The Library Seattle Grew To Love, Or At Least Get Used To

May 20, 2014

Superstar architect Rem Koolhaas and his Rotterdam-based firm OMA almost didn't build Seattle's iconic downtown library building.

"We found out about the project because my mother called me," explains former OMA partner Joshua Prince-Ramus. "On Friday there was going to be a mandatory meeting and this was Thursday. So I ran to the airport (from Rotterdam) caught a flight and got to Seattle 11 hours later."

When the dust settled on the architect selection process, OMA had the job. The company would design and oversee construction of a new flagship library building for Seattle, famous for its book-loving populace.

Prince-Ramus was OMA's managing partner for the library project. He was just 29 when work started and he admits he was terrified.

The Seattle area native remembers thinking to himself, "If we screw this up, I can't come home."

We thought there was not only the opportunity, but maybe the responsibility to create a really amazing space.

Ten years later, few would say that OMA screwed up the project. Love it or hate it, the unusual glass and steel building became an instant icon.

Crowds lined up on opening day to get a look at the book spiral: Instead of traditional floors for the different genres, this library's holdings are stored in a corkscrew shape that spirals up through the library's center. Koolhaas once likened the design to a strand of DNA.

The building's glass exterior is encased in a diamond-shaped steel grid. Window washers hook themselves up to carabiners, like mountain climbers, to scale the slanting transparent walls. Crews shoot television ads in front of the building, and crowds of tourists still come to ride the escalator up to the glass enclosed reading room with its expansive views of Elliott Bay and the surrounding downtown skyscrapers.

On a recent chilly spring morning, several dozen people waited patiently for the library to open. Some toted laptop computers and briefcases; others shot selfies with their friends in front of a gurgling fountain designed by the late sculptor George Tsutakawa. One Lake Stevens family stood back to watch the crowd.

"I work downtown, but I've never been to the library," the father said. "I thought it would be cool to have a family day."

He was one of many tourists who visit the building every day. The library used to position docents at the entries to help out. Now visitors can take a self-guided cell phone tour.

The Betty Jane Narver Reading Room on Level 10 of the Seattle Public Library, at the top of the yellow escalator and at the start of the book spiral.
The Betty Jane Narver Reading Room on Level 10 of the Seattle Public Library, at the top of the yellow escalator and at the start of the book spiral.
Credit Flickr Photo/OZinOH

Before architects drew up a single sketch for the Central Library building, they toured libraries around the world to see what worked. They also talked with dozens of stakeholders to find out how they wanted to use the building. In the end, according to Prince-Ramus, the mission was to create not only a book and document repository, but a community gathering place that would be free and accessible to everyone.

"Downtown American cities, the best real estate is almost always private," Prince-Ramus says. "We thought there was not only the opportunity, but maybe the responsibility to create a really amazing space."

If you enter the building from 5th Avenue, one of the first things you see is a coffee vendor and a seating area full of armchairs with small tables. The library calls this space the Living Room, and Prince-Ramus says from the get go, the library staff wanted people to be able to talk to one another here. They also wanted to use the space for everything from relaxation to music performances. The auditorium is busy with readings, panel discussions, even film presentations.

Joshua Prince-Ramus, architect and principle of REX, in the reading room.
Joshua Prince-Ramus, architect and principle of REX, in the reading room.
Credit KUOW Photo/Jenna Montgomery

Prince-Ramus has visited the Central Library many times since it first opened. He is still proud of the process that led to the building's design. He finds it beautiful but concedes that's in the eye of the beholder.

On opening day 10 years ago, he sat outside and watched the crowds moving in and out of the building.

"What made me happy was that, whether or not they liked it aesthetically, they came out and said, 'That was exciting.'"

The Seattle Central Library's 10th anniversary celebrations continue this week.

Editor's note: The audio version of this story incorrectly stated where the Reading Room is located. It is on the 10th floor, not the 7th.

Tony Oursler's video installation, "Braincast," at the Central Library: