Ship Shape

By now it seems that nearly everyone on Earth has heard of the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle Central Library building, which has been a success both with architectural critics and library patrons. Less publicized, but no less remarkable, is the Seattle library system’s commitment to excellent creative design in its branch libraries, 25 of which have been remodeled, rebuilt, or built anew as part of the same 1998 “Libraries for All” bond measure. Particularly noteworthy is the $10.9 million Ballard branch library, which opened last May.

In appearance it is both spectacularly modern and an inspired nod to the Ballard community’s rich maritime tradition. Moreover, it is a “green” building, showcasing state-of-the-art recycling, energy efficiency, and water conservation. It is also noticeably a monument to Seattle’s tortured relationship with sunlight. In that first connection, says lead architect Peter Bohlin, of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, “We wanted a building very much related to the notion of what Ballard is, the spirit of the place—and the potential spirit.”

Ballard is a willfully eccentric section of Seattle that prides itself on its Scandinavian heritage and seafaring tradition. Although the community is rapidly modernizing and gentrifying, newcomers and old-timers alike are determined to keep that identity alive. The new library’s modern design was undertaken with strenuously proffered advice from Ballard residents—community members participated in two years of planning in advance of construction—and it has a clearly nautical look. This is most noticeable in the dramatic sweep of the roof, accentuated by laminated wood beams that reach well beyond the library walls, and the wood purlins that extend beyond the roof perimeter, serving to break up and soften the light that filters down through the north-facing windows. Both inside and outside the structure, white metal columns, tapered and mounted at each end on huge hinges, look like masts. (They also give you the odd sense, when you are standing in the library, that the building is folded up at night and put away.) And some of the few sections of wall inside the library that have straight lines are painted red, green, blue, and yellow—echoing the colors of the shipping containers you see in the waters off Seattle’s shores.

The community reaction, almost unanimously enthusiastic, is typified by Ballard resident and self-described “Ballard booster” Marnie McGrath: “I’m very pleased with the new library. The interior space is bright, inviting, and functional. And I like the way the exterior form refers to the maritime history of Ballard without being too cute.”

Ballard’s is arguably the most spectacular of the Seattle branch libraries. It is also the most heavily used. “We were fortunate,” manager Sibyl de Haan says, “that it was necessary for us to relocate.” Building from scratch allowed the Ballard team to “make it work as a good library, adaptable to ever-changing technology” and “give the community a civic presence—a landmark.” The result is a branch that can hold 66,700 books and materials, and that has three self-checkout stations, 38 computers (the previous Ballard branch had only 13), underground parking, a meeting room, a quiet room, and three study rooms. Outside under the library’s grand roof is a “24-hour public space,” as senior associate Robert Miller describes it, which is a popular congregation point for Ballard residents.

Bohlin and his team are proudest of the building’s ultimate Northwest accent—green, as in environmental awareness. When you walk through the softly gleaming entry into the library, you can’t help but notice the group of kids to your right, their faces pressed against a wood wall. It takes a second or two to see the two thin bands of glass that they are peering through. The slits afford them a periscope view of the library’s green roof, on which a four-inch-thick layer of sod is planted with 18,000 plants, mainly grasses and sedums. Swift & Company Landscape Architects planted 14 different plant species, which have been supplemented by a few stray sprouts whose seeds were bird-delivered. The green roof—a type much more widely deployed in Europe than here—provides insulation and absorbs rainwater that otherwise would run off into storm drains.

I first met Bohlin, along with local architect James Cutler, some 15 years ago when I attended a meeting between Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates and the two architects, who had teamed up to build his dream home. Bohlin and Cutler had what at the time were some odd ideas: they talked Gates into installing a 100,000-gallon cistern under the home’s parking garage to collect water for reuse, buying and dismantling lumber mills in southwestern Washington to use the remilled wood for his buildings, and creating a wetland on the property’s lakeshore. Gates told me later that they had also insisted on rerouting the road to the house to avoid cutting down a few cottonwood trees worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But he was impressed with the architects’ attention to the bottom line when selling him on environmentalism. “This deal with the lumber mills—recycling that wood—it actually works out to be about the same cost as using new wood,” Gates says.

