Seattle’s New Central Library A Test To Civic Chutzpah|
Video sculptures can be seen in the walls of Seattle’s new Central LIbrary since May 19, 2004 in Seattle, Washington.
SEATTLE, WASHINGTON. -William Dietrich of the Pacific Northwest Magazine has reported, “Seattle’s new downtown library is so striking, so revolutionary, so odd and so lovely that one struggles to find a metaphor to explain it. A Rubik’s Cube cinched by a corset? A crystal frog poised to leap at the staid federal courthouse up the hill? A Christmas package so lumpy that it torments you with guesses? This silvery net, a faceted jewel crying for attention, is not what we think of as Northwest architecture. Some Seattleites may decide to hate its European polish, its structural nakedness, its crayon colors or its "brutal beauty," in the words of city librarian Deborah Jacobs (who loves it).
No matter. The new library is arguably the most striking and imaginative piece of Seattle architecture since the Space Needle. The library is a song of light that changes with each cloud, sun angle and surrounding shadow. Prepare to be blown away, once you get inside the building that opened on May 23. I say this as a former doubter. I looked at grainy newspaper illustrations of the intended design and thought Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (has a designer ever had a better name?) had decided to let function utterly foul form. What was this angular lump? The proposal looked all knees and elbows, as sprawling and undisciplined as internal organs without a proper skin.
This is a building designed to be understood inside out. It is expected to upend your assumptions about structure: In the words of key designer and former Seattleite Joshua Ramus, "A truly rational building will not look rational." In The World According To Koolhaas, a building will not necessarily be a box, with function forced to fit the space, but rather space expanded here and contracting there to fit function. It is like a house with the naturalness of add-ons, built over generations, but these add-ons are integrated from the beginning.
"This is an uncomfortable era in architecture," Koolhaas explained during one of his monthly visits from Rotterdam. "To be monumental rather than used seems to be the fashion." He speaks quietly, intently, a work of architecture himself with his tall, angular frame, balding and sculpted head, feet so long and narrow that they seem like angle irons, and clothes that match the trademark "Men in Black," "Matrix" fashion of his office. If this were a movie, he’d be cast to play himself. What were we thinking? Joshua Ramus, left, and lead architect Rem Koolhaas established a partnership of genius in developing the library’s intricate design. "A truly rational building will not look rational," Ramus says. Seattle’s library "is large but not monumental," he goes on. "The spaces are designed not to intimidate but to accommodate."
Somehow this glass box conveys not coldness but intimacy. The result is not just a library, but a community hub and global showplace that transcends its own city block between Madison and Spring streets. It reaches out and melds with the downtown towers around it. The mirror-like overhang that shelters the entry on Fourth Avenue ripples like a river from the reflected lights of vehicles passing by. The library’s soaring atrium above its "living room" is a diamond-windowed panorama of surrounding buildings, the view changing with each slant of sun, passing cloud, patter of rain or crescent moons of white left by falling snow. The building preens in the mirror of neighboring skyscraper windows, its reflection wavering like water, letting outsiders peek in even as it simultaneously seems to expand out. It is a brilliant play of light, an echo chamber of architectural form, stealing open space from the plazas across the street.
Most buildings are predictable once you get past the lobby. Floor copies floor. But this 11-story library has a succession of very different spaces, each skewed sideways to take advantage of views, explaining the tetrahedral oddities. If it were a sculpture, it might be called Knowledge Breaking Out of a Confining Egg.
The children’s room on Fourth Avenue has a cave-like coziness, while the adult reading room at the building’s top expands outward into the sky. The "living room" at the Fifth Avenue level is a glass cathedral and civic lobby, with espresso stand and fiction stacks. The book "spiral," which is actually more of a gentle switchback, is a worm hole of knowledge. The "mixing chamber" or reference area is as dark and glossy and techy (the library will have 320 public-use computers, compared to 20 in the old one) as other areas are day-lit.
Oddest of all is the public-meeting-room level, a series of curving "bubbles" reached by sinuous, blood-red hallways (shades of Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project) that some will find groovy and others will compare to navigating a colon.
The entry to the luridly-colored and organically-shaped public meeting-room level eschews straight lines in favor of curves reminiscent of Frank Gehry’s Experience Music Project at the Seattle Center. Balconies and platforms give dizzying views. The rumored see-through floors were just that, rumored, but in places you can look down through the walls to the street below. A video by artist Gary Hill will play on one towering wall. Sculpted faces will peer from alcoves at patrons ascending an escalator.
Not to mention the psychedelic green-yellow of glowing escalators, the call numbers inserted in the floors, the floor grates used as railings, the flexible tables mounted on what look like sawhorse trestles, or the stunningly beautiful Floor of Babble: hardwood by artist Ann Hamilton of raised, backward letters in foreign languages that record the first lines of the library’s foreign-book collection. Patrons will walk on a woodcut of what seems like a Gutenberg press.
Van Gogh: Modern Art from the Kröller-Müller Museum
Pont de Langlois (detail) byVincent van Gogh from the Krolle-Muller Museum, on exhibit today at the Seattle Museum of Art.
The Seattle Museum of Art presents today “Van Gogh to Mondrian: Modern Art from the Kröller-Müller Museum,” on view through September 12, 2004. Seventy-five masterpieces of modern painting and sculpture from one of Holland’s premier museums will travel to the Seattle Art Museum. Van Gogh to Mondrian features major works by Georges Seurat, Pablo Picasso, Ferdinand Léger, Piet Mondrian, and Vincent van Gogh, many never previously exhibited in the United States. Jointly organized by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta and the Kröller-Müller Museum in Otterlo, The Netherlands, Van Gogh to Mondrian will travel to only two venues in the United States. Following the exhibit’s presentation in Seattle, it will be on view at the High Museum from October 16, 2004, through January 9, 2005.
The daughter of a German industrialist, Helene Kröller-Müller and her husband, Anton Kröller, began collecting modern art in 1906, inspired by the lectures of H.P. Bremmer, a dealer and ardent advocate of modern art in Holland. Attracted to the work of Vincent van Gogh, whose importance at the time was just being recognized, Mrs. Kröller-Müller created one of the largest private collections of van Gogh’s work in the world outside of the Van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam). Van Gogh to Mondrian will include twelve paintings by Vincent van Gogh and drawings by the artist from every period of his career. Through a carefully chosen selection of early modern paintings, sculptures, and design objects, the exhibition tells the remarkable story of the formation of the Kröller-Müller Museum—from its beginnings at the turn of the twentieth century to its transformation into a public museum that opened in 1938 in a magnificent modern building designed by Belgian architect Henry van de Velde.
The exhibition will be accompanied by a fully illustrated color catalogue, Van Gogh to Mondrian: Modern Art from the Kröller-Müller Museum.
Van Gogh to Mondrian: Modern Art from the Kröller-Müller Museum is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta. This exhibition is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.
In Seattle, the exhibition’s presenting sponsor is Washington Mutual. Generous support provided by Microsoft Corporation; Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs, City of Seattle; The Seattle Times; and KING 5 Television, with major funding also provided by PONCHO, the Seattle Art Museum Supporters and the Herman and Faye Sarkowsky Endowment. Additional support provided by Preston, Gates & Ellis, LLP, and Contributors to the Annual Fund.