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Nathan Bierma

Future Bound

The greatly exaggerated demise of an American institution

As you walk down Seattle's Fourth Avenue, the new Central Library jumps out at youliterally; its third-story jaw juts out over a ground-level plaza. Encamped amid nondescript beige and black boxy buildings, this gangly greenhouse, designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and opened last May, grabs the gaze of passersby from all of its many angles. On the outside, its polygonal form, cloaked in aqua glass, is arresting. Inside, the sights are just as striking: neon yellow escalators, video art installations behind glass, potted plants dotting spacious reading areas with foam chairs. When Seattle does see the sunshine, as it did on the summer day I visited, the building yanks in the surrounding rays and chases away all the dreariness usually associated with both the city of Seattle and the institution of the public library.

According to reviewsincluding Paul Goldberger's in The New Yorker, which called the building "the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating"Koolhaas designed the Central Library to be both more inviting and more logical than the usual library building.1 His unorthodox design achieves both goals. The soaring, see-through walls make the building enticing, in contrast with the stuffy, sarcophagal structures of the mid-20th century. Meanwhile, the floors that hold the library's collection are set on alternating inclines, each floor rising to meet the next, zig-zagging their way to the top and allowing the collection to continue unbroken from beginning to end. You can thus walk the length of the entire Dewey Decimal System without setting foot on a stair. (For the sake of your calves, start in the 900s with history and travel and work your way down to computers and reference in the 000s.) "It's a hard building to map," apologizes an attendant at the information desk.

The cynical take on Koolhaas' architectural feat is that it is a desperate attempt to sell the idea of books and reading to a hopelessly distracted culture. ...

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