Sunday, March 02, 2008

Modern Libraries Considered

Witold Rybczynski is one of my favorite writers about current trends in architecture and city life. While he is an architect by training and temperament, he’s also an astute commentator of how we live in a post-industrial digitized society. He contributes frequently to Slate magazine, and earlier this week, Slate posted a slide show and commentary from Rybczynski on the state of urban public libraries. The title of the piece, “How Do Your Build a Public Library in the Age of Google,” is intriguing but left questions frustratingly unanswered to any real degree. His thesis appears to be that public libraries are among the last bastions of downtown revitalization, perhaps endangered, and starting to move away from the printed media and into computers, the Internet, and as the location for downtown hangouts; hardly a “stop the presses” type of newsflash, but it does allow us to view a slide show of some cool architecture.

As it happens, I’ve been to two of the libraries featured -- Chicago and Seattle. I visited the Harold T. Washington Library in downtown Chicago several years ago. The exterior is every bit as bold as Rybczynski’s photo demonstrates: a lot of rooftop ornamentation and nearly pink in color. It clearly makes you think of the building as a modern-day temple of learning. I have no active memory of its interior, which makes me think it must be pretty standard issue. In any other city, the Washington Library could be the postcard image. In Chicago, with its world-class collection of architecture, it’s pretty much an also-ran. Look it up if you’re in the neighborhood, but hardly worth an excursion out of one’s way.

The organizers of 2007’s Left Coast Crime were thoughtful to book the convention at a hotel just two blocks from Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus’ enormous library in downtown Seattle. This building was all the rage when it first opened in 2004, getting buckets of ink in architectural trade journals and in the mainstream media (it’s always looked to me like a symbolic “to be read” pile of books, not cleanly stacked, but still managing to stay vertical). And, it’s clearly become a tourist attraction for archigeeks like me, as I took the 45-minute guided tour with several out-of-towners.

My first thought upon walking into the street-level “Living Room” space was “thank God this wasn’t built in a warmer climate.” The thousands of windows that form a greenhouse-type environment would surely sautee’ patrons in a city like Phoenix or Orlando. As it happens, it’s a nice inviting space full of light (when the Seattle weather deems fit to bestow some sunshine), but it left me a little, well, cool. With all of the activity both inside the front revolving doors and the street scenes, I don’t feel like I could read anything requiring any degree of concentration. One gets the idea of sitting inside a department store window.

For all of the hype regarding the design and distinctive features like the bright yellow escalator well and the 4th floor blood red hallways, the Seattle Library struck me as an act of architectural hubris that failed to consider that libraries need to be user-friendly and easy to navigate. It’s really easy to get hopelessly turned around in there.

The Seattle Library contains all the bells and whistles necessary in a large civic book repository these days: the state-of-the-art book retrieval and return system (much of which is on view), an auditorium, a separate ground floor section for “popular” books that are in frequent demand that you can grab and run without having to wander into the upper floors, and music rehearsal rooms (music rehearsal rooms in a library?). But it’s intimidating and I felt I was being processed instead of being welcomed.

Of course, if you want to talk about libraries as tourist attractions, there’s no better example than the Reading Room, now in the center of a glorious refurbishment of the British Museum, where the British Library once resided. Architect Norman Foster has created a magnificent piazza inside this old war horse of a building, and the Reading Room positively gleams. It’s not difficult to imagine Karl Marx skulking in his carel scribbling away at what would become Das Kapital, or Charles Dickens, George Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf, or any of the other British literary luminaries stopping in while walking the streets of Bloomsbury. The Reading Room continues to be used for exhibits and special presentations, but the rest of the British Library moved in 1997 to its current location near King’s Cross.

Both Rybczynski’s Slate essay and the slide show that accompanies it are here.



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