OMA-RK's Seattle Public Library disfunction ?


what do you all think about this ? what do the partial failures of the SPL say about archtects' ability to research and smartly program buildings ? as VP cheney said of congress democrats, do we 'think (too) highly of our own analytical skills' ?

this article is a pretty severe indictment of the alleged, partial failure of the very thing, research, that's supposed to be oma's strongest characteristic. did the solution of 'dedicated platforms' (so called from oma's concept book) exacerbate the problems of circulation that seem to be library users' main complaint.

Dec 22, 05 1:23 pm

And, as one city planner told me, it desperately craved a "trophy building."

Umm isn't the space needle in Seattle?

I think buildings take a while to see how they work. The idea of critics going to an empty building and walking and looking around is silly.

Dec 22, 05 1:31 pm
el jeffe

not having visited it yet, i'm only guessing here. i wonder if the expectations of those like the writer of the article are based upon the standard empty and under-used libraries. perhaps the OMA solution was based upon programming data that didn't (or conservatively 'couldn't) anticipate the popularity that the building would create?

Dec 22, 05 1:45 pm
el jeffe

not having visited it yet, i'm only guessing here. i wonder if the expectations of those like the writer of the article are based upon the standard empty and under-used libraries. perhaps the OMA solution was based upon programming data that didn't (or conservatively 'couldn't) anticipate the popularity that the building would create?

Dec 22, 05 1:46 pm

the popularity has almost nothing to do with the problems however. aside from presumably creating longer lines at the elevators, it doesn't have much to do with a book spiral which is apparently super tedious to navigate.

Dec 22, 05 1:58 pm

the circulation is horrible. as mentioned by thenewold, the book spiral is tedious to navigate, but even worse, once you get to the top, getting down is a joke. these issues have nothing to do with the popularity of the building and are part poor planning by oma and part value engineering. one escalator was removed to save money.

Dec 22, 05 2:15 pm

it's really not fair to blame oma for all problems with the building. the scourge of value engineering afflicts us all. but lots of us have read the story about Josh Ramus touring Washington State to drum up funds for wire glass for the facade (which they got). it really is too bad they couldn't squeeze out a few more escalators.

Dec 22, 05 2:25 pm

i haven't visited it yet either. on the one hand, one could not possibly linearize such a freeform experience as using a library. on the other hand, many (most) libraries fail in similar ways as what the writer of the article mentioned -- and those libraries (hospitals/schools/etc) are similarly the functionalist results of supposed "expertise" about how people use libraries.

what differentiates this library from, say...the CHICAGO public that the seattle library:

a.) tries not only to REPRESENT but TAKE ITS FORM from the way in which the innards function...
b.) tries to render in 3-D volume/form/space what most hacks would only attempt in a bubble diagram
c.) tries to establish a recursive dialogue between form and function, where one informs the other informs the other...

whether it fails or succeeds is hard to guarantee...because no, rem, no architect can be god, they can only play him on TV

Dec 22, 05 2:32 pm

obviously scigliano has never seen an inflamed red gut. the color of the womb (or bowel) area is that of a healthy gut.

circulation through the stacks must push code limits. the separation of the lateral system allowing for fire resistive constuction only of the gravity system is pretty cool. although, i don't believe fire fighters are too fond of the building.

the library's biggest problem is interior material durability. within its first week the flooring from recycled form work was trashed and the rubber flooring in the stacks wont last long. paint choices show a lot of traffic. oh and the library is hardly open when i'm off work.

all that said, it's still a great building. or as david miller said, seattle's bilbao (i assume offense was intended towards the failed emp).

Dec 22, 05 2:49 pm

your points a,b,and c are indeed all long, dearly held architectural canards and each are well employed at the SPL (you forgot the one about 'blahblahblah, dialogue between inside and outside' that we all hear at every review). these things make a building more legitimate to us critics.

but none of those things matter at all to normal people who are just having a really hard time trying to find some books. likewise, the rhetorical or conceptual triumphs of the building don't really make the functional failures 'okay'. the ability to transcend hackery and render a bubble diagram (or bar diagram for oma) falls down when that built bubblegram makes the challenge of big building navigation even harder.

apparently, one could also decribe the experience of search>frustration>search>frustration as a recursive experience. sure, I'm scratching my chin over the provacation of the SPL too, but from this armchair, it looks like omamomamomamo made a few unforced errors.

Dec 22, 05 3:17 pm

well, unfortunately, i am coming from a position of never having needed to find a book in that library, and i can understand that there is some chaos that occurs when the day-to-day use and organization of the library diverts from the "design".

AND i tend to shy away from the notion that buildings should be so preciously tailored to their specific use, the notion that rem oma mvrdv et al advocate. gotta admit, it's a pretty inflexible model.

but buildings -- libraries, specifically -- are a lot like cities. each one is different, and it takes practice and navigation to map one's way through. making an "easy to use" library, if you think about it, is pretty damn hard. i've never been into a library where i didn't require at least a good hard look at a map on a wall. what the building's designers were trying to do was merge map and mapped, something that if not completely successful at least merits the attention that has been given to it.

anyway, in my opinion the greatest library this century was asplundh's stockholm library -- pretty easy to see where the books are -- so i dunno, i'm biased. i do think this is an instance where the bigger the try, the bigger the target. if this was some AcronymAssociates design the article might not be here on archinect -- or in the paper, maybe.

Dec 22, 05 4:12 pm

ochona - i agree with a lot of those points. it is more than a little unfair that people expect a library to be perfectly clear. I think the point is that OMA made great fuss of their tailoring abilities (your word) and that on many of the points where they claim genius (more or less) and success, the reality on the ground doesn't match (for example the book spiral, the mixing chamber, the librarian radios). I'm thinking maybe RK and George W have more in common in that regard than they like to admit.

I think the approach of trying to tailor a building like a library is precisely the right approach. The alternative in the architecture world is 'artiste' expresionist 'tour de Me' buildings (danny-L, zahaH, pedro eisenman, While an OMA buidling's specificity may fall flat, the alternative to specificity for expresionist buildings is an attitude that programs and spaces are generic. That any program can be stuffed in any way inside any building sculpture.

Dec 22, 05 5:22 pm

...and indeed, the wolves are always salivating for starchitect blood. bummer.

Dec 22, 05 5:23 pm

sorry, asplundh's stockholm library was most certainly last century...guess i'm stuck in the 1990s

but gosh, ain't it bootiful


Dec 22, 05 5:46 pm

i meant

Dec 22, 05 5:46 pm

I just read that article and to me, the gist seemed to be that there are too many people using it, long lines, misplaced collections, and not enough photocopiers. Now, Im sure OMA had a major interest in how many photocopiers would be placed in the building, and also chose where to put every collection.

And I quote:
>"Photocopiers are ill distributed; again, prepare for lines."

I cannot believe there are lines there. How is it possible in a world with 6 billion people that I may just have to wait for something?

>"The radio badges that were supposed to link librarians and make their jobs easier sounded awful and made them harder."

Okay, so bad radios. Might the idea still be good, but implemented poorly? Did OMA ship those radios to the library?

>"And that room, a much-touted cornerstone of the collection, is open only for limited afternoon hours and lacks even the marginally comfortable sponge-block chairs of other reading areas."

Heres an idea. Move some nice chairs in there, and open it for longer. Surely the architect isnt responsible for these issues?

Sounds like this needs to be read by librarians, the people that are supposed to organize the building once it was done.

I wouldnt be so quick to assume the building is a failure because of a few organization problems. Once the librarians get used to it themselves, I wouldnt be surprised if all these problems can be ironed out. Perhaps the hardest one to fix is the access problem, but hey, lesson learned right? Dont cut escalators.

Dec 22, 05 11:24 pm

i agree with ochona--this building and all of OMA is about using the program as part of the aesthetic for the building, here as a way to create these platforms that disturb a uniformly textured skin. that it's all wound up on the bookstackcorkscrew makes it excrutiatingly exciting.

the notion that OMA's research seeks to improve the function of architecture is a misunderstanding which I've never seen Rem discourage even though nothing in his explanations justifies it. Consider how excited he was to use the form of a house developed for the specific case of some idiosyncratic client as the form for the Music Center in Porto (Casa del Musica?)

My impression of oma's work is that Rem enjoys the discomfort of railingss/inconvenience when it makes people pay attention to the building. i must be a latent starchitect because i admire that :)

does anyone else think oma is beginning to return to the roots of british avante-garde: james stirling
just replace the bricks with travertine/colored panels/mesh screens

Dec 23, 05 12:18 am

I always liked Will Bruders Libraries in Phoenix and Scottsdale....not just the Downtown Centeral Library. Seattle might have been better off using Bruder for their project, as he is certainly a dynamic Architect and
well he has enough library projects behind him that you know he would be more understanding of the function and problems associated with libraries.

Dec 23, 05 4:52 pm

ow! my hair caught on fire!

and who can forget the ire of french librarians as their brand-new bibliotheque nationale reached temps of 100+ degrees F because the sunshading is on the INSIDE of the glass wall? i think they did the only proper thing...and went on extended smoke break

Dec 23, 05 5:05 pm

long lines, big deal.
not enough photocopiers...who cares, add more

I would bet there are people that use this library because it is an interesting building. If it was typical these same people may never once enter the new facility. The most functional building...probably not. it doesn't matter. This building invites people from all over the world to visit Seattle. The article says 50% of visitors on the weekends are tourists. That is far far more important than how easy one may be able to find a paticular book or newspaper. I guess i don't disagree with that article i just think writing it is stupid. What Seattle gets out of the building far exceeds any functional problems with it. SPL is a very important building.

Dec 23, 05 5:38 pm

it's like blaming frank gehry because bilbao guggenheim is so crowded that you can't see the art

Dec 23, 05 5:43 pm
vado retro

damn that koolhaas!

Dec 23, 05 6:31 pm
vado retro
Dec 23, 05 6:32 pm

he blew it!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Dec 23, 05 6:32 pm

These may or may not have influenced the SPL:

This building is down the street...

and this one is a little further out...

Dec 24, 05 9:30 am

Ya....da is not so is Ghery that is important....

Dec 24, 05 11:37 am

well, I always heard that the solution for the project sits somewhere around the site, there you have it, a reinterpretation of something that already exists, made into something that looks quite good actually

Dec 24, 05 12:13 pm

My two cents (as user, meaning I check out books at the Seattle Central Library)\

I think the article was interesting not only in it's suggestion that mayor gridlock is partly responsible for the problems but that critics around here are afraid to speak out. I've heard mainly ill will about the SPL from local architects and not a lot of praise. I can tell you that checking out or even finding a book in the lower level (i.e. fiction floor) is ridiculous, the stacks are scattered in a haphazard manner that doesn't really lead to intuitive locating. In order to get to the "mixing chamber", which I've never actually seen in use, you have to navigate back into a crowded area to finally find the staircase. I knew it was there the first time I visited but I still had a hard time finding it. The spiral would be more interesting if I were browsing for books but to just get to a certain level when I already know what I want. It seems like circulation is the biggest pain in the ass, you can't just jump from floor to floor, it seems like the analysis of the building should have resolved this but it really seems worse than a traditional design. It's also poorly detailed, especially at connections around the east entrance. I think the spiral is cool in concept and I really wish it worked better because it is kinda fun to wander around a seemingly never ending sloping floor. I dig the art project which lists live checkout titles and genres, way cool. The one thing I would praise it for, and this is purely subjective, is the fact that it doesn't cave to the Pacific Northwest "style" that seems so pervasive out here. You'd think designing a vaguely modern home with a green roof were some sort of right of passage out here. Diversity is always a plus, so I have no real complaints about the image of the building, I just wish a little more space were given to circulation. Also, I'm curious how much impact LMN had on the original OMA design, (does the book go into this?) How many of the detailing issues are due to OMA and how many are due to LMN? (the construction architect)
I should add that the bathrooms on the lowest level, genius.
I've never seen so many people walk and and say "oh sorry I thought this was a bathroom". For those that don't know you enter into a dingy room with a sink and what appears to be a shady looking door to a single stall. Behind that is the actual bathroom with several stalls and urinals etc. Apparently this was to deter homeless from spending all day camped out in the bathrooms.

Dec 24, 05 10:57 pm


as far as the right of passage green roof comment, I believe OMA wanted a green roof, but it was cut from the budget. Heh.

The bathroom thing is pretty cool though.

Dec 25, 05 12:09 am

"I think the spiral is cool in concept and I really wish it worked better because it is kinda fun to wander around a seemingly never ending sloping floor."

what am i missing?
isn't it the point to wander around a seemlingly never ending sloping floor? if you believe it is "kinda fun" then why doesn't it work?

finding books in librarys is never easy.
the people that use this library often will get used to it.

This building is #1 a public building and #2 a library. and there is nothing wrong with that.

Dec 25, 05 12:57 am
finding books in librarys is never easy.
the people that use this library often will get used to it.

Bullshit! Most library's have a fairly intuitive layout as far as the stacks are concerned, maybe not mister dewey's system but I can usually tell how to get from point A to point B.

Yeah the spiral is interesting to me as an architect, but frustrating as a user. The non-fiction collection is always the larger one at public libraries, and it's not something that's meant to be browsed, (I feel that should be the fiction section.) Would you sit and wander through the entire database of wikipedia in order to happen upon what you were originally looking for? I don't think the spirals a bad idea it just needs better links to the rest of the library. Say I'm in 102 and I need a book that in 605 in order to do that I need to either jump on the escalator, (which finding the entrance to that isn't exactly cake depending on which floor your on) or follow the spiral which means walking the long way up six stories (not really the best use of my time when I only have a couple of minutes to pick something up. And no I don't consider the single escalator a good arterial, but maybe your right maybe I'll learn to use that artery better after I've gotten down where and when I can jump onto it. I wonder though, if this building was designed off of use diagrams and research why is it so confounding to use. Is this because we've picked up bad habit from the way libraries have been designed in the past or is it because OMA buggered the research? I'm not making a sarcastic remark, I'm really wondering which is true. Because if indeed we've developed poor use habits due to traditional design then this building could/should be seen as a watershed moment. I suppose time will tell whether users habits change.

Indeed it is a public building, but I don't see these people interacting in the way I think was originally intended. Instead I see hundreds of people sitting at rows upons rows of computers inside a aesthetically nice space and wonder about the use that dictated the design and whether that is the use that the design actually fosters.

Dec 25, 05 4:24 am

it seems like above all architects should look at what they build through the eyes of the users...why is there even a difference between "seeing something as an architect" and "seeing something as a user"? shouldn't architectural training just ENABLE you to see things through the eyes of the users?

Dec 26, 05 12:05 am

architecture geek - right on. finally an intelligent response in this thread.

First of all, the responses to this thread that deride the overall critique of the SPL for reasons of the small (non)problems like copiers and lines are retarded and pathetic. Of course those two things (copiers and lines) have nothing to do with anything. Finding a cute google image of someone at a copier is completely beside the point to the substance of this critique. If you're going to be an OMApoligist, try dispute that the programmatic organization is smart instead of confounding. Nobody cares about the damn copiers, really.

A critique of a building for which everyone and their architecture critic mothers have praised as successfully collaborative and programmatically adept but for which this praise seems to not be true. This issue is no less than one of the greatest 'thinking' firms around possibly miss thinking on a really grand scale. This being so, it also challenges architects' (in general) oft inscrutible assumptions that we're adept or talented at programming buildings.

It seems that perhaps the vision of dedicated platforms was so seductive early in the design process that all research following the original idea had to be expressed in terms of the platforms concept. I'm remembering another Bush admin. analogy about 'the intelligence being fixed around the policy'. In the future, the library patrons and staff may come to realize that OMA was indeed prescient in seperating uses as they did to prevent random encroachments of irrelevant programs.

I tend to think in part that it's natural for new buildings to seem illogical to new users. That really shouldn't be the issue here. The bigger question, as 'architecturegeek' also noted, is whether the more fundamental aspects and process of the research was botched in some really big ways and whether it provided a 'cover' for architectural policy that was pre-assumed by oma. Basically, was researched fixed in some way to justify a particular provocation (?)

Or carry on about copiers.....

Dec 26, 05 12:22 am

i cant believe it just talked about copiers. You know, copiers?

So, what do you all think about the copiers?

There, Ive added (once again) to the stupidity.

Dec 26, 05 2:02 am

i'm no apologist for bad design decisions, but the rethinking of library organization that this library embodies was not only the work of rem/oma. the library's administration was complicit in this and bears some of the responsibility/credit for the way it is.

so, that said: does the library staff itself see the design of the library and its functionality as "failing"? or is it just naysayers that wander in and grouse about things? (this is all-too-easy.)

i expect that, if the administration sees any inherent problem with the building, they see it as a victim of its overwhelming success. extremely heavy traffic can stress any building program.

Dec 26, 05 10:02 am

"Bullshit! Most library's have a fairly intuitive layout as far as the stacks are concerned"

great, i bet tourists stop in to see how well those librarys function.
they marvel at the ease of grabbing a book...right?

The critism may be just bores me, like most librarys with intuitive book stacks.

The research is a part of the design process, but to even use the word "research" is a stretch.

Dec 26, 05 1:33 pm

I loved the place when I visisted recently. I have to agree with the poor circulation comment though. And the rubber aisle numbers on the floor led to an insanely annoying, loud, and persistent banging through the whole building as the book carts were pushed across them. And the seafoam green washroom on the 5th? floor is horrendous. It gave me murderous impluses.

I found the collection lacking though.

A friend was telling me the other day that Seattle was recently ranked as the most literate city in the world because the new SPL gave so many people access to the internet.

Dec 26, 05 10:17 pm

I've been to the SPL six or seven times...Ironically never to check out a book. I used to check out books at the temporary library weekly, but for some reason, the new SPL just doesnt inspire me to check out a book.

I like the building, but Architecturegeek is right, the circulation is ridiculous...For those that have not been, try an imagine this 7 storey book spiral, with an escalator going right through the middle...seems like a simple concept that should work, HOWEVER, the escalator only goes UP, and has one Landing in the middle...That's right, one escalator, and it only goes UP. The stairs are tucked in a corner and were only intended for fire egress. the elevator is in the oposite corner and is painfully slow due to all the tourists.

For me, this means that the books end up staying inside their glass box as the escalator whisks me to the top floor without the slightest urge to get lost in the stacks...I walk around the cornrer to the lookout balcony by the elevator, and then back down to street level...My typical trip the SPL...

Dec 31, 05 3:45 am

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