Bohlin’s preoccupation with sustainability, which in the intervening years has gained considerable mainstream acceptance, was a critical factor in his being tabbed as the Ballard branch architect. “Sustainability is the right thing to do,” he says. “It goes back to when Jimmy Carter was president—you could see then that sustainability could make for much more powerful buildings. Now our culture has become more concerned about that, and you don’t have to make as strong a pitch for it as you used to have to do.”

Leading me on a tour of the library, Bohlin calls attention to feature after feature with the air of someone who is getting away with beneficent mischief. He is particularly proud of the patent-pending tables his firm designed. The smallest version is cut out of a single sheet of plywood, the pieces fitting together in a way that requires no glue, nails, screws, or fasteners of any kind. It is a clever puzzle-like solution that wastes barely a scrap of wood. “That design was good sustainable strategy,” associate David Cinamon says. “And part of the fun was seeing how you can maximize a sheet of plywood.”

The library—no less proudly than Bohlin—calls attention to its “smorgasbord of inventive environmental features” on its Web site and in printed material displayed in the lobby. On the roof, there are 17 solar panels and anemometers that measure wind speed. Along with the photovoltaic film on the south-facing windows, the panels generate electricity. (The Seattle City Light Green Power program is tracking the devices’ energy production in an effort to assess just how much electricity can be generated that way.) The building is full of recycled material: carpet, glass, ceramic, structural steel, concrete forms, gypsum board, plastic wheel stops, and ceiling tiles. And the structure is designed to draw as much indirect sunlight as possible indoors, reducing the need for artificial light.

The light strategy speaks both to environmental concerns and to the weird attitude Seattleites have toward sunlight. Most of the year light is so elusive in the Pacific Northwest—so fleeting, so heavily filtered by clouds, fog, and mist—that it is often described as “an enigma.” Architects bend over backward trying to get it into buildings, working as hard at that as architects in the southeast work at keeping it out. Yet Seattleites also fear sunlight: per capita sales of sunglasses exceed those in any other major U.S. city, and Northwest architects are generally tasked with keeping direct sunlight—what there is of it—out of building interiors.

With nine filtered skylights (including one directly over the library’s reference desk), wells allowing air and sunlight into the library’s underground parking garage, and glass curtain walls around half the building, the library invites soft light in at every conceivable opportunity. Yet its south-facing windows also have built-in shading in the form of photovoltaic film between layers of glass that keeps “harsh” light out. It both generates electricity and shades the lobby of a Neighborhood Service Center (one of 13 mini branches of city hall) that shares the new building with the library. And the roof sweeps dramatically upward to the north so that the biggest, grandest glass wall—unshaded—faces north, away from the sun. The result is a main room that is bathed in indirect sunlight but never subjects its visitors to blinding rays of sun even on the most cloudless of days. “The light is fantastic,” de Haan says. “They spent a lot of time with a model in the Lighting Design Lab. It’s subdued, and the way it works in this kind of soaring space…it’s a very pleasant place to be.”

When we visited—early on a Monday afternoon—the library was packed inside, and on the sidewalk outside the “24-hour public space” was teeming with children and adults, the former climbing all over the single-piece metal chairs near the entrance. (Another Bohlin Cywinski Jackson design, the chairs look like opened and unfolded but not yet flattened cardboard boxes.) Since the roof extends beyond the walls, sheltering the sidewalk on the west side, people can gather there year-round, even in the rain.

Inside, a passel of kids was crowded against the periscope viewers, every computer terminal was in use, one child had arrayed her stuffed animals and books on a low empty shelf and crawled in to play with them while her mother read to her sister, the quiet room—glass-paneled and doorless—was nearly full, and four clients were talking with librarians at the reference desk. De Haan sat happily back in the library offices. “We’re all very, very thrilled to be here,” she says. “It’s not at all hard to come to work.”

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