Koolhaas, design lead on the project. The librarians, uniquely qualified to understand the value of research, agreed.

As a result, the Seattle Public Library is the first project explicitly begun in the way OMA’s partners had always wanted to work: research the needs of the client and, based on that research, build a conceptual platform that includes a set of core principles and a list of programmatic requirements upon which the eventual design of the building will stand. The architects knew that to create a concept that would carry the design process through disagreements and uncertainty, they had to establish a common language with their clients. And so, as is often the easiest way to learn a foreign language, the architects and librarians packed their bags and embarked on a cultural exchange program, to study one another.

The exchange involved two trips: one to Europe to tour the vast Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, Berlin’s Staatsbibliothek, and the otherworldly Witte Dame library at Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, and another to new libraries in Denver, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The group discovered that a concern with creating flexibility could very easily lead to generic, repetitive, indistinct space. In the Phoenix library, which they all agreed conformed most closely to their idea of good architecture, “the copy room nonetheless looked like the reading room,” Jacobs says. And, they learned, when one function within an unprogrammed area begins to claim space, it impinges on other functions throughout the library. The San Francisco public library, completed in 1996, succumbed to the hype of new technologies being developed at the time and was designed around the idea that books would shortly become obsolete. Carts of books now overflow into its aisles, obstructing circulation, the architects noted.

Back in Seattle, the architects and librarians spent a week consulting with specialists in technology. They toured the Microsoft campus and Bill Gates’s home, met with representatives from Carnegie-Mellon’s library, which was in the process of digitizing its entire collection, and devoted a day to a general discussion of technology with representatives from the MIT Media Lab,, and Wired magazine, among others.

The OMA designers remember being particularly impressed during a day spent with the Gates Foundation’s U.S. Library program, which works with public libraries around the country to provide Internet access and information technology to low-income patrons. The foundation had learned that an overemphasis on technology leaves those patrons behind, and urged the architects to focus on proven expandable technology, such as the Internet. “It was extremely important for us to hear from people whose job it is to think and theorize about the future of technology that we should be thinking instead about reliable, pertinent technology,” Ramus says. “That drove it home for us.”

At the end of its research phase, OMA presented two ideas to the board that would form the backbone of the design concept. Since even Gates has said that he simply cannot imagine reading his children a bedtime story from a computer monitor, the architects reported that the book was here to stay. At the same time, however, other sources of information—beginning with the Internet—were starting to demand additional priority, and the book would have to make room for them. In 1999, during the dot-com hype, this was an extremely balanced view.

The second assertion was that the library was beginning to experience an explosion of nontraditional responsibilities. OMA contended that this paradigm shift had already occurred, and pointed to the program developed by the library board as evidence: 32 percent of it responded to books; 68 percent to other functions, such as classroom instruction, Internet access, and public meetings. Those functions, OMA argued, dictated the need for a new system of flexible design. Faced with their own program, the board couldn’t disagree.

The firm divided the program into two categories—stable areas, which hold a range of predictable activities, and unstable areas, whose future uses are unpredictable. By combing through the board’s program, OMA discovered five stable functions: the headquarters (administrative offices); a spiral-shaped book-storage system, along which the library’s collection could expand or contract (rather than dividing the collection room by room); the staff areas (where books are ordered, repaired, and sorted); and the parking garage. The design treats each of these five programmatic areas—called “boxes”—as independent buildings with their own mechanical and structural systems.

Then OMA pushed the boxes around the site until a balance had been achieved and the spaces in between each box became one of four flexible areas. Looking back, these turn out to be the places that patrons engage with information. They included the Reading Room, the Mixing chamber (a central area for reference books, online catalogs, and easy access to librarians), an unprogrammed Living Room, and reading areas for children and multilingual patrons.

‘At this point,” Ramus says, “we still didn’t know anything truly specific about the eventual design, however—no exits, no bathrooms, nothing. We knew we had an armature we could build on, that we could engage book-storage problems here, in this box, and then deal with offices here, in this other box. That was our process.”

Although it might appear to have slowed down the design schedule, the research helped, in fact, to speed things along later by establishing a durable concept early. Now the library board can go back to the conceptual model it created with the architects and feel satisfied that it got what it asked for.

Nancy Pearl, a lifelong librarian who retired in August (she’s so beloved locally that a librarian action figure was manufactured in her honor), sees the expanded civic role of this library differently than the architects do, but in a way that is accommodated by the flexibility of the design. Rather than departing from traditional responsibilities, she believes that libraries across the country are simply returning to their traditional civic function—as places for public education—and that this library is going to be able to support that mission for years to come. “When you read about the immigrants coming into New York City at the turn of the century,” Pearl says, “one of the first things they’d do is find the public library, to learn about the culture, the language, the philosophy, and to find good things to read as well. In many ways I think that function is being revived—especially with a building as spectacular as this one.”