Our lopsided library: Rem's ruse?

Hey Seattle, don't look now, but your new downtown library appears to be listing sharply to port.

Or at least that's the reaction some people are having to the preliminary design models created by Rem Koolhaas, that world- class architect guy everybody loved six months ago. There's even a mini-groundswell of media opposition, led by Seattle Times columnist Susan Nielsen.

A summary of Nielsen's complaints to date: The building is ugly and looks like it might tip over and block traffic on Fourth Avenue. Also, Koolhaas' proposal for translucent floors (to let natural light penetrate the building) has the columnist worried that folks might try to look up her dress.

Actually, she has a point (about the building, that is). The Koolhaas prototype is weird-looking and lopsided. But, Koolhaas was hired based on a history of dramatic, fanciful designs, and our library prototype bears a passing resemblance to one of his more famous commissions, a French home split into three nonaligned levels (our could-be library has five levels). Surprise is an illogical reaction here: Hiring Koolhaas and getting angry over this conceptual model is a bit like hiring McDonald's to cater your party and being annoyed when they serve hamburgers.

Rem's concepts will probably be greatly altered by the time anyone's ready to pour concrete. One local architect proclaimed the preliminary design scheme a clever ruse, a straw man Koolhaas has created for his critics to kick. "I think he's faking it with that model," says the local designer. By whipping up a plan that's ambiguous enough and audacious enough, Koolhaas has provided a starting point for discussion, not a design he's wedded to. Not to mention that Washington state's notoriously strict energy code and the library's tight budget will help eliminate the wackier aspects of Koolhaas' dream.

Which means local critics should feel free to carve up the preliminary Koolhaas proposal; and most seem to be enjoying the task. One letter-writer tells the story with his heading: "Design for the new public library—Phooey!" John Bullinger calls the Koolhaas design "a pretty unaesthetic excuse for a building" and predicts the finished product "will be a joke in years to come." Activist/phrasemaker Alan Deright needed only a single page to label the prototype both "a high-tech incubator/chicken coop" and "George Jetson's playpen/retirement den."

Koolhaas' Tilt-O-Whirl of a building aside, the most controversial aspect of this proposal should be his claim that he can safely build less space for books than library officials have requested. According to the Rem-ster, his lackeys at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture have "calculated" that books are on the way out, so there's no point in building so much space for them. This is nonsense.

One disadvantage of being a journalist during the last two decades is hearing this dumb question: "What are you going to do for a living when they stop printing newspapers?" The imminent disappearance of books and newspapers has been lurking about 20 years in the future now for, oh, at least 20 years. Odds are, in the year 2020, we'll have several tons more books, magazines, and newspapers, and words-on-paper will still be sitting about 20 years from extinction. Koolhaas should be required to design plenty of book space into his building plus room to expand, whether he likes it or not.

After all, the major complaint about our current library is that it seems overpacked with books and lacks unencumbered quiet spaces for reading and reflection. However, when it was dedicated in 1960, the new library had all those things and more— but its designers hadn't reckoned on the publishing boom of the last three decades, whose resulting flood of new books has buried the original architect's work.

Rem Koolhaas may be a legitimate futurist, but he needs to learn at least one fact from history: Architects (even those of the genius variety) are notoriously poor predictors of societal trends. Build some more space for books, Mr. World-Class Architect.

SHA slapped on wrist

Lovely as it is to look at, the Seattle Housing Authority's much-touted Holly Park redevelopment has run afoul of federal conflict-of-interest rules.

After an eight-month investigation, federal inspectors have sustained one of three major allegations made by local housing activist John Fox ("Prickly holly," SW, 3/11/99). Interestingly, the feds found no problem with the work of developer Bruce Lorig, who participated as a volunteer in the project. Nor did the investigation sustain complaints over the hiring of developer Henry Popkin.

The feds were, however, quite amazed with SHA's formation of a Panel of Experts, which recommended that the housing authority nix the bid of a large out-of-town contractor and instead contract the job out locally. The panel included many longtime riders on the SHA contracting gravy train (many of whom, the authority admits, refused to participate until they were assured that panel membership wouldn't stop them from bidding on Holly Park contracts). Given this economic self-interest, it's hardly surprising these hungry contractors and consultants liked the idea of cutting up the project and bidding it out locally. (Had they done anything else, they'd have to be renamed the Panel of Morons.)

Federal officials have sternly told SHA not to do this again. That'll teach 'em.

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