Reading Rem: An Exclusive Q&A with Koolhaas
In May, two days before the Seattle Central Library’s official opening, the building’s architect, Rem Koolhaas, discussed the structure with Metropolis contributing editor Christopher Hawthorne. The interview took place in a staff conference room on the library’s 11th floor; the room’s floor-to-ceiling interior windows offered an exceptionally good view of the building’s dramatic, open central core, and, through windows on the far side of the library, of the skyscrapers that surround the building on all sides. What follows is an edited version of their conversation.
Hawthorne: This is a piece for MetropolisMag.com that will probably run as a Q&A.
Koolhaas: Why? I mean, [Q&A’s] are such an insane form. The building exists now; nobody needs my comments. I really find it an obnoxious idea.
I think the problem with Q&As is that they’re not well-edited. I would say that actually, if they’re done right, they can be quite entertaining.
Of course. But recently, you know, reporters have been asking, ‘Do you agree that this is blue?’ And then you say, ‘Yes, it’s blue.’ ‘Do you agree that this is great?’ ‘Yes, it’s great.’ But, I’m sure you’re smarter than that. I’m not trying to insult you.
Thanks. Let’s start by talking about the city of Seattle and its role as the site for this unusually high-profile kind of library. On the one hand, Seattle has been connected in the public imagination with being on the forefront of the digital revolution and thus, perhaps, helping along the obsolescence of the book. But it’s traditionally also been a place that’s always had really high per capita levels of reading and book buying.
Yes. That really makes the city very sympathetic for me—and also, in America, quite an exceptional place. You know, we met quite a few members of the whole “digital aristocracy” here. They all are unbelievably interested in experimenting, in change, but at the same time they’re really quite traditional.
In what way?
This is a city that’s dominated by a number of people who have been radically inventive in their professional lives but, at the same time, radically normal in their private lives, in how and where they live, the houses they buy, the way they dress. And I can understand it, I suppose—maybe you invent better if you live in a degree of conflict.
Seattle is also a place that has had some buildings by very prominent architects that haven’t been their finest work. Gehry’s Experience Music Project (EMP), for example. Do you think that people in Seattle were skeptical of your project coming in because of that?
There was huge skepticism in that sense. Huge.
What about some of the not-so-new buildings here? I’m interested in some of the connections with Yamasaki’s Rainier Tower down the street. [Minoru Yamasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center towers, designed the Tower so it balanced on an 11-story pedestal. The project was finished in 1977.] It has that unusual cantilever and seems to share a spirit with the library.
The Yamasaki tower is an unbelievable building. I used to love it when I first started coming here, long before we had this commission.
The design for the library grapples with what your partner Joshua Ramus calls a paradigm shift of how libraries work. Can you talk a bit about that?
Well, at the beginning of the project, in 1999, there was lots of debate going about the future of the book and therefore the relevance of libraries. And I think there are two things to say about that. One is that the book, despite the arguments about its future, has shown, if anything, a great tendency to survive. Also, the Internet is evolving as a kind of weird amalgamation of really useful tools along with a lot of junk. So maybe libraries can be centers of guidance to help with that sort of navigation.
In other words, librarians will become, in a sense, curators of information.
And what about those reports of the death of the book? Greatly exaggerated?
Yes, exactly. But you know, I haven’t heard any reports of their death recently. I think that was an issue really in the late 1990s, and we’ve moved past that.
Roughly what percentage of people who come to this library will be coming in search of a book or printed matter, as opposed to digital material?
I have no idea. And even if people come for online information, the books are still important. In my own case, for example, there are books that I own that somehow even without reading them they mean something to me. So I think people have a relationship with books in a library whether you’ve come specifically to read them or not.
Libraries are arguably a last bastion for public space in American culture. Would you agree? Is your design for the library is any sense an affirmation or an exploration of that?
Well, I think that’s very true—and in that sense I’m particularly happy with this project. It’s kind of really a very interesting and sobering assertion of what public space can offer at the time when public space is disappearing from view. And that’s true not only in America, but also in Europe. Initiatives for the public are shrinking to the point of insignificance, with the private becoming totally dominant. In Content [Koolhaas’s latest book] I’m arguing that that has had a very drastic effect both on architecture and on architects. On architecture because it creates an ever more exciting and excitement-driven architecture, and for the architects because we can no longer plan as we did before to represent the public and therefore the collective interest. And we all feel diminished by that. And so in that sense it’s been really interesting that in spite of how modern this design may be, it’s also a very old fashioned statement of what the public has to offer.
How do you mean?
I’m sure that not there is a single private client would have supported the same choices as Deborah Jacobs and the city did in this case. For instance, the sheer scale of the reading room and of the living room would both be really unthinkable with a private client.
I remember coming to the old library, on this same site, in the early nineties. Like a lot of libraries, it had become a refuge for homeless people, people who didn’t have anywhere else to go in the public sphere. Do you think those people going to continue to come here and feel comfortable here? Do you anticipate any awkward meetings between the people who had the run of the old place and the people who’ve been going to Barnes & Noble but will now come back because there’s a cool new piece of architecture on the site?
I think the design is conceptualized, so that anyone can come here and so that browsing is encouraged. We tried deliberately not making it too precious, for example.
Fairly or unfairly, the perception about your work has been that at least up until the IIT building opened last fall in Chicago, it has been tough for you to keep commissions going in the United States. First, I want to ask you if you think that’s a fair perception.
There are a number of things to be made crystal clear. Basically in America, the only reason, in my opinion, that certain commissions evaporated was 9/11. But what’s really, really awful in America is that you have clients who think it is important, once a commission is over, to create spin and these different explanations. So for instance someone like Ian Schrager [who worked with Koolhaas on a failed hotel project for Astor Place in New York] finds it necessary to cast aspersions about my character. Or the Whitney Museum [for which Koolhaas designed an extension, a task that was later handed over to the Renzo Piano Building Workshop] suddenly claims that we didn’t do a second version of our design, even though we did—and even presented it to the city. So, I’m not going to dignify it much more, but I consider the kinds of buildings we’re doing here and Dallas [where OMA is working on a new performing arts center] will represent our level of engagement with America, our interest in America, and our ability to function in the American system.
Given all of that, is the really positive reception that the library has received building been a kind of vindication for you?
No, not a vindication, but I’m certainly happy that it happened at this moment.
Did you have a sense even before the library opened, as I think a lot of critics and others did, that it would be kind of a breakthrough for you in this country, even more than IIT?
Yeah, I did sense that.
How long do you hope this building will last?
First of all, that’s not really a question that any architect I know ever focuses on. So that’s really not a question I’m concerned with.
Do you carry books with you when you travel?
I’m always reading.
What are you reading now?
Right now? Let’s see. Lucien Leuwen, by Stendhal.