Seattle Central Library / OMA + LMN

  • 10 Feb 2009
  • Museums and Libraries Selected Works

This is -by far- one of the most inspiring projects I know. And it´s not just the or the structure. It´s the new program relations, that make of this more than a mere , but an enhaced public space around knowledge.

Architects: OMA + LMN
Location: Seattle, Washington, USA
Key Personnel: Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus (Partner-in-Charge), with Mark von Hof-Zogrotzki, Natasha Sandmeier, Meghan Corwin, Bjarke Ingels, Carol Patterson
Consultants: Arup, Bruce Mau Design, Davis Langdon, Dewhurst Macfarlane, Front, HKA, Hoffman Construction, Inside/Oustide, Jones & Jones, Kugler Tillotson, Magnusson Klemencic, McGuire, Michael Yantis, Pielow Fair, Quinze & Milan, Seele
Client: Seattle Public Library
Program: Central library for Seattle’s 28-branch library system, including 33,700 sqm of hq, reading room, book spiral, mixing chamber, meeting platform, living room, staff floor, children’s collection, and auditorium, and 4,600 sqm of parking.
Project year: 1999-2004
Constructed Area: 38,300 sqm
Budget: US $169.2 M
Photographs: Ramon Prat, Philippe Ruault, Iwan Baan, Fernando Herrera

The Seattle Central Library redefines the library as an institution no longer exclusively dedicated to the book, but as an information store where all potent forms of media—new and old—are presented equally and legibly. In an age where information can be accessed anywhere, it is the simultaneity of all media and, more importantly, the curatorship of their content that will make the library vital.

Flexibility in contemporary libraries is conceived as the creation of generic floors on which almost any activity can occur. Programs are not separated, rooms or individual spaces not given unique characters. In practice, this means that bookcases define generous (though nondescript) reading areas on opening day, but, through the collection’s relentless expansion, inevitably come to encroach on the public space. Ultimately, in this form of flexibility, the library strangles the very attractions that differentiate it from other information resources.

platform diagram

Instead of its current ambiguous flexibility, the library could cultivate a more refined approach by organizing itself into spatial compartments, each dedicated to, and equipped for, specific duties. Tailored flexibility remains possible within each compartment, but without the threat of one section hindering the others.

Our first operation was to “comb” and consolidate the library’s apparently ungovernable proliferation of programs and media. By combining like with like, we identified programmatic clusters: five of stability and four of instability.

Each platform is a programmatic cluster that is architecturally defined and equipped for maximum, dedicated performance. Because each platform is designed for a unique purpose, their size, flexibility, circulation, palette, structure, and MEP vary.

The spaces in between the platforms function as trading floors where librarians inform and stimulate, where the interface between the different platforms is organized—spaces for work, interaction, and play.

inbetweens diagram

By genetically modifying the superposition of floors in the typical American high rise, a building emerges that is at the same time sensitive (the geometry provides shade or unusual quantities of daylight where desirable), contextual (each side reacts differently to specific urban conditions or desired views), iconic.

The problem of traditional library organization is flatness. Departments are organized according to floor plans. Each floor is discreet; the unpredictable fits of growth and contraction in certain sections are, theoretically, contained within a single floor.

book spiral diagram

In 1920, the Seattle Public Library had no classification for Computer Science; by 1990 the section had exploded. As collections unpredictably swell, materials are dissociated from their categories. Excess materials are put in the basement, moved to off-site storage, or become squatters of another, totally unrelated department.

The Book Spiral implies a reclamation of the much-compromised Dewey Decimal System. By arranging the collection in a continuous ribbon—running from 000 to 999—the subjects form a coexistence that approaches the organic; each evolves relative to the others, occupying more or less space on the ribbon, but never forcing a rupture.

Cite: "Seattle Central Library / OMA + LMN" 10 Feb 2009. ArchDaily. Accessed 22 May 2015. <>
  • Thomas

    yawn… so now that we have basically the fourth REX project (in one day!) does that mean we don’t have to see another one of their projects for the next year?

  • jarmo k

    woow, cool, i didn’t know bjarke ingels had worked on the project!

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  • Tzaar

    @Thomas: Save it, already! This site is not simply about the hottest & newest but about a truly fantastic library of images, plans, and sections that are quite difficult to find in this quality and quantity. Your comment is boring.

    I for one am excited to see this building with actually drawings, rather than simply that silly program diagram that was published (and created) after the fact. You know the one I mean. Fantastic photography, as well… I hadn’t noticed before the way that the structural mullions thicken as the moment increases. Very cool.

  • sgurin

    Cпасибо за чертежи. Thanks for drawings.

  • Jason

    Been there, seen it, got the pics. Cool building, the internal spaces surprise you and are somewhat deceptