Seattle Central Library in Seattle

Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
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Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
Photo of Seattle Central Library in Seattle, Washington
Photograph courtesy of The Seattle Public Library
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Seattle Central Library

1000 Fourth Avenue, Seattle, Washington
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One of the more spectacular public buildings in the Pacific Northwest, the Seattle Public Library's downtown branch proves that public buildings don't have to be ugly grey stone.

The irony, of course, is that grey stone is exactly how the library began. The first Seattle Public Library on this site was typical of municipal buildings at the time: broad, stately, and adorned with columns. It opened in 1905, thanks to a $220,000 gift from millionaire philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.

Though expanded over the years, the first library eventually proved inadequate, and was replaced by a new building in 1960. This one was long and low, with dark glass and steel accents. Like the building it succeeded, this library's design was perfectly in tune with the other architecture of its time.

Libraries are great collectors. Perhaps even more so than museums because they have to be generalists. It's not surprising, then, to learn that the 1960's-era building, too, ran out of space. In the 1990's it was decided to once again raze the Central Library and start anew.

Like the other two libraries, the people in charge decided to go with the architectural style of the time, rather than impose some faux history on its patrons. Fortunately, the style of the time was "original" and "forward-thinking." And who better to unify those sentiments than Rem Koolhaas.

He took the library's need for space and turned it into a building of which Seattle can be proud. Its angles and grids reflect the moody weather outside, while innovations inside help material flow.

One of those innovations is called the "book spiral." In essence, it is a spiral ramp within the building which allows people to walk from the top to the bottom along a single pathway, passing almost the entire book collection along the way. The stacks are arranged perpendicular to the travel route. A similar scheme was used in New York's Guggenheim museum so that people could enjoy the works of art as they wander, without being distracted by stairs and walls. In the case of the library, the books are arranged numerically from top to bottom, making it easier to find materials than in libraries where different sections are located on different floors. If you have a book's number, you know whether you have to travel up or down, left or right, to find it.

Externally, the buildings maintains the base-shaft-crown architectural philosophy used by architects for decades. But the proportions are distorted and irregular, making the building seem like a half-squashed milk carton. That's not to say the structure isn't spectacular. Its angles manage to be inviting, rather than frightening, and the cool color of the glass contrasted with the spandrel grid make it even more welcoming. On the inside, those sloping exterior angles create open spaces, atria, and the opportunity for natural light to flood the building.

The Central Library is one of the most beloved buildings in Seattle, and has done more for educating the public about the value of good architecture than any other building before it.

Quick Facts
Statistics
  • Retail space: 300 square feet
  • Parking: 143 spaces
  • Opening day visitors: 28,000
  • New library cards issues on opening day: 461
  • The building's skin is made up of almost 10,000 panels of glass.
  • The building hangs 45 feet over the Fourth Avenue sidewalk.
  • Vertical columns: 20. All of the rest are at angles.
  • Floor space: 412,000 square feet
  • Parking space: 49,000 square feet
  • Book capacity: 1.4 million volumes
Timeline
  • 1902: Construction began on the first library opened on this site. It cost $100,000 and was 55,000 square feet.
  • 1906: Construction finished.
  • 1960: The second library on this site opened. It was 206,000 square feet and cost $4,500,000.
  • May 23, 2004: The current library opened to the public.
Notes
  • Architect: Rem Koolhaas
  • Architect: Joshua Ramus
  • Architecture firm: Office for Metropolitan Architecture
  • Architecture firm: LMN Architects
  • 60-year-old Ed Wirkala was the first person to check out a book at the new library. He got audiobook versions of "The Road to Wellville" and "The Corrections."
  • 93-year-old Irina Ratner was the first person into the library when it opened.
  • The heart of the library is an area known as the Living Room, where people gather to read books, newspapers, and magazines in comfort and companionship.
  • Unlike some big city libraries which have gone so far as to ban bottled water and backpacks, this library welcomes its visitors with a coffee bar and even a gift shop.
  • The children's section is its own 15,000-square-foot space separate from the rest of the library, with its own family-friendly restrooms.
  • The children's section has shelves that vary in height with the target age of the reading material.
  • The black fire insulation is exposed for people to see, and mixed with reflective pieces to give it visual interest.
  • One section of the floor is decorated with the alphabets of 11 different languages. It's a sculpture you can walk on by artist Ann Hamilton.
  • The ceiling on the top floor is covered with pillows as a sound-deadening mechanism.
  • The building has a number of both public and private spaces. Some spectacular, and some strange, like the hallway that is painted entirely in red, including the floor, and illuminated by red lights.
  • There is an entire room of books dedicated to aerospace. The 9,000+ volumes were collected through annual donations made by Boeing since 1928.
  • The wood floors are made of recycled pieces left over from lumberyards.
  • The carpet is actually made out of metal thread for extended durability and ease of cleaning. It is claimed that the carpet can actually be mopped clean.
  • Glass on the sunny sides of the building has a layer of aluminum mesh inside the panes in order to scatter the direct light.
  • The top floor was designed so that the administrative offices would have a view of Mount Rainier.
  • None of the building's outside corners are connected vertically to the ground.
  • The metal grid that makes up the building's skin helps transfer the energy of an earthquake back into the ground.
  • The library includes a writer's room, music rehearsal space, conference rooms, an auditorium, and sound-proof pods for listening to music.
  • The library has an automated system for sorting returned books. It senses each book's RFID tag, orients the book the right way, and loads it onto the appropriate cart to be returned to the shelves.
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Your Thoughts

There are eight comments.

  This has got to be the coolest building in America!!! I am So Glad my niece (Native Seattle Girl) made sure we visited this amazing building!

Bmanning - Tuesday, January 31st, 2012 @ 6:03pm  

  Love the interior! But I think the exterior is halfway between daring and elegant, coming out awkward and half-collapsed looking. I seem to remember the original ideas being much more creative. Still, another gem in an already blessed city.

Swokm - Thursday, January 10th, 2008 @ 6:23am  

  Brilliant!

Cesar - Wednesday, February 21st, 2007 @ 5:52pm  

  I am honored to have visited it.

Simal Sevimay - Thursday, July 28th, 2005 @ 1:45am  

  Absolutely Spectacular!!!Simply a Masterpiece. This bulding will no doubt set a benchmark for other cities to aspire to.

Tim Bryan - Saturday, April 2nd, 2005 @ 5:22pm  

  It is wonderful to see such an inspirational building.This modern wonder is a role model for all other public buildings!

Emily Clarke - Tuesday, March 1st, 2005 @ 4:17pm  

  Looking at downtown Seattle as a whole: there areas for shopping area, financial institutions, offices, courts, hotels, restaurants and in the center is the 'crown jewel' the new Seattle Library from which all of the rest radiate.

Mary O. Haller - Tuesday, November 16th, 2004 @ 1:14am  

  excelent.

felipe - Monday, September 20th, 2004 @ 8:33pm  

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