Seattle Central Library, 2004

OMA/Rem Koolhaas

Location: Rotterdam, The Netherlands | New York, New York
Click above to view the full-size image

The new Seattle Central Library is truly a library for the twenty-first century, remarkable for its stunning architecture as well as for the extraordinary research process that shaped not only its program but also the building that houses it. The first freestanding building in the United States by Rem Koolhaas’s architecture firm OMA (Office for Metropolitan Architecture), the new library not only redefines the way we think about libraries, it is a significant new civic building and public space for the city.

OMA is known for the vast amount of research it conducts for every project. Upon receiving the design commission, the architects spent three months trying to define what a contemporary library could, and should, be. They interviewed and received input from librarians, publishers, technology experts, and business leaders, among others. After a thorough examination of the library’s program, they assigned a color to each form of media and activity and reorganized them into spatial compartments, which they arranged and rearranged to establish the building’s overall form.

Two significant conclusions are at the heart of the design concept. OMA determined that, contrary to popular thinking, books are here to stay, but they need to coexist with other sources of information, such as the Internet. In addition, libraries in general are experiencing a rise in nontraditional responsibilities, such as classroom teaching, Internet access, public meetings, and social gatherings. These findings pointed the way to a new system of flexible design, which divides the library’s program into stable areas for predictable functions and unstable areas for unpredictable functions. These areas take physical form in the floor platforms that shift from side to side and create the strikingly asymmetrical cantilevered form of the building. At the core is the Books Spiral, which provides a flexible space for the library’s collection to grow without overtaking other programmatic areas. Rather than separating books by category and floor, the Spiral winds its way up through the entire building. The structural mesh skin of the building creates light, airy, inviting interior spaces. Plants are brought into the ground floor, and colorful carpets of abstracted plant forms reinforce the connection between the inside and outside. The building’s design incorporates many other innovative features, including the use of bright colors and a computer- guided book circulation system.