Mark Rahner talks to architect Rem Koolhaas, who designed the Central Library. The Seattle Public Library celebrates the completion of its "Libraries for All" building program Saturday.
The genius of downtown’s awe-inspiring Central Library is that members of the former East German women’s swim team would feel every bit as much at home there as the cast of “Logan’s Run.” A little something for everyone.
Four years after the once-controversial project’s completion, Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his creation are a key part of the Seattle Public Library’s celebration Saturday of the conclusion to its decadelong “Libraries for All” building program.
During my interview with him before his scheduled speech here on “Public Space,” Koolhaas said he still didn’t know what he was going to say and had been trying to contact the library for guidance. He subsequently canceled for medical reasons that I have no reason to believe were related.
I was warned before phoning the architect — whose name is suspiciously close to “Cool House” — in Rotterdam that he “likes to be intellectually challenged by questions and frankly doesn’t have patience for lighthearted small talk.” I guess that’s what winning a Pritzker Prize and making this year’s “Time 100” of the world’s most influential people will do to a person. So much for my extensive series of questions about the Joker’s Ha-Hacienda.
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Q: Your self-esteem must be higher than the Sears Tower.
Q: Because quite a few Seattle residents said unkind things when they initially saw your plan for the library.
A: Uh huh.
Q: Let me read you just a few: “The library is an insult to the volumes of great literature to be housed within it.” One person called the design “disdainful,” as if Koolhaas were “thumbing his nose” at Seattle. And my favorite: a “gigantic fist thrusting out from the downtown soil, its 20-story middle digit upraised to the infinite.” What do you think of all that now?
A: Well, I think that you have to see it in context, and the context was in fact that Seattle had so far been, let’s say, reasonably immune from extravagant architecture. But that I think both the experience with (EMP architect Frank) Gehry and the experience with (SAM architect Robert) Venturi had left the city in a rut in terms of what they could contribute. So in a way I could sense kind of some of the skepticism.
Q: Now that it’s widely recognized as a masterpiece, is your message to Seattle, “Ha-haaaaaa, I was right all along.”
A: I was kind of baffled by your kind of assumption of self-esteem.
Q: It was a large project to undertake when you had so much skepticism.
A: Yes, but of course we were not alone. And I think that is kind of actually one of the difficult and distorting things at the current moment, is that basically some architects are seen as kind of almost bullfighters who somehow have to kill an animal, but you’re part of a much larger enterprise.
Q: I think there’s a reason for that: too many people have read “The Fountainhead” and it’s ruined them for life.
A: Yeah, exactly, exactly. And I think that’s actually extremely inconvenient, because there was Deborah (L. Jacobs, former City Librarian), of course, and there was also a board, and we had a lot of bonding in the beginning. So it’s definitely not an ego thing, you know, and it’s definitely not where you kind of are looking for morons or ever think that somebody — you realize that some of the criticism is unfounded or naive or not particularly kind of … benevolent, but it really comes with the territory and it’s not something that you kind of respond to in egotistical terms.
Q: I can tell you that writers always wish they could go back and make one more revision. Is there anything you’d do differently about the library this many years down the line?
A: Uh, yes. I think that at some point we felt that some of the kind of way-finding could be improved, and we had some ideas how to do that. There were some kind of vertical circulation elements that were hidden and we were thinking of how we could make them more exposed and more transparent, so I think it’s on that level that at some point we thought we could do something more.
Q: You might actually do more work on the library in the future?
A: I don’t know. We haven’t really talked about it, but at some point we thought that that could be the case, or should be the case.
Q: How would you describe the “Books Spiral” to an alien who just landed and had never — OK, to the Seattle taxpayer who’d never been in the building?
A: Are there any taxpayers left who haven’t been in the building?
Q: I was just in it for the first time last week, I’m ashamed to say.
A: You were in it for the first time, and you’re from Seattle?
Q: You’re making me feel bad.
A: What explains your reticence?
Q: I have no valid, adult explanation.
A: Even an invalid explanation could be interesting. Bored by libraries?
But anyway, basically the Books Spiral was kind of for us an architectural way of undoing some of the sadness of the typical library, where it kind of really divided in a number of compartments that have very dull-sounding names like “humanity,” “sciences,” blah, blah, blah. We felt that those categories are not necessarily the most exciting and encouraging categories in terms of dividing a library, so it enabled us to create an undivided sequence of books where of course the divisions actually exist and all the kind of cataloging systems perform their task, but the point was to create a kind of single, undivided sequence, because we felt that one of the points of a library was that there are accidents and that you find yourself in areas where you didn’t expect to be and where you kind of look at books that are not necessarily the books that you’re aiming for. So it was to create a kind of almost arbitrariness — or to create a kind of walking experience, an almost kind of urban walk … a kind of Rotterdam, a very efficient, direct aiming for limited destinations.
Q: There was some question of whether there’d be enough room for books. Is there and will there be?
A: Yeah, that’s not an issue. We were very scrupulous in terms of the number assessment, and so there is ample room for expansion.
Q: Public libraries are known as sanctuaries for the homeless — and as a one-time employee of a different library, I can tell you they preferred the periodicals section. Did you take this into account?
A: Yeah, from the very beginning, and also we did certain things because we knew that was the case, we knew that would happen, and we didn’t want to resist it. But on the other hand, we didn’t want it to become the kind of dominant fact of the library. So it worked in terms of materials but also in terms of arrangements, but also in terms of different kind of sections, just something that we were very conscious of.
Q: Seattle’s the second most literate American city after Minneapolis (according to Central Connecticut State University’s annual study). Surely you’d design a library differently in Texas, which has more than its fair share of cities in the bottom 10.
A: I think it’s not only a matter of literacy, but I think it’s also a slightly different political mood in the city. But it’s also a number of really forward-looking kind of corporate entities there. So it’s really a unique constellation of congress in a single place. And you can debate whether there is connection between all those forces and literacy, and there probably is, but that’s kind of partly a chicken-and-egg situation, I think. But anyway, we realized we were very fortunate with that context.
Q: Let’s talk about Seattle architecture in general. The countless town houses and condos spreading around the city: sad or grotesque? Please pick one.
A: I think that, basically, let me kind of limit myself to the good things. Seattle has an unbelievably beautiful topography, so that is really its incredible virtue, and you know it’s kind of really interesting that you can have a major city that is so accessible to nature and where nature is such an important element. And for me that is kind of much more important than condominium and all the other paraphernalia that are kind of current. Because that mutual kind of penetration is unique in the world, OK? And no amount of condominiums can destroy it.
Q: Tell me about the building you designed in Beijing.
A: It’s the headquarter building for Central China Television, which is kind of one of the major TV stations in China. It’s a building that consists of two parts, a working part and a kind of public part. It will be finished next year. But now you can see the whole envelope. The envelope is finished but not the interiors.
Q: What else are you working on now?
A: We also are doing a lot in the Middle East, also doing a library in Qatar for the Qatar Foundation, which is kind of really the second library we’re doing, which will be totally different. We expected a lot of libraries to come our way, and we still try because it’s one of my favorite kind of typologies, but so far the only one is in the Middle East.
Q: I’d love to see how you’d design the The George W. Bush Presidential Library. Any thoughts on that?
A: (Laughs.) It’s very unlikely that we’ll be asked.
Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or firstname.lastname@example.org