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Central Library, Seattle

Location: Central Library, The Seattle Public Library, Washington State, USA

Artists: Mandy Greer, Ann Hamilton, Gary Hill, Franklin Joyce, George Legrady, Helen Lessick, Tony Oursler, Larry Stein, Stokley Towles, Edie Whitsett, Jim Woodring, Lynne Yamamoto


The Seattle Public Library's former Central Library building was demolished in 2001, and replaced on the same sloping site in the city centre by a new 360,000 square foot construction designed by Rem Koolhaas's Rotterdam-based Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) in partnership with Seattle-based Loschky Marquardt & Nesholm Architects (LMN). The iconoclastic and audacious new library building opened to the public in May 2004.

The City's policies in support of public art were well established. In accordance with Seattle's percent for art policy a public art budget of $900,000 was allotted to the new Central Library, later to be complemented by a further $500,000 raised by the Seattle Public Library Foundation, and $100,000 for specific commissions from internal and external sources. The project was administered by the Seattle Arts Commission (restructured as the Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs in 2003), and managed by the Commission's Public Art Programme Director, Barbara Goldstein. Two independent consultants (Jessica Cusick and Rick Lowe) were appointed in 2000 to write a public art plan for the project. The resultant document proposed a four-stage integrated public art programme to be realised in overlapping phases:

  • A programme of temporary art works by Seattle-based artists to be presented during the construction of the new library building, to take place at the Central Library's temporary transitional premises, and at the new Central Library construction site.
  • Three 'permanent site-integrated' commissions for the interior of the new building, by artists with an international practice
  • A series of 'permanent' process-oriented commissions by national artists, related directly to the processes that take place daily within the library, to be introduced into the library gradually during its first year after opening.
  • The development of an ongoing programme of arts residencies and other events.


The new library is part of Seattle's 'Libraries for All' capital projects plan, approved by a public vote in 1998. Costing $280 million, this ambitious plan involves replacing or improving all of the city's 22 branch libraries, adding five new branch libraries, and building a new central library, to be constructed on its existing site, replacing a 1960 building that had itself replaced the original Carnegie library built in 1906.

In 1999 the Library Board received 29 tenders to design the new library, and daringly selected from a shortlist of three finalists the cutting edge Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas (whose Principal Designer is the Seattle native Joshua Ramus), to work in collaboration with Seattle-based LMN Architects.

One of the members of the Seattle Design Commission in 1999 exhorted the architects to view the library "as the last real public place that isn't trying to sell you something". The Library does in fact go defiantly against the current grain of privatisation of the public realm, and the architects have endeavoured to restore the library's original function - now diminished - of operating as a genuinely democratic public space. The new building is part of the City of Seattle's Sustainable Building Program, which embraces not only environmentally friendly materials and design but also the concept of 'social sustainability' for the library's staff and users. The artworks integrated into the building are considered to represent one aspect of this 'social sustainability'.

Whilst seeking to guarantee the place of the book within its design, the agenda adopted by the architects as a result of their preparatory research into 'the library of the future' was to challenge the library's classical paradigm of sober morality. Over the last twenty years public libraries have lost users to the private sector, and a prime mission of the project team was to 'steal back' the 'aura' of the library that has shifted to chain bookstores in recent years. (A survey revealed that the Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Seattle had forty times more users per square footage than the Central Library.)

The team established to lead the project stated their intention of involving the public and the library staff extensively in the design process, and the first public meeting was held in December 1999, attended by over 1,000 people. During his initial presentation Koolhaas commented that he was keen to integrate art into the project, and to test the boundaries of public art practice. Seattle Art Commission's Public Art Director Barbara Goldstein was involved from the outset. At the initial stage both the architects and the Arts Commission maintained a flexible attitude towards the various possible directions in which the incorporation of art within the building's design might go.

Independent Art Consultants

The project team decided to employ an independent consultant or consultants to write an arts plan for the new library. Seattle Arts Commission has a track record of hiring artists as consultants to create art plans for some of its larger public art projects, although this was the first time that non-artists had been hired in this role. It was hoped that the art planners would come up with ideas as striking and revolutionary as those of the architects.

It was proposed to have an art planner in place by the middle of the initial six-month architects' design phase of the project. An initial general call for tenders was followed up by a second, invitational call in order to attract the kinds of consultants the planning team wanted. A panel of public art experts and representatives of the architects, the library service, and the community evaluated 14 applications. Originally Nancy Spector, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, was appointed to undertake this task, but reluctantly withdrew due to unexpected new work responsibilities.

To replace her, Los Angeles-based independent public art consultant Jessica Cusick and artist/activist Rick Lowe from Houston were jointly selected in September 2000 as 'arts planners' for the new library. They were charged with writing a public art plan for the library, identifying locations and making recommendations for appropriate specific proposals for art works, that might include "architecturally integrated, portable and interactive art". The plan was intended to incorporate proposals for involving different artists during each of the various phases of the project, and to include selection methods, technical specifications and budgets. The plan would be reviewed and approved by the Library Board, and if approved would be incorporated within the project's architectural construction documents.

Upon accepting the job, Cusick said that she was anticipating "exploring new roles for artists in creating a gathering place - ways that address the library's many functions. The planning process offers a rare opportunity to re-think public art". To achieve this, as directed by the project team, Cusick and Lowe consulted with what they called "a diverse coalition" including the architects, the Library Board, community advisory groups, and the staff of the library and Arts Commission, and participated in public presentations and workshops.

