By Tom Dobrowolsky, MLIS Day
Dispatch from the Reading Room
Seattle Public Library, Downtown
27 February 2005
Beware the symbolic library! Beware signature architecture! I have read such cranky admonitions in the wake of new library construction over the past few years. Such advice seems to assume that a library's reputation stands solely on the merits of its programming and relegates space and place issues to the back burner. It strikes me as a bit odd, though, that some librarians dump on the symbolic library as a building, usually when they must adapt to working in a new one, only to turn around and heap on the symbolism of books and libraries when they must defend them against the challenges of the digital age.
The incontrovertible truth is that one cannot separate the library-as-process - the programs, the reference assistance, the noble quest for knowledge and personal enrichment - from the library-as-place - the physical environment and social atmosphere in which people choose to spend their time. These days, if we want people to come to our libraries, we have to create atmospheres that will rival the cafe, the Barnes and Noble, and the computer in the living room. And to accomplish those ends, we cannot discount the importance of architecture, design, and place.
When I initially raved about the library last year, I was full of hope that it would deliver. Like any new endeavor, there were bound to be some rough spots. First, the library certainly needs to make permanent the signage that has organically evolved over the past year. Blue gaffer's tape is not an avant-garde fastening system. Then there's the abrupt end at the bottom of the spiral. This concern accompanies the persistent belly-aching about the lack of a downward escalator off the Spiral. At the very least, as dreary and uninspiring as it is, a stairway has finally been opened. And, what, have we not heard of an elevator?
Aside from being a wiseacre, my point is that no building is perfect and that an "intuitive" layout is largely subjective. Every new environment, every new building, requires one to learn how it is laid out and how it works. We no longer live in the era of Modern buildings designed as streamlined, boring, and downright depressing "machines for living". Even in those buildings, however, we still have to ask where the bathroom is or we have to follow the signs. In any case, a library by its very nature encourages exploration and discovery. I read an account which claimed that Koolhaas purposely designed the lack of the downward escalator in order to introduce a small sense of adventure. I'd like to think this is true. After all, if a library building lacks any sense of grandeur or any elements of adventure, then what good is it? Like a good book, a good building ought to inspire, entertain, and challenge us somehow.
All in all, I believe that the library is delivering. I base my conjecture on my continuous observations of the people using the place. I make these observations as a regular person, not as an arrogant armchair architect or a pretentious library student. The following thoughts are based on my visits during the past year.
I enjoy the library having two very distinctive entrances. Both 4th and 5th receive enough foot traffic to warrant it. One of my main critiques of contemporary buildings is that many of them tend to turn their backs to the streets they are on - usually accomplishing this by locating the entrance on the parking lot rather than the street. SPL could have easily turned its back on 5th Avenue. However, it chose to open up its back door in a most visually appealing manner. When we approach the 5th Avenue entrance, the metal lattice-work first presents itself as a solid wall. But as we come closer, the angle becomes more acute and the holes in the lattice open up to reveal the protected alcove between the library and street. Finally, we see the activities in the building, framed by the lattice like hundreds of snapshots.
This allegedly radical exterior certainly gets a lot of press. I admit that I myself am not a fan of some of the library's exterior angles. Most notably, I dislike the lower bulge above the 4th Ave entrance. It makes the building look clunky. Ironically, though, this overhang creates a lovely plaza at the 4th Avenue entrance. One of my favorite interior viewpoints is located at the edge of the Mixing Chamber, in that very same bulge. We can look straight down and see people relaxing and hanging out in the plaza, refreshingly separate from the frenzied pace of activity occurring on the sidewalk and street a few feet away. This transition zone is nicely metaphoric of the place that the library has carved out in the civic landscape.
And once we are inside, much of the exterior's architectural pretension melts away as we focus on patrons and their activities. In fact, I would argue that this library is really not radical at all. Get beyond the loud colors and odd materials and you'll find that's it's quite a traditional building. This becomes especially apparent when we observe what people are doing. My favorite activity is to walk through the building and watch people. Few things make me happier than seeing people browsing, sitting on the stools and reading, writing papers on the computers, using the ancient microforms, speaking with librarians, examining maps and old city directories, talking with friends, and generally infusing the library with an energetic buzz.
I remember reading dire speculations that noise from the lower levels would funnel up the skylight adjacent to the elevator core. Since my very first visit, though, I have been astounded at how little noise from below makes its way to the upper levels. As we go deeper and deeper up the Spiral, the more secluded it becomes from the lower levels and the bustle of the city outside. Starting in Government Documents (6th floor), the noise dampens from the hint of incomprehensible chatter to the local noises of people browsing non-fiction in the Spiral. By the time we reach genealogy, history, and maps on the 9th floor, the cares and chatter of the world below have been largely filtered out. The Reading Room up top is as quiet as any reading room in the most austere, old library. But the view is nothing short of magnificent: surrounded by the peaks of buildings projecting silently into an afternoon sky, we may see occasional gulls floating by. Such transcendent splendor, nestled high among these urban mountains on top of the city, creates a lofty sense of sanctuary. If you cannot be inspired by such a space, you are not giving your imagination enough of a chance.
But not everybody is into the notion of a silent and monastic library. And this building does not fail them. Today, there was a program of Vietnamese dance, involving loud drumming, in the auditorium. When I first entered, it gave the lower floors a lively, street-fair flavor. This is entirely good, especially in a downtown library and especially in the gregarious and social lower floors. And at the very top, an occasional errant burst of muffled noise would shoot up through the building to announce that it was still connected to the world below. All things considered, then, this library seems to cater to both ends of spectrum: silent sanctuary to bustling civic center. This is perhaps most nicely summed up by what I saw today. During the height of the festivities, the loud drumming didn't seem to bother the groups of people playing chess in the Living Room.
Perhaps it sounds a bit hokey, but, having reviewed some literature last summer, I found that a large number of libraries were being described as "community living rooms". This is the symbolic library that will make it viable and give it the edge to co-exist with cafes and bookstores. And, hokey or not, is it really such a bad idea? In addition to finding chess players, I found a number of people reading newspapers in the Living Room. People can easily do this in their own living rooms but I find it exciting that people choose to do these activities here - especially since this means that they had to make the trek downtown to do it. When you think about it, this is no small task in this day and age. This is emphatic and beautiful proof that people are choosing to engage in public activities and public places. During another one of my visits, for example, I walked by a group of older men sitting, discussing, and laughing out loud. Is there anything cooler than people hanging out and connecting with each other in a library?
Yes, friends, despite the sarcasm that drips from most of my writing, the truth is that I am a complete sap. And the fact remains that I never fail to get misty-eyed when I go into our new library. I take in the splendid views but, most importantly, I watch all of the people using it for a wide variety of reasons. In an article printed before the library's opening last year I wrote, "I will be extremely proud to grab my visiting friends by their scrawny hides, wave a fist in their face, and yell, 'you see that!? That's our new $@##%*$ Public Library!' while pointing to the building and squeezing the life out of them." I still feel this way whole-heartedly… except now they give me a tissue when that tear wells up in my eye upon entering the building.