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By the books: Seattle Central Public Library

Seattle's central library is a world-famous mix of daring architecture and the city's creative voice. What can Halifax learn from their success?


If Halifax Public Libraries CEO Judith Hare had hired Rem Koolhaas to do our library, the diamonds up the arses of people like Herald editors, Peter Kelly and Darrell Dexter would have suddenly gotten much harder.

At least, that's what happened to many folks in Seattle when Koolhaas' name appeared on the design list for their new central library in 1999.

"Koolhaas was the lightning rod for people's dislike of fame," Matthew Stadler remembers. He's a writer who sat on the panel of 14 who chose Koolhaas' Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture to construct the now widely acclaimed central library. Koolhaas is the kind of high-flying Euro architect who drops conceptual art bombs in public. He'd probably tell Haligonians its library must "aggressively orchestrate the coexistence of all available technologies," or something.

But for those wary of using a big-name architect, Stadler has this advice: "It's important not to be blinded by fame: either seeking it, or repudiating it."

Great libraries can come from famous architects, but you must learn to work with them, not for them. "Avoid the dazzle of genius," Stadler advises. "Push that all aside and get a committee to activate the community and the nascent intelligence of that community."

What the Seattle selection board looked for, Stadler says, was "the ability of an architect to activate a broader social process."

Koolhaas could do that. His ability to "orchestrate the theatrical"---to instigate public dialogue with dramatic ideas---was what Stadler believes opened Seattle's eyes to their own creative potential as a city.

"This opportunity is often missed because people don't want to force the city to engage in the design process," Stadler says. Cities often let it all fall to the "genius architect" to run the show and end up with an off-the-shelf product.

Not Seattle. Stadler gives head librarian Deborah Jacobs credit for staying "aggressively" in the driver's seat. "She was an informed advocate. Without Deborah opening their eyes, it wouldn't have gone forward."

In the end, together, Stadler believes the OMA and Jacobs midwived the birth of a daring public space to a dying downtown that previously had none. By deeply engaging with the public and with library staff, Koolhaas won over Seattle.

Was the creativity contagious? Today, the city is no more prettier, Stadler says ruefully. Developers are "still on course to despoil every inch of it," but at the very least Seattle walked away from the process with greater confidence of what it can build, if it's bold enough to do move forward.

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