I recently visited two civic buildings in Seattle that are now almost a decade old: Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA, and City Hall, designed by Peter Q. Bohlin of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson. Why bother to write about these buildings now? When the library opened in 2004, The New York Times critic Herbert Muschamp called it “the most exciting building it has been my honor to review.” City Hall, just a few blocks away, earned no such acclaim when it opened the following year, and to this day it remains a well-kept secret.
Has the library lived up to its initial fanfare? And has a very good building in City Hall been overshadowed by its more celebrated neighbor? I came to find answers to those questions, believing that it’s best to judge buildings in the fullness of time, when the rough edges have been worn smooth and it’s possible to assess the durability—aesthetic as well as physical—of the design.
This flies in the face of our current obsession with the new-new thing. The mere announcement of a competition short list is “news.” Buildings are given the thumbs-up—or down—on opening day, prior to being put into use. Projects are rated “green” irrespective of actual performance. And design awards are bestowed on buildings even before they are built. Pause to consider how unusual that is—as if Oscars were awarded for unfilmed screenplays, or the Pulitzers included a category called Best Book Proposal.
The architects for the library and City Hall were both selected in the summer of 1999. Library administrators narrowed a field of 29 contestants to five—a balanced mix of two big names, two tyros, and an established regional firm. The process got off to a rocky start when the big names—Norman Foster and Cesar Pelli—dissatisfied with the selection process, withdrew and, following a lackluster presentation, Portland-based Zimmer Gunsul Frasca was eliminated.
That left the tyros. Both in their 50s, neither Steven Holl nor Rem Koolhaas had a large portfolio of built work, although both were favorites of what a Seattle journalist called “the black-turtleneck crowd.” Following three days of well-attended public presentations, Koolhaas got the nod. The iconoclastic Dutchman did not disappoint, producing a design consisting of superimposed platforms in a huge prism-shaped greenhouse. The unusual “uniting of hip with pragmatic” as Architectural Record put it, was an immediate sensation.
The city hall project was overshadowed from the start. Public wrangling between Mayor Paul Schell and some members of the city council delayed the architect selection process, and when the short list was announced, it seemed an anti-climax after the exciting head-to-head competition between Holl and Koolhaas. The closest on the list to a firebrand was Antoine Predock, an architectural maverick with a flamboyant style that was popular in the Southwest, although it seemed an odd fit for Seattle. John and Patricia Patkau were less well-known, but, being based in nearby Vancouver, British Columbia, were almost local.
The sleeper was Peter Bohlin. A seasoned practitioner like Predock, he was best-known for exquisitely detailed houses, including a sprawling estate for Bill Gates on Lake Washington. The Seattle Times, which had called Koolhaas and Holl “sexy, jet-setting, international designers about whom civic boosters dream and major magazines write,” referred to Bohlin’s public presentation as “subdued”—which is also a pretty good description of his architecture.
The wrangling between the mayor and the council continued even after Bohlin was selected, which cast a pall over the project. Whereas the opening of the library was extensively covered by the world’s media, led by Muschamp’s rave review, City Hall was ignored. My search of the Avery Index did not turn up a single review of City Hall by the major architectural press, only a brief news clip in Architectural Record that referred to the proposed design as “transparent and pragmatic,” which seems a step down from “hip and pragmatic.”
That wasn’t how the mayor saw it; Bohlin’s unaffected approach is exactly what attracted him. Schell, who had served as dean of the University of Washington’s College of Architecture and Urban Planning, followed architecture and was familiar with Bohlin’s work. “I knew the Gates house as well as a recent building at the University of Washington, so I had a good feel for what Bohlin would bring to the table,” he told me. “You really want someone who is a little old shoe, and will last on the shelf.”
So, how has the old shoe worn? The quartzite floors, limestone and titanium walls, fir and maple paneling, glass railings, and stainless steel everything else look much as they must have on opening day eight years ago, as I discovered on my recent tour of the building. The “stream” that crosses the city hall lobby, and cascades beside a grand exterior stair to the lowest part of the steeply sloping site 40 feet below, fills the interior with a pleasant gurgling sound. The sky-lit lobby has been described as a public agora, and I watched people wandering in and out of it at will. No one was opening bags or asking for IDs. Elevator access is unrestricted. City Hall was designed in the immediate aftermath of the 1999 WTO protests, the so-called Battle of Seattle, as well as 9/11. What must have been a difficult decision—to create a transparent, welcoming building rather than a bunker—is now fully vindicated.
Bohlin’s design exhibits an old-fashioned sort of Modernism, in which the plan explains itself as you move through it—the council chamber here, the offices over there. The structure is comprehensible, and care is lavished on construction. Bohlin belongs to the details-should-show-how-things-are-made school, but unlike Renzo Piano, he is a bit of a mannerist; planes slide by other planes, materials are layered upon each other, and odd junctions abound. This casual approach has been compared to that of Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz, early Swedish modernists whom Bohlin admires, and it serves to humanize the architecture.
Good buildings don’t just fulfill existing functions, they suggest new ones. A large room designed for overflow crowds during council meetings has turned into a well-used public meeting space. The large plazas that step down the hill on the west side of the building, designed by landscape architect Kathryn Gustafson, have become a favored locale with free lunchtime concerts and a weekly farmers market in the summer. At the recent historic same-sex marriage ceremony performed in City Hall, the couples descended the grand exterior stair amid cheers, flowers, and confetti. One area that has yet to find a use is an empty “multipurpose space” at the base of the building. A long ruby-red glass wall that casts an eerie glow and creates a spooky atmosphere on the interior, and on the exterior, struck me as a feeble effort to inject glam into the design.
I asked my city hall guide why he thought the building had received so little attention in the media. “When City Hall opened, the emphasis was put on its green features,” he said, “which is not very sexy.” The building, which received a LEED Gold rating, claims a 24 percent reduction in energy use; although a projected solar array was never installed, there is a large green roof as well as a monster water tank in the basement. It’s true that reduction in stormwater runoff doesn’t stir the imagination, but I think it’s more than that. This low-key building, adjusted to its site and its surroundings, paying deference to the 2002 Justice Center across the street (designed by NBBJ), carefully stepping down the hill, and taking advantage of views of Elliott Bay, is the opposite of an icon. City Hall blends with its setting and does not photograph well, and I suspect that its subtle charms are appreciated only gradually, over time. This is slow architecture.
No one has ever described Rem Koolhaas as slow. The Seattle Central Library perches uncomfortably on its sloping site—no places for outdoor lunches here—although I suspect the awkwardness was intended. It’s that sort of building: startling, in-your-face, challenging conventions, a prickly presence amid the downtown skyscrapers (and very photogenic). The library looks like a giant piece of urban infrastructure, an impression heightened at night, when the crisscrossing trusses of the bridgelike structure are apparent inside the faceted, glowing lantern.
Although the glass skin appeared grimy the day I visited, on the whole the library doesn’t show its age—but for different reasons than City Hall. Koolhaas and Prince-Ramus had a smaller construction budget (less than $300 per square foot, compared to $363 per square foot for City Hall), and they opted to spend it on structure and space, rather than on materials and detailing. The interior finishes are downright cheap: sheetrock; bare concrete; exposed, sprayed fireproofing; and an acoustic ceiling that looks like it’s made from old sleeping bags. As for elegant details, well, there aren’t any. This is a building where the reading room and the service basement are equally bare-bones.
This very roughness works to the building’s advantage, however. Like all big-city libraries, and perhaps more than most, the Seattle library is a hangout for the homeless and young downtowners—given Seattle’s grungy dress code, it can be hard to tell them apart. Yet, everyone looks at home—the tough, no-frills interior neither patronizes nor intimidates.
Last year, the library had 2 million visitors, which is remarkable for a city the size of Seattle (the mighty New York Public Library had 2.3 million). The wear doesn’t show—there’s not much that you can do to a polished concrete floor, nylon carpeting, and galvanized-metal balustrades that resemble floor grates. The unusual, stainless steel floor tiles in the reading room are scratched up, but that only enhances their industrial chic, although I thought that the sulfurous chartreuse escalators and elevators were starting to show their age. One feature that has fallen victim to intensive use is the trendy upholstered foam furniture that I remember from a previous visit; it has been replaced by PVC seating that resembles Adirondack chairs. As I sat making notes, it struck me that while the vertiginous, Escher-like interior was as stimulating as ever, it could also be overwhelming, which was not particularly conducive to concentration. A little calm would not have been out of place.
The ramped, spiraling bookstacks were widely heralded when the building opened, although none of the librarians I spoke to could think of a single library that has recently adopted this unusual feature, which now seems more like a gimmick than a real innovation. But there is no doubt that the striking, faceted glass building is a hit with the public. And not just library-goers; a quarter of the visitors are tourists, for the library has joined Pike Place Market and the Space Needle as one of Seattle’s must-see sights. Although the librarians who showed me around boasted of their building’s popularity, it’s unclear that the experience of using a public library is actually enhanced when it doubles as a tourist attraction.
What difference does a decade make? Both buildings can now be appreciated in the fuller context of their architects’ subsequent work. Koolhaas’s hard-nosed interior takes its place with the Porto concert hall and Milstein Hall at Cornell, and his pursuit of eye-catching building forms has continued with the CCTV headquarters in Beijing. Bohlin’s self-styled “soft Modernism” has found further expression in several campus buildings, a federal courthouse, and a studio for Pixar, although he has also produced unexpectedly iconic designs for Apple stores in New York and Shanghai.
In many ways, the library and City Hall represent two different faces of Modernism. Koolhaas’s design is a freely structured, contemporary version of a civic monument, a modern counterpart to Carrère & Hastings’s New York Public Library. Much like that landmark, the Seattle library is a building of its time—although of a different time. It’s rough and chic, glamorously gritty, and fashionably unconcerned with hierarchies and traditional architectural virtues.
Bohlin’s City Hall is different; it doesn’t put on airs. After spending a day in the building my chief impression was of craftsmanship, unruffled calm, and an even-handed sense of balance—a veritable civics lesson in glass, maple, and natural light. In a culture that is intrigued by novelty and glamour, it is perhaps inevitable that chic would trump craft. But given several more decades, I’m not so sure. I wouldn’t discount the staying power of well-made old shoes.