Friday, October 7, 2011

Modern Architecture

Number five on Vanity Fair's Modern Marvel's list is actually #3 on my list of visited marvels. And even better, it is located in my current hometown, which means I can go back as often as I'd like.
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The Seattle Public Library's downtown branch is a spectacular building by Rem Koolhaas. But, just because I think it is spectacular, doesn't mean I love everything about it.

I'm not the biggest Rem fan. Having studied abroad in the Netherlands and received my degree from Illinois Tech, I've probably come in contact with more OMA buildings than the average american architect. And like most architects of his caliber, Rem has a few things that he does over and over to varying degrees of success.
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My biggest problem with OMA's projects is their longevity. In my humble opinion, Rem tends to select materials that will shock you, without caring about what will happen years down the road. He is trying to illicit a reaction from you, and he is generally successful. But buildings are still meant to be used and occupied, once we've had an initial reaction to his interiors, they seem to lose their inventiveness. And even worse, they lose their usefulness, as wear and tear seems to affect his projects more harshly than others. You could argue (and I've heard this from people on his staff) that when the project runs over budget, value engineering is done at the end, usually affecting the interiors. So really, it isn't Rem's fault that the materials are falling apart. I would personally completely disagree. Imagine if I told my clients that it wasn't my fault that I picked an unsuitable material that needed to be replaced in only a few years. Part of my responsibility as an architect is to think holistically about the building beyond the ribbon cutting ceremony.
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My other beef with OMA is that all of their buildings tend to take form by way of an extruded diagram. Sometimes this is very successful, and other times it is a useless concept (IIT's student center comes to mind). The library is one example of forcing a concept - the extruded circular path which determines most of the plan, sections, and overall form is incredibly difficult to use and frustrating for library patrons. This in not a library one visits to borrow books. You can go and use the computers, hang out in the lounge, walk around... but the actual process of finding and borrowing books is immensely frustrating. As a community center and gathering space, the library is very successful, but as an actual library - not so much.
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But, even with these complaints... I think the library is a fantastic structure. It hasn't quite had a "Bilbao Effect" on the city of Seattle, but it still brings visitors. And it has brought a kind of innovation and modernity not generally found in the staid architectural community of the Pacific NW. That is my favorite thing... it helps the region think beyond the timber construction with exposed steel brackets that is so often regurgitated. There are so many things we can do today structurally, and this structure is really a fantastic example... in fact, the best part about walking around looking for a book is that you get to look at the structure from all different angles as well. It really is a special place. And if we think of a library as a place to gain knowledge, then the Seattle Public Library is definitely doing its job. You're just not going to find that knowledge in a book.

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