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Sunday, May 16, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Seattle's new library: Striking from any angle

By Susan Gilmore
Seattle Times staff reporter

The library's 10th-floor reading room features rows of books and views of city skyscrapers. "This is the people's library," City Librarian Deborah Jacobs said of the facility that opens to the public next Sunday.
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When noted architect Anthony Vidler came to Seattle in February to give a talk about replacing the World Trade Center towers in New York, he was given a tour of the new Seattle Public Library.

He was so impressed with what he saw, he sat down and wrote a new conclusion to his talk at the University of Washington.

"I thought the building, both outside and inside, was a triumph of spatial planning, the organization and deployment of public space and the relationship of this space inside to the public realm outside," said Vidler, dean of architecture at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York.

Even though it hasn't opened yet, the $165.5 million steel-and-glass building designed by renowned Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas is the rage of many art-and-architecture types. But when the doors open next Sunday, will the public feel the same?

"People will love it," predicts Fareet Hart, who has watched the building rise from his post as a valet at the Vintage Park Hotel across the street.

"It's clear, all glass and that's the cool part," he says. "The rays of light come in at all angles. I have to go in there and see if I get lost."

Tim Saint, sitting on the Federal Courthouse lawn across Fifth Avenue, thinks the building may be too "funky" for Seattle.

For the record


Size of building: 362,987 square feet, plus 49,000 square feet of underground parking (room for 143 vehicles)
Cost: $165.5 million
Cost per square foot: $273
Size of collection: Nearly 10,000 shelves can hold 1.4 million items


Size of building: 206,000 square feet; no parking
When built: 1960
Cost: $4.5 million
Cost per square foot:
Size of collection:
900,000 items

"But it does cause you to look at it and figure out how it's standing up," says the Kirkland man who works in Pioneer Square. "It certainly gets your attention."

The building has a distinctive but indescribable form. A stack of falling books. Lego pieces stuck together. A book-filled greenhouse.

"It looks like a dictionary opening up the mind to the windows of the world," said a security guard at the Federal Courthouse.

Time magazine, in a story about the new library last month, said, "If Picasso ever painted a library, it might look like this."

"It looks like a place where you can do a lot of dreaming," said Seattle resident Tom Bartlett, standing across the street as workers put the finishing touches on the building. "It's something to be proud of."

The lopsided building shines like a net of silver and crystal, reflecting the sun and the lights of passing vehicles. Inside are vast spaces — library officials admit the acoustics won't be great — and bright colors: vivid-yellow escalators, lipstick-red hallways.

And there are floors and floors of books, with a system of sorting the nonfiction collection into a four-story "book spiral," unheard-of anyplace else in the country.

The 363,000-square-foot building has 11 stories and will nearly double the amount of books that were available at the temporary library near the Washington State Convention & Trade Center.

The old downtown library had just 35 percent of its material available on the open stacks; the new library, at the same site at 1000 Fourth Ave., will have 65 percent available. The new library has a capacity for more than 1.4 million books and materials, compared to 900,000 in the old.

The library staff is preparing for more than 8,000 visitors a day during its first year — roughly 2.8 million visitors a year. The old library drew 4,000 users a day.

Weeks before next Sunday's anticipated opening, City Librarian Deborah Jacobs was sporting a new hairdo, her signature dangling earrings and heavy makeup, the better for TV interviews. With national reporters arriving, the new library was big news.

The steel-and-glass Seattle Public Library seems to loom out over Fourth Avenue and Madison Street in downtown Seattle.
But Jacobs took time to lead a group of high-school journalists on a sneak peek of the library before its opening. On the fifth floor she announced her "cool dating idea."

Peering over a railing to the library's Fourth Avenue entrance four floors below, she told the students it would be a great place to get a look at a blind date. "You can stand up here and see if you want to meet them," she said.

Then she confided that her first kiss was in a library because that was the only place her mother would allow her to go on her first date.

Jacobs said the new library at night is a special place.

"It's an amazing beacon at night," she said. "At night all kinds of magical things happen. It's like a castle."

Behind schedule, over budget

While the library is receiving rave reviews, the construction has not been seamless. The building is eight months behind schedule and $8 million over budget.

It was not open, as the city had hoped, for the 8,000 librarians who visited in February for the Public Library Association's National Conference.

The library's interior features bold colors, such as bright red in the curved hallways on the fourth floor, site of four public meeting rooms.
Construction on the project began in August 2001. The project is part of a $196 million bond issue, approved by Seattle voters in 1998, that also is paying for construction and renovation of branch libraries.

Construction delays drove up the costs, said Bart Eberwein, vice president of Hoffman Construction, which is building the downtown library. He said two factors increased the costs: excavation problems and a redesign of the steel system that put the project behind schedule.

While Hoffman Construction claimed $16.9 million in extra costs, a dispute-resolution board reduced that to $8.4 million, but no decision has been made about who will pay. Negotiations are still under way, and the matter could end up in court.

'The people's library'

But the end product, says Seattle architect John Nesholm, whose LMN company joined with Koolhaas to build the library, "achieves all of the goals that were established at the beginning of the design."

"It honors the book and the value of reading and learning while embracing technology in a comprehensive way," he said.

Vidler, the dean of architecture visiting from New York, agreed, "I believe that it will, in time, become a loved and well-used library whose architectural qualities match those of the great public libraries of the world."

Windows, reflective during the day, are transparent at night, allowing glimpses inside the library.
For Koolhaas, the project continues to reverse a trend that saw his ideas more praised than built. Recently more of his projects have been realized, and in 2000, he won architecture's biggest prize, the Pritzker.

And don't ever expect to hear this new building called the Starbucks Library or Microsoft Library. Unlike other Seattle buildings that bear the name of big donors, this will be the Seattle Public Library.

"We'd never allow the building to be named," said Jacobs. "This is the people's library."

Susan Gilmore can be reached at 206-464-2054 or at

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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