A monument to the printed page: Seattle’s new public library

A dispatch from Sean Carman, intrepid cultural reporter for Maudnewton.com.

Seattle’s new downtown public library is amazing. If you visit, expect to find yourself in the condition I’m experiencing as I try to write this paragraph. I don’t know where to begin. I’m literally speechless. Here is what my heart wanted this first paragraph to say: “Goo, gaaah! Gah, gah, gah! Gaaaahhhh! Gah!”

From outside it looks a little like a jewel, but more like a sleek, distorted Rubik’s cube. Its odd angles and overhanging floors make you want to take it in your hand and reshape it. It’s a particularly inviting public monument.

A monument, in fact, is what this building is. And like all good monuments it is principally a dazzling metaphor. Those overhanging top floors offer pedestrians a reflective, bird’s-eye view of the adjacent traffic. Everything inside is open, transparent, and exposed, from the floor beams to the elevator workings. Of course the building isn’t standing there naked, with nothing to hide, it only looks that way. There’s something holding up those suspended floors, making effortless magic of everything. You just can’t see what it is.

The floors housing the books are slanted and linked at the ends, parking garage style, to create one long spiral. You can literally wind your way though the stacks. These floors are also linked at their midpoints, if darting through is more your thing. There are, at the end of each row of books, these ingenious and surprisingly handy Dewey-Decimal-range floor mats.

Not only is the library user-friendly, its open spaces and sight lines bestow upon the public library patron that all-important exalted feeling. It’s that same feeling you get gazing into the vaulted ceiling of a Gothic church, although I was reminded more of the exhilaration of visiting Fallingwater, the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Pennsylvania woods. The open cantilevered floor design gives the same relaxing, liberating sense to both places.

And don’t churches have that odd way of making you, the tourist, feel unwelcome past a point? You feel awed and then, later, a bit unworthy. In the Seattle Library, as at Fallingwater, you only want to stay.

More, in another dispatch perhaps, about the odd little things I don’t like about churches. Churches are great, don’t get me wrong. I’m just saying.

As for the feel of Seattle’s new library, it hums with activity and everyone seems happy to be there (not to belabor the point, but notice how the tourists in churches always seems so dour? Everyone looking down, grimly frowning, acting nervous. No good!).

On my visit this week the Seattle Public Library was swimming with elated tourists, smiling downtown office workers (it was that quiet, self-satisfied smile, that “Yes, I live in the city with the coolest library in America” smile), kids with stylish jeans wielding film cameras (film cameras are the new Ipods), and, yes, the occasional Public Library Patron Who May Not Have Showered. I’ve never felt so egalitarian as I did in that crowd.

Of course there are small, nagging questions the library forces us to ask — uncomfortable truths it forces us to admit. For me, the open spaces and their complete lack of privacy mean no possibility of reliving the clandestine assignations that made law school so memorable. But then that’s probably a good thing.

And, of course, no discussion of any monument would be complete without mention of the uncomfortable fact that, um, they only make monuments for things that have died. And, then, Rem Koolhaas’s design does feel a little cold.

But these are minor points. (The first was not even worth mentioning; it just seemed the perfect place for a cheap laugh.) What I’m saying is, the Seattle Public Library is a vibrant, happy place. You’ll want to stay longer, and come back soon. That a city built such a monument to the printed page will make you happy and give you hope.

If you visit Seattle you have to go. You absolutely, positively, must, must go.


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