Architect Bullfighter Designs by Committee

The centerpiece of Seattle's now complete "Libraries for All" initiative is the downtown Central Branch co-designed by Rem Koolhaas, one of the creators ...
by | September 10, 2008 AT 3:00 AM


The centerpiece of Seattle's now complete "Libraries for All" initiative is the downtown Central Branch co-designed by Rem Koolhaas, one of the creators of the astounding Central China Television building. The Central Branch library is one of those "you either love it or you hate it" works of architecture.

In honor of the 10th anniversary of Libraries for All, the Seattle Times interviewed Koohaas, offering a glimpse inside what must have been a wild collaboration between Koolhaas and the city. I find surprising the degree to which Koolhaas emphasizes that the library was created "by committee." Mark Rahner is the questioner:

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...

I shouldn't be so surprised. I'm a Howard Becker pusher, after all. But the building just doesn't look like something that a lot of people had to agree on, that had to get "passed by the board." Knowing that it did makes the design seem that much more ambitious. Too often, big projects like this turn out "fake seeming."

Koolhaas also puts an interesting twist on an issue raised in Chris Swope's June article about the future of libraries. Chris describes a big shift toward "the idea that libraries should offer the services that customers say they want -- not what librarians wish they wanted." Koolhaas notes what makes that so darn tricky when it comes to designing public libraries:

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.

Here's more about designing the library with the homeless in mind. Turns out, Koolhaas even wanted a hospital for the homeless in the library.

Will Wilson | Former Correspondent |