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Thoughts and Analysis

Illustration: Fraser Martens

Fraser Martens, “Monument to the Unknown Problem”, Essay
Illustration: Fraser Martens and Seth Oglesby

A building is a little like a person. When it is new, it has only a little personality. New buildings feel almost the same, distinguished not by any sense of self but by little superficial quirks, like a toddler who stands out in the church nursery because his teeth came in early or her hair is so blonde it verges on white. These are things which seize our attention and say “notice me!” and we look at them for a moment and are intrigued. For a moment at least; before we turn away to look at the next uniqueness.
             Or perhaps the architectural eccentricities of a new building are more akin to the sort of little misbehaviours that unfortunate parents think so adorable in their little ones, only to wonder where the children's later problems have sprung from so unexpectedly.

Illustration: Seth Oglesby

             I visited the Seattle Central Library once (and, so far, only once), with a sort of amateur architecture class, looking at the eccentricities of its design and testing its architect’s theory that his much-vaunted "Spiral" organization would make the library’s impressive collection more organic, more intuitive. Results were mixed.
             The Seattle Central Library is the artistic child in the nursery. Built in 2003 and 2004, for a price of 165 million taxpayer dollars and a hefty contribution from Microsoft, on whose land it was erected, the SCL is the product of an open call from the city of Seattle in 1999 for designs for a new library, one which would bring the public library system of the city of Windows into the digital age. And to be sure, architect Rem Koolhaas (you say it like Cool House, a fact which combines with his heavy-rimmed glasses, shaved head and dark turtlenecks to make him the ideal European architect) has included scores of computers into his design. But at the same time, the center of the bold layout is, at least ostensibly, not the computer but rather the book, which, he claims, is still the way in which the public wants to get its information. With that in mind, the core of the library is the Spiral, four floors’ worth of gently sloping concentric ramps of bookshelves that hold the library’s nonfiction collection in Dewey Decimal order. The room holding the stacks is thus kept from “ending,” and from thereby breaking up the collection in the way the usual restrictions of library space do. 801 is on the shelf next to 802, and so on all the way up and down the Spiral, not just on each floor, maintaining a single intuitive flow throughout the building.


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