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.

The Y-Plan for Youth Insights

This article is dedicated to the memory of Kevin Aaron, Class of 2003, Department of City & Regional Planning, who worked diligently to make McClymonds mini-park redesign a reality for the youth of West Oakland.

Kevin Aaron working with McCiymonds students.

Under the guidance of the innovative UC Berkeley-based Y-PLAN, 40 youngsters from McClymonds High School in West Oakland have created preliminary designs for a unique and inviting neighborhood gathering place, transforming what the City of Oakland called “one of the six most dangerous parks in Oakland.” To accomplish this, the teenagers partnered with 20 city planning, design and education graduate students to create a plan, win support of community agencies, and develop the once drug-infested property just 20 feet from their school. Today, not only the park but the participating individuals and organizations are being transformed by their successful experience.

The Y-PLAN is an award-wining classroom and community-based research project through which graduate students engage in Bay Area community development projects by teaching city planning and design to local high school students. The project is at the core of the Institute of Urban and Regional Development’s new Center for Cities and Schools, founded by the author and doctoral student Jeff Vincent. The center’s vision is to bridge the fields of education and urban policy to create equitable, diverse, and livable cities and schools.

Underlying the strategy of both the Center and the Y-PLAN is the knowledge that public space is a powerful identity-forming presence in the lives of urban teenagers. They understand the rhythm and nature of places in unique ways, defined by the way they use the area and the social relations that are generated there — not by what other “experts” deem important. The Y-PLAN process validates these insights and the powerful contributions young people can make to improving public spaces. The program helps them translate their unique understanding of the places where they live, play, or go to school into proposals for improving their environment.

the final design of the McCiymonds Mini Park, a permanent allee of trees is transformed by each class, which plants a tree for each freshman in a temporary bed
The final design of the McCiymonds Mini Park, a permanent allee of trees is  transformed by each class, which plants a tree for each freshman in a temporary bed

The Y-PLAN begins with a 10-week mentorship class in community development, taught by the graduate students. Working with their graduate student partners, the high school students develop plans and then present them to a jury of civic leaders and professional designers. Past panel reviewers have included CED Dean Harrison Fraker, City and Regional Planning Chair John Landis, Councilwoman Nancy Nadel, CED alumni such as Amanda Kobler, also a former Y-PLAN participant, and many local residents. The goal of the final presentation is not only to get feedback but also to galvanize support and stewardship for the youth’s ideas.

That is exactly what happened in May 2002, when the jury involved in a Y-PLAN project to redesign an abandoned mini-park in West Oakland decided to join with the youthful participants in realizing their vision. Besides their sense of accomplishment, the teenagers, too often alienated from public processes, learned the invisible mechanisms and practices of urban change: what they have done once, they may be able to do again. All of them benefited from their close working relationships with possible role models, and one, Yahya Abdulmateen, is now a freshman in CED. Talking about the Y-PLAN experience he said:

“Getting the opportunity to work with college students on something that I had such high interest in was a great experience. I got to experience what the design process was for architects. I enjoyed working with people who had the same career interests as myself…The Y-PLAN helped me to get a better understanding of planning and architecture as a whole. It also provided me an architectural mentor by introducing me to Professor Walter Hood. I stepped onto the Berkeley campus feeling like I had an advantage.”

In the end it was the compelling insights discovered by the local high school students in the Y-Plan experience that persuaded Walter Hood to take on the challenge of bringing the project into a built reality. Hood believes that “a static master plan is ultimately a useless goal — what we strive to do is find a dynamic set of operations that gives hope and vision to citizens’ desires. It is not about a finite image. The community invests in a process that delivers design dreams.”

Hood’s dynamic approach to community design is best illustrated in his designs for Cesar Chavez Park. The phasing diagrams show how the park will evolve over time with each community “operation”, leading to phase (5) illustrated in the model and plan. What distinguishes Hood’s work, however, is not just involving the community in a “dynamic set of operations” but in his search for the “poetic moment”. As Hood explains,“working with communities is not only meetings, brainstorming and design charrettes, but involves funding ways to elevate particular ideas so they reach a poetic moment in material form.”

In working with the students, school officials and residents at McClymonds Mini Park, Hood had them write “narratives” about the place, draw a “timeline” of the site’s history, and identify “objects” of meaning to its history and story. In the process, the community (and Hood) discovered ideas of deep significance that lead to the following major design ideas:

  1. Expanding out into 26th Street to enlarge the park and closing through traffic.
  1. Removing a large portion of fencing that faces the park and building movable gates developed in coordination with local artist.
  1. Planting a linear promenade of trees that stretch across the entire school grounds connecting the north and south streets.

Hood and the community have proposed a framework for change to the public space around McClymonds High School that if successfully implemented, will be unprecedented. Through a process of design activism, the integration of the school back into the community may be possible. This could not happen if not for the work of students in the Y-PLAN who provided the inspiration to re-imagine the streets and park of McClymonds.