Spring 2005

DNA by OMA The Seattle Public Library Rethinks Itself Through Koolhaas

It should not come as a surprise to anyone who has taken even a casual interest in OMA’s work to find that when invited in 1999 to compete for the $160 million Seattle Public Library (SPL) commission, Rem Koolhaas’ OMA started with a biting critique of the sponsoring institution’s generic program statement.

hinshaw_1 Surprisingly out of that project’s longwinded and confusing period of architectural selection, a special client/designer partnership emerged that would push the notion of program-driven planning into critical overdrive. The resulting project, which has received almost universal praise since its opening last May, defies categorization in terms of both place and space. It serves its community as far more than Library, enabling and celebrating that feat with richly textured architectural moves that pile up like assorted books and media on the City’s living room floor.

During the yearlong selection process, Koolhaas steadfastly refused to predict an architectural outcome, spending the time he had with the SPL client to move them from their predictably jumbled sense of mission towards a more thoughtful exploration of the very broad opportunity presented by a millennial “library,” as well as rethinking their institutional makeup. By recasting their project premise, its organization and programmatic “DNA” first, OMA was applying architectural instincts and a critical design process to formalize a more compelling framework for the subsequent architectural effort. By all reports this approach not only served to differentiate OMA during the selection, but once chosen, brought important substance to their early client interactions, naturally setting the stage for true innovation of architectural expression.

While many of us practice this approach as a matter of course, it is unusual to see the sponsors and designers of a high visibility project like the SPL broadcast overt public delight in their joint activism. In his excellent article in the British journal Blueprint (July 2004), Shumon Basar suggests that “an old modernist preoccupation drove the design: ‘brutally rational steps’ (in Rem-speak) – or function (for the rest of us)” and points out that “OMA has finally succeeded in what it had been promising for years: to curate the functioning of a public institution…to construct a critical working process, full of honesty without one-liner moralism.”

Offered in introduction to their formal proposal, OMA’s critique gives us a glimpse into Koolhaas’ radical design activism at its strident best:

“The Library represents, maybe with the prison, the last of the uncontested moral universes: communal accommodations for ‘good’ (or necessary) activities… The moral goodness of the Library is intimately connected to the value of the book: the Library is its fortress, librarians are its guardians… As other mediums of information emerge and become plausible, the Library seems threatened, a fortification ready to be ‘taken’ by potential enemies. In this scheme, the Electronic is identified with the Barbaric. Its ubiquity and its uncontrollable accessibility seem to represent a loss of control, depth, tradition, civilization. In response, the language of the Library has become moralistic and defensive: its rhetoric proclaims – implicitly and explicitly a sense of superiority in mission, in social responsibility, in value… The Library’ s insistence on one kind of literacy has blinded it to other emerging forms that increasingly dominate our culture, especially the huge efficiencies (and pleasures) of visual intelligence. New libraries don’t reinvent or even modernize the traditional institution; they merely package it in a new way.

Our ambition is to redefine/reinvent the Library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store, where all media – new and old – are presented under a regime of new equalities. In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and the professionalism of their presentation and interaction, that will make the Library new. Technology is not a threat, but it enables the realization of ancient ambitions – totality, completeness, dissemination, accessibility. In any case, the anticipation of a looming conflict between the real and the virtual is moot at the moment where the two can be made to coincide, become each other’s mirror image. The virtual can become the distributed presence of the new Seattle Public Library that users find confirmed in its actual site in the city.”

San Francisco architect Hugh Hynes, having recently reveled in a SPL visit, believes that this 1999 manifesto has become a 2005 reality: “OMA’s trademark broad sampling of uses and activities from urban culture at large scrambles the library as a recognizable programmatic type. The impression is not that one is picking through a library, but rather wandering through a piece of the city itself. Programmatic categories unique to this project – “the mixing chamber,” for example ­– define the nature of public space in Seattle’s center according to performance rather than title.”

With such a popular building to give its message credence, OMA’s call to arms for a new take on the public library may well become legendary. The great hope is that all this interest in the SPL story will bring new urgency to our larger call: that there are no programs, no institutions, that deserve less from their designers than a new take.