Thursday, August 17, 2006

Visiting OMA's Seattle Public Library

Having just visited the OMA’s Seattle Public Library – Central Library with a friend, I had to laugh at Jonathan Adler’s quote in today’s NY Times.

“If you are dour and oblique, you are accorded tremendous respect because people are intimidated,”

OMA’s Seattle Public Library – Central Library is a building that intimidates. Does this explain the respect it’s been getting from the press?

I feel like a real wimp for complaining.

Here's an example of my lack of spine: It really bugs me that the entrance is hardly visible. It seems to me that it's condescending to the humanoids it is forced – under some painful version of architectural equal opportunity – to accommodate.

By confessing that I draw my response up out of my feelings rather than out of an intellectual theory I realize that my macho architectural reputation (“machoarchopersonae”?) is probably in tatters now.

But I have to be honest: the Seattle Public Library by OMA hurt my body and made me anxious.

I really like a lot of OMA’s work. There is a lot to learn from both the IIT Campus center and their Prada store.

But OMA’s building for the Seattle Public Library left me feeling like I had just given a pint of blood.

The building works the rational and visual angles of design pretty hard but other aspects of the user experience had to be ignored. How it might FEEL to look at the rough black fire coating on the undersides of the steel decking (it feels like being abraded), to look at the sharpness of the steel channels lain out in a diamond grid (like being poked or trapped in a tank) or to look at the plastic lounge seating adrift on the black floor (like a u-boat crew rafted together on top of the oil slick that was once their submarine) must not have been considered.

After 20 minutes during which I found the vertical circulation (escalators, elevators and stairs) shifting in position floor to floor and the organizational core of the building moving from one side at the bottom to the opposite side at its top, I was disoriented and then bored.
Since it was so hard to do anything and get around, I quickly got to the point where I wanted to get outside and explore the rest of the city.

The anarchy of organization within the library must present some real long term difficulties. As a result of the cool angularity of its interior - and because the library’s skin is both scale-less and held out at a distance - it is almost impossible to create a relationship with the library and then build a cognitive model for how information is organized within it. I know there is an organizational parti underlying the library but in actual use, the library defeats understanding. It is both hard to find information as well as assemble and relate the library’s collection to the architecture.

The Seattle Library’s ability to disorient is so complete -and it’s kinesthetic hostility so pervasive - that a friend of mine began having a panic attack there. No, really it’s possible. Trapped in the diamond cage with floors tipping and vistas terminating into scaleless canyons I became anxious myself.

This wasn’t the good kind of anxiousness that comes from having to confront yourself. This was the bad kind of anxiousness that comes when the most basic jobs of a building- helping people build a rudimentary sense of place or creating organizational clarity – is abandoned.

In the end my friend and I stumbled outside - glad to get out from under the steel matrix. It was good to be back out in the unfiltered air and sunlight; set free to explore the city.

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