Friday, August 20, 2004


I'm writing this from Rem Koolhaas' new Seattle Public Library, which opened this past May and is definitely the hot new building in a town with a considerable amount of decent and/or famous architecture. As dramatic as the outside of the building is, it's the inside that feels really new, unlike any library I've ever visited before.

This is quite unlike the experience one has, say, visiting the Experience Music Project (now combined with the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame), a Frank Gehry structure opened just four years ago at the foot of the Space Needle. The interior of the EMP/SFM feels like any institutional display bar, dark and dysfunctional. Not the library.

This isn't to say that everything in the new library works exactly. There are -- goldenrod & chartreuse, in keeping with the interior's "bold" use of colors -- flyers taped to nearly every surface to help users get past the far too "blended-in" signage.

The center of the new structure is the Mixing Center (as it is called) on the fifth floor, essentially a large room of public access computers with T1-line access to the web. There are 132 systems on the floor in a large grid (and another 268 or thereabouts spread around the rest of the library). The next several floors above consist of the "spirals," or stacks. You take a neon yellow escalator up and either walk or elevate down again (or proceed to the tenth floor reading room with its lovely padded linen ceiling. The Mixing Center is very I-beam, but with tons of natural light brought in by the diamond shaped windows that result from the exterior lattice structure of the walls.

While the intense chartreuse elevators or mint-green men's rooms may be a matter of taste, the one floor that dramatically doesn't work is the fourth floor meeting room space, whose corridors are a deep blood red with room numbers "constructed" out of text in a larger, darker red. Given the narrow confines and intense colors, the result is unintelligible, better suited to a punk nightclub than a civic space.

But it's instructive to see attempts being made throughout to rethink the library as such in ways that address their many different uses (this one has a gift shop and a coffee stand with the requisite Starbucks). In contrast, the two museums (musea?) at the EMP/SFM are largely the collections of a single person -- Paul Allen, the man who had the most fortunate dorm room assignment in history, getting Bill Gates. As such, it's even quirkier than the Barnes Foundation in Bala Cynwyd, PA. Yet the building appears far greater than that, and frankly the collections leave much to the curatorial eye to be desired. The one great exhibit in either -- a history of the guitar itself -- is largely unchanged from the version I saw here four years ago when the museum first opened. In fact, it had only two new exhibits, one a ho-hum presentation of the elements of songwriting (that replaced one on Gehry the architect and his work), the other a one-room affair on the Beatles' 1964 trip to the USA. While the SciFi museum & hall of fame (which includes Chip Delaney, but not Philip K. Dick) is fun because Allen has gone out and gotten either the real thing (Ann Francis' costume from Forbidden Planet, Sean Young's dress from Bladerunner, a life-size reproduction of Robby the Robot, as well as one of the alien models from Alien, etc.) feels no less idiosyncratic, undercurated really, its presence in a building that appears to offer much more than these two collections deliver, and which itself all but disappears once you are inside the structure, only heightens the sense of deflation one feels. Koolhaas' library, however, makes you want to try out new buildings for all manner of public functions. The contrast is instructive.

Thursday, August 19, 2004

I'm in the Seattle Public Library, a great new structure with neon yellow escalators, using an IBM in the fifth floor "mixing center" -- the three floors above are all listed on the elevator as being "spiral" and the reading room is on the tenth floor. All quite visually impressive.

I hate to spoil Seattle's public reputation, but the weather out here has been great for just about two solid weeks. We even spent a day in the Hoh Rainforest and had sunshine, good temperatures and views of some of the greatest mosses I've ever seen. [Admittedly "great mosses" is a peculiar category.] Ditto for the views from on top of Hurricane Ridge, where one can see glaciers on the slopes of Mount Olympus.

Only one work crisis while I've been gone thus far, and that seems to be being handled well by all, tho it did take a few conference calls that I would have preferred to skip. The plan for today is to get to Open Books, Seattle's poetry bookstore, sometime after noon, then down to Elliott Bay Books & finally the Science Fiction Museum & Experience Music Project.

The one thing I'm not looking forward to is having to rise in time to catch the 6 AM flight back on Saturday. We saved a lot of money doing that, plus got a direct flight. But it's a heavy price to pay, being up at 3 AM!

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