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Mixing with the Kool Crowd

Jun 30, 2004
Dec 14, 2017

By Benjamin Fried

"A blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon," declared the New York Times' Herbert Muschamp. "If Picasso ever painted a library, it might look like this," chimed in Time Magazine. You'd expect the new Seattle Public Library to garner such overwrought praise from architecture critics. It has everything that makes them sit up and take notice: high-profile location, audacious form, and a celebrity architect pedigree (courtesy of Rem Koolhaas in this case).

The new Seattle Public Library

Critics' unbridled enthusiasm for elite designers is by now a predictable response, but some of their pronouncements about the library may surprise readers familiar with Koolhaas's disdain for comfortable public spaces. William Dietrich of Pacific Northwest Magazine called it "not just a library, but a community hub," and The New Yorker's Paul Goldberger weighed in with "an ennobling public space." Has this library set a new precedent, marrying fashionable glitz with public space tailored for human use?

Not so fast. PPS would like nothing more than to announce that this library is part of a new wave of iconic buildings that succeed as public spaces. But while some of the library's spaces are comfortable, active, and visually stunning, the building as a whole turns inward from the city around it, limiting its effect on downtown. Of course, there are contemporary buildings out there that contribute to lively streets and public spaces. These buildings may not have earth shattering ambitions, but they are indeed important additions to our cities and towns (see sidebar). You just wouldn't know it from reading most architecture reviews.

If the library were a true "community hub," its most active areas would connect directly to the street

Instead, readers must sift through the hype and hyperbole that saturate the bulk of today's criticism. For instance, many critics' praise for the Seattle Library has focused on its interior public spaces, the reading room and "Living Room." Considered in a vacuum, these spaces do function quite well: They are often full of people reading, browsing the web, and mingling. But, situated above street-level without any relation to the sidewalk below, they relate to the city outside in a purely visual fashion. If the library were a true "community hub," its most active areas would connect directly to the street, spinning off activity in every direction.

Some of the library's interior spaces succeed as comfortable gathering places but are too insulated from downtown Seattle.

That is where Koolhaas's library, sealed away from the sidewalks and streets around it, fails completely. In fact, patrons are already bemoaning its lack of accessibility. This is not only a missed opportunity to bring new life to the area around the library, it also means that use of the library itself will ebb in the long run. When the hype has died down, what will remain is another self-contained architectural object that adds little to public life around it. And this certainly shouldn't come as a shock, given that Koolhaas himself once famously proclaimed public space to be obsolete.

Even more troubling than the flaws in Koolhaas's building is the fact that critics have cast it as a masterpiece of public space design. As if blinded by the architect's knack for flash and publicity, they cannot locate, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge, the faults in his creation.

The more outlandish a building's visual impact, the more likely critics are to give it a free pass on its qualities as a public space

The library "reaches out and melds with the downtown towers around it," claims Dietrich. "The mirror-like overhang that shelters the entry on Fourth Avenue ripples like a river from the reflected lights of vehicles passing by." But do the reflections of headlights really constitute a meaningful contribution to downtown Seattle? A more sober analysis would point out the obvious: The building's relationship with downtown is only skin-deep. When it comes to actual human activity--the kind that brings real benefits to a city by encouraging people to stay and explore downtown--the spaces around the library are dead zones.

At the sidewalk, the library turns its back to the city.

This myopia points to a larger flaw, the thirst of design critics for edgy buildings by big-name architects. Architecture that pushes the envelope does not necessarily result in good buildings, but it always yields provocative subject matter to write about. The prevailing wisdom dictates that a new building must somehow transform our thinking about architecture in order to be relevant. (Goldberger says that Koolhaas presented the Seattle Library as "a reinvention of the idea of the public library.") The more outlandish a building's visual impact, the more likely critics are to give it a free pass on its qualities as a public space--or worse, proclaim that its public spaces are much better than they really are.

Buildings can function as both spectacles and great public spaces, although the recent spate of highly-publicized projects by "starchitects" like Koolhaas and Frank Gehry would seem to indicate otherwise. If only the striking forms of these buildings were complemented by thoughtful street-level treatment, then praise might be appropriate. If Gehry's Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles did not present blank walls to the sidewalk on three sides, and if the edges of Koolhaas's library were flexible enough to allow activity to spill out onto the street, then maybe these attractions could function as the magnets for downtown energy originally hoped for by the people who funded them.

Here's a side of Frank Gehry's Disney Concert Hall you don't often see in the press.

In order for buildings of the 21st century to succeed as public spaces, all players must do their part: clients, architects, and critics. But in the current climate of celebrity worship, critics (and clients) are failing to hold architects accountable for the impact of their designs on the public realm. While many professional critics have shirked their responsibilities in this regard, thoughtful evaluation of new architecture is proliferating on the web, much of it coming from people with a keen analytical eye but no formal training in the field. Some of the best such work has come in response to the Seattle Public Library.

Critics should demand that architectural daring be in service to the public life of cities.

When amateurs start producing more penetrating insight than the pros, it's clear there is a substantial appetite for a different way of writing about architecture. It's also a sign that the audience for architecture criticism is bigger than ever. We can thank critics for that, because they've helped make thinking about architecture a popular intellectual pursuit. But we also need to push critics to give deeper consideration to the ways architecture affects public space. Bold design should no longer be sufficient grounds for praise; critics should demand that architectural daring be in service to the public life of cities.

This is a paradigm shift that won't happen overnight, but it will happen if we demand better. What PPS and our readers need to do now is inject a new stream of thought into the mainstream dialogue. We need to introduce new standards for excellence in public architecture, and we need to share our vision of what constitutes a great building with critics and their audiences.

People who care about public spaces should make their opinions known and openly engage critics, architects, and influential clients (see sidebar for ideas on how to do this). We'll challenge opinion-shapers to rethink their ideas about what architecture should accomplish, and in so doing we'll set the stage for new buildings that can rightly claim to be community hubs and ennobling public spaces.

The right image can make a more persuasive argument than any description, so when you send your submission be sure to include some pictures that illustrate how people use the building and why it is a great place. Please do not nominate any buildings that you have designed, financed, or in which you have any other personal stake.

The best nominations that we receive will be featured in a future edition of Making Places and will anchor a media campaign to promote new buildings that are centers of civic life. If you have any questions or comments, send us an email.

"The Architecture Critic: A Survey of Newspaper Architecture Critics in America," is available on the web in PDF format, and a quick summary has also been posted online in the July 2nd edtition of the ArchVoices newsletter. See which buildings critics rate highest, and which critics are regarded as the most influential in the field. Some of the findings may surprise you.

Around the web

There's been a lot of good commentary about the Seattle Public Library coming from blogs and other websites. Here are three of our favorite pieces:

In his June "Eyesore of the Month," James Howard Kunstler gives the library a harsh and humorous critique.

David Sucher, author of City Comforts, has made several posts about the library on his blog, with more to come following his recent visit.

Blogger Keith Pleas offers this detailed analysis of the library through the lens of software architecture.

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