Fountain of Wisdom

Years have passed, and the downtown library designed by Rem Koolhaas has agreeably woven itself into the urban fabric. You may not like the ramps or shelving or noise inside, but tourists love to photograph the glassy, faceted exterior, and most architectural critics agree on its modernist merit. Still, walking past, I sometimes miss the small, rather cheap, but more intimate old International Style stack of boxes. Built in 1960, demolished in 2001, the prior library had a reader-friendly scale—nooks and crannies, and a courtyard containing Fountain of Wisdom by sculptor George Tsutakawa. The late local artist (1910–1997) didn’t live long enough to see his work—the city’s first public art commission of note—relocated to the corner of Fourth and Madison, where it now sits next to the new library entrance. But where is the plaque? The abstract bronze flanged structure developed from a series Tsutakawa modeled on the obo—in Japanese, a pile or cairn of rounded stones left by travelers—a shape you’ll find echoed in his many other subsequent fountains designed around the Northwest. But Fountain of Wisdom also rests in the postwar visual vocabulary of Brancusi and Jim Flora. It’s not just traditional; there’s something a little Jetsons about it—like a metal flower on a distant planet. It’s all wrong for the aesthetic of Koolhaas, who probably hates flowers or anything curved and organic that defies his rigid geometry. For that reason, I like the plucky little footnote to the big new building looming over it. Now about that plaque... BRIAN MILLER

Starts: Dec. 24. Daily, 2008

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