The Space Needle and the main branch of the Seattle Public Library--on a recent visit to Seattle I found it hard not to view these two iconic structures as a pair of cultural bookends. The Space Needle, built in 1962 and still with it's original paint colors of Orbital Olive, Astronaut White, Re-entry Red and Galaxy Gold, was borne in a moment of profound cultural optimism when we looked toward a limitless future. I was child in the 1960's and I have had much of a lifetime to wonder what became of all that optimism. It's been a rough few decades, after all, and in so many ways the glorious things we thought would happen simply did not--or were not glorious when and if they did.
And yet standing in the Central Library last week, I did feel a kind of cultural joy. Though it was finished in 2004, it still feels very much of this moment. Its strengths feel like our strengths. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas in collaboration with the Seattle-based LMN Architects, the building's steel and glass exterior looks like a giant origami plaything.
The interior spaces are arranged to be both 'specific' and open, flowing from one to another but without ever creating that disorienting sense of 'what exactly is this space supposed to be'. This orderliness shapes not only the way the space is used but how it feels to use it. The day I was there, every floor was busy and yet none ever felt crowded, just communal, cheerfully communal, and very, very purposeful.
The building is a success in small as well as large things. There is terrific signage and terrific contemporary art--including the main floor installation by Ann Hamilton and Tony Oursler's video installation inset in an escalator wall. It's a building that is neither too conceptual to be used nor so practical as to be soul-killing. I have always thought that Beaux Art public buildings did this combination particularly well. One thinks of Grand Central Terminal, the Metropolitan Museum of Art or of countless post offices and courthouses. But these buildings are from an ever-increasingly distant then. After my tour last week of the Central Library, I am so happy to be able to say 'this is now'. It may not be a time of unbounded optimism--nor should it be. Reality has ended up being far more complex than the 1960's vision of what the future would be but this is a building that embodies that complexity and makes you glad you are alive to see it.
CLICK HERE for a link to the Seattle Public Library's site that gives information on options for touring the Central Library.
And on your next trip to Seattle you may want to mix passions--food and architecture--with a visit to Canlis. This restaurant is still considered one of Seattle's finest and while the menu may have been continuously updated since it opened in 1950, the building has been perfectly maintained as a modernist classic.