Their consequent 'public art plan', arriving at the four-stage process for commissioning and realising artworks for the new library outlined above, was formally adopted by the Library Board in December 2001.

Temporary Commissions: The Peephole Series

In June 2001 the existing library closed (a number of works of art that were fixtures in the now demolished 1960 Seattle Central Library have been saved and re-sited), and a month later the Temporary Central Library opened. During 2003, whilst the new library building was under construction, Seattle Public Library and Office of Arts and Cultural Affairs sponsored The Peephole Series, a series of temporary 'library-related' art projects commissioned as metaphorical viewing points through a construction fence, generating and maintaining interest in the new library. These commissions were sited in the Temporary Library, at the construction site, on-line and on radio. The project comprised works of a very disparate nature by six artists from Seattle's comparatively large community of professional artists, selected through open competition - a series of bookmarks by Helen Lessick, toy theatres by Edie Whitsett, a sound installation by Franklin Joyce, lunchtime talks by Stokley Towles, an audio documentary by Larry Stein, and animated films by Jim Woodring.

Site-Integrated Commissions

At their first meeting with the architects' team in Rotterdam, Cusick and Lowe were provided with a list of locations within the new library that it was felt would most benefit from the involvement of a fine artist during the final design stage. The library staff also felt that artists should be involved at a stage early enough to facilitate the potential structural impact of the commissions (e.g. structural supports, wiring, lighting) within the overall construction schedule of the building. Between $450,000-$600,000 was allotted from the public art budget for site-integrated commissions, and Cusick and Lowe recommended (in collaboration with the library staff) the selection of three or four artists to develop commission proposals. By this time the design of the building was already at an advanced stage (the design was completed in March 2001), and the artists were selected nationally through a call by invitation that was carried out on what the arts planners described as "an extremely aggressive schedule".

Four USA-based artists with considerable international reputations - Ann Hamilton, Gary Hill, Tony Ousler, and Gabriel Orozco - were selected to develop proposals. Orozco eventually withdrew from the project. A wooden floor installation by Ann Hamilton, digital projection by Gary Hill, and video installation by Tony Oursler were in situ when the library opened in 2004.

Process-based Commissions: The Library Unbound

In March 2003 a national open call to artists was disseminated for a series of process-based works (at least one of which would be by an artist based in the Seattle region) under the umbrella title The Library Unbound, to develop projects that address social groups and systems, and how these themes are reflected in the functions and usage of the library. The proposed "process works" were intended to "complement and build upon" the site-integrated commissions, and consequently were not selected until the proposals from Hamilton, Hill and Oursler had already been reviewed and approved by the Library Board.

Three Library Unbound commissions are currently at varying stages of development or completion, by textile artist Mandy Greer, digital artist George Legrady, and installation artist Lynne Yamamoto.

New Media Commissions

Seattle's new Central Library serves multiple functions as a repository of information, cultural centre, social meeting place, and even tourist attraction. Moreover, its interior spaces have been designed with an in-built flexibility in order to be able to accommodate unpredictable future developments in dominant information technologies. Reflecting the mutable qualities that are thus inherent in the building, the new media-based public art commissions incorporated within it have equally been designated as having a finite life-span.

The media-based art commissions in the library (for example, those by Gary Hill and Tony Oursler) are considered to have an effective 'life' of 10-15 years. The artists' contracts specify that the status of the work will be reviewed after 10 years, a condition which the artists concerned have been happy to accept.

Architecture as Art

The new library finally opened a year behind schedule on 23 May 2004. Rem Koolhaas's mould-breaking design has provoked a predictably mixed but predominantly positive response. It has been lauded by critics in the architectural press, but it has also found favour and popularity with public users and library staff.

This building confirms Rem Koolhaas's status as an international 'star-chitect' with intellectual charisma, alongside the likes of Frank Gehry and Daniel Libeskind. With its tilted and folded planes and bright candy coloured features, the interior of Koolhaas's library is as far as you can get from the concept of a new public building that provides a neutral context for the placing of new art commissions, like exhibits in a gallery. Koolhaas's library is the work of art. "If Picasso ever painted a library," said Time magazine, "it might look like this". The Seattle Times art critic remarked "that the building itself is so captivating it's impossible to separate the architecture from the art", while another Seattle art critic stated unequivocally that "This art itself".

The interior design is upfront and unavoidable. Two enormous carpets by the Dutch designer Petra Blaisse, imprinted with vivid photographic images of flowers and plants and inlaid into wooden floors are an outcome of the conventional architect/designer relationship. The borderline between the role and method of origination of these objects and that of the juried commissions by fine artists is perhaps blurred, though this is not an issue that has surfaced.

Public Art Director Barbara Goldstein felt that the library building had "its own aesthetics", and that aestheticising it further was not the answer, but that "creating art that engaged people in the library's function" was the way to go. Likewise Cusick and Lowe, as stated in their Public Art Plan, "chose to honour the design team's vision, and the strength and intricacy of the building's architecture, by selecting artists capable of engaging with the site and the public without attempting to aestheticise a remarkable building."

But however strong the architect's voice may be, the Library's voice was equally clear and well heard throughout the process. The project team was careful not to encourage the artworks to respond only to the architecture, but also to the essential functions and qualities of the library collection and the processes entailed in using it. "The building stood on its own merit," says Lisa Richmond, "and didn't need additional interpretation or enhancement from the artwork, which freed the art programme to work more fundamentally with ideas central to the library."

© Copyright David Briers 2005