Call it malevolent meccano. The new Seattle Public Library by Rem Koolhaas looks menacing in an innocent sort of way, like a childrens toy working up the courage to consume the city. Not too big, not too small, Seattle, you can hear it thinking, would make a nice light snack.
Apparently, the frightening half of the message was deliberate. “I thought it was important that you have a sense of awe when you come into a public building, especially a library. So says Deborah Jacobs, Seattles chief librarian.
How really sad. Jacobs is charged with getting people into libraries. Her institution is surrounded by formidable distractions: Hollywood, television, sports, theatre, blogging. She is also up against new competitors: especially Google which now serves each of us daily as a librarian without precedent or parallel.
Is awe really the way to make the Seattle Public Library more accessible? Clearly not. Awe will make this institution less accessible.
So what was Jacobs doing? I have an uneasy feeling that this is self aggrandizement. I think Jacobs figures that if the library is a thing of awe, she must be the keeper of awe. Koolhaas building has the effect of making her awesome.
I cant tell you the number of times I have seen this sort of thing in the museum world. (Yes, I can: 47 times.) We dont pay museum professionals very well. We dont hold their institutions in very high esteem. And at the very moment, museologists and librarians should be struggling to return themselves to usefulness, they are inclined to find someway to dress themselves up in grandeur or, in Jacobs case, intimidation.
Well, bad luck on Jacobs. The Seattle Library ends up being intimidation lite. Whether this is incompetence or mischief on Koolhaas part, we can never know. I am betting its the latter, and his idea of truth in packaging.
Libraries truly are over. (Why they spend all this money on the Seattle one is a mystery. This would have bought a lot of public access for the digitally disadvantaged.) Once gateways to knowledge, the library is now an archeological remainder.
The librarian responds by protesting the institutions majesty. Koolhaas may be making a somewhat different point, that the institutions that sprang from paper-based knowledge are, and must be made to look, rather less intimidating in the coming era of ubiquitous and instantaneous digital access.
Goldberger, Paul. 2004. High-Tech Bibliophilia. The New Yorker. May 24, 2004, pp. 90-92.
Last note: this is the 200th entry of this blog. Trade your ticket stubs for the beverage on your choice (small) in the lobby!