Friday, January 1, 2016

The Seattle Central Public Library: Better Late than Never

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Front view of the Seattle Central Public Library, seen from the main entrance (bottom left corner). Photo ©Darren Bradley 

The Seattle Central Public Library opened to the public in May of 2004. Since then, it's been written about and photographed extensively. At this point, there's probably little or nothing that anyone could say to add to the conversation - or the photographs already taken. But I'm going to do it anyway. 

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View of the library from the 4th street side. The children's section is on this level, on the left side. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Vintage photo of the same angle, showing the old Carnegie Library that sat in this spot previously. Photographer unknown. 

I first caught a glimpse of the new downtown Seattle Public Library in October of 2003. I was passing through Seattle for a business trip and caught a glimpse of the still unfinished building through the window of a taxi cab in the early pre-dawn hours of a cold and rainy autumn morning. Although its wasn't yet finished - most of the glass was not yet in place - it took my breath away when I saw it. I couldn't really get my head around what I was seeing... it was a complicated series of geometric shapes stacked atop each other, with a steal exoskeleton covering the whole thing. It seemed crazy and absolutely wonderful at the same time. I like architecture that stirs an emotional reaction, and this definitely did that. 

Seattle Central Public Library
View from the 5th Avenue side, with the understated main entrance. Photo ©Darren Bradley

When I got home, I did some research and found out that it was designed by OMA/Rem Koolhaas. I didn't know that much about architecture back in 2003, but I did know Rem Koolhaas, largely thanks to his Villa d'Ava outside of Paris. That house was my dream house at the time (I'd still love to own it, if anyone is looking for gift ideas). 

The Villa d'Ava, outside of Paris. I saw an interview once with Koolhaas who said that he intentionally offset the house from the Eiffel Tower, so that the pool wouldn't line up exactly with the tower because he felt that would be too contrived or something.
Iconic photo is not mine... It's by Peter Aaron
So I decided that I would come back to Seattle as soon as it was finished to see it and photograph it. And 12 years later, I did just that. Granted, I was only there for a quick trip to see friends over the holiday, so didn't have time to pre-arrange a visit (or get permission to use a tripod - more on that later). In fact, I only spent an hour or so inside but I made sure to visit every floor and tried to get the full experience.

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View from the central atrium on the top [public] floor, the 10th floor reading room. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Of course, Murphy's Law being what it is, a large portion of the ground floor atrium area was under construction (to change lightbulbs, apparently, requires a major effort complete with scaffolding). But I shot around the crap and made do. 

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This is the only part of the 5th Street ground floor that I could photograph. There was scaffolding and construction debris just to my right. Photo ©Darren Bradley

As I mentioned, the library was designed by OMA, the Dutch firm led by Rem Koolhaas (who has the best name for an architect ever, I have to say). Joshua Prince-Ramus, a partner at the firm's New York office, led the design team. They were also supported by the Seattle firm of LMN Architects. Bjarke Ingels, who would go on to become a well known architect in his own right, worked of OMA at the time, and did much of the interior design. Definitely a dream team line up. 

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View of the central atrium. Photo ©Darren Bradley

As it turns out, OMA wasn't even in consideration for the project, originally, and wouldn't have received the commission except for the efforts of Joshua Prince-Ramus. He is from Seattle, and found out about the competition from his mother, so he flew back home to participate in a mandatory meeting to be considered. Turned out to be a good decision, since it has become one of the most important buildings in recent history in the United States. 

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View of the street and surrounding city from the 10th floor reading room. Photo ©Darren Bradley

The are many innovations in the design, and which have proven to be very popular and successful. For one, the top floor reading room is magnificent. It's light and airy, and inviting, and is a great place to spend an afternoon. 

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The 10th floor reading room with the glass ceiling has plenty of natural light, and great views. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Another view of the 10th floor reading room, looking different when the light changed. Photo ©Darren Bradley

It reminded me of San Diego Central Library's own reading room (by Rob Wellington Quigley), which is similar in concept (although the design is quite different). 

Top-floor reading room at the San Diego Public Library by Rob Wellington Quigley, which opened last year.
Photo ©Darren Bradley

Also, a significant place is still made for printed books, which are kept in what's called the Spiral. This is a series of floor plates that gradual descend and spiral so that you can look at the entire collection of books in a continuous vertical space without having the impression of changing floors. 

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The Spiral Book Tower floating inside the larger building is pierced by an escalator that goes to the top floor, without actually stopping on most of the book floors. Note the gradual elevation changes in the ramped floors of the spiral wrapping around the escalator. This spiral design means you visit all the floors in a continuous manner, without the need for stairs or a conscious floor change.
Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Another view of the Spiral Book Tower, seen from the escalator. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Given Bjarke Ingels affinity for spirals and ramps, I'm guessing this is one of his contributions to the design. 

Danish Pavilion
Danish architect Bjarke Ingels loves spiral ramps, inspired by the RundetÃ¥rn, a 17th century tower with a spiral ramp in his native Copenhagen. This is a project he did for the Danish Pavilion at the Shanghai Expo 2010.  Photo ©Darren Bradley

Another feature that is a favorite of photographers is the red floor. There are a series of recording studios and study rooms that are in a floor that is entirely red in color - floors, ceilings, walls. It makes for a surreal experience. 

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The Red Floor. Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Photo ©Darren Bradley

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Photo ©Darren Bradley

Based on what I've read in the press (and some snarky comments on my Instagram account), opinions about the building are a bit mixed. Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker, seems to agree with me. He called it "the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating". It also won the AIA National Award for Architecture in 2005. 

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The escalators all reflect a common color theme - yellow. Photo ©Darren Bradley
But inevitably, there will be haters. In 2007, the architecture critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Lawrence Cheek, wrote that the building was "confusing, impersonal, uncomfortable, oppressive" on the whole, with various features "decidedly unpleasant", "relentlessly monotonous," "badly designed and cheesily detailed," "profoundly dreary and depressing," and "cheaply finished or dysfunctional..." Wow... those are the kinds of words I usually save for Frank Gehry buildings. Also, I note that Cheek had previously heaped praise on the project. I wonder what bee got into his bonnet. 

Some people have also condemned that the building is not open enough to the street, sealed away from the rest of the city. A fair point, but considering how cold and rainy it was outside when I visited, I didn't mind. 

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Entrance "arcade" is an extension of the building's exoskeleton, and creates a seamless transition between the building and street.
Photo ©Darren Bradley

But personally, experiencing it from my own visit, I have to say that it seemed to be wildly popular. It was packed with people using the library. Yes, there were the usual homeless people camping out, but there were also many, many other locals just using the library for its intended purposes. In fact, it was pretty well packed. 

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We jammin'... The homeless have become a fixture at urban public libraries around the country, and a bit of a controversial subject. In my experience photographing these places, most are quiet and are just there to use the resources like anyone else. Photo ©Darren Bradley

I also noticed several dozen photographers running around the building, shooting everything in sight. That was a little weird for me. I'm not really used to seeing other people trying to photograph the same things I am. In fact, most people usually don't understand what I'm trying to photograph when I'm shooting a building. But in this case, there were people everywhere with cameras of all shapes and sizes running around photographing every square inch of the library. I suspect a fair number were trying out their new DSLRs from Christmas. Some of them were even following me around, and every time I turned around after getting a shot, I'd notice three or four others hovering behind me looking at what angle I'd found, waiting to get the same shot. I also got a lot of exasperated, annoyed, or weary looks from regular library patrons and staff when they saw my camera. I get the impression that photographers are a regular occurrence at the library and they've become an accepted annoyance to the regulars, kind of like the homeless population there.

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Escalator leading from the 4th Ave. entrance to the 5th Ave. side. Woman in matching parka giving me a strange look was just a bonus. Photo ©Darren Bradley

Unfortunately, I was told that while photography was allowed, I wasn't allowed to use a tripod in the library. So I had to shoot everything hand-held. I only had a manual-focus tilt-shift lens (17mm) with me, which is not really adapted to hand-held use, but I made do. It was a pain, though.

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The Red Floor, with its low light, was the hardest to photograph handheld. Photo ©Darren Bradley

All in all, I'd have to say that it was totally worth the 12 years of waiting, and the design didn't disappoint. I believe the library's design has aged well in the past 10+ years since it was built. It's become a well loved and used asset to the city, and proof that good design does improve the urban environment. 


Unknown said...

After discovering your blog yesterday I have to say how impressive it is to see these buildings. As a photographer of buildings and the built environment and recently enamoured with modernist architecture and design it's really insightful to scroll through your blog. It's quite something to view. It also helps with idea for future projects.

Anonymous said...

Love the natural light and the openness!

Jane of Impression Emedia

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

Awesome blog. Thanks for sharing.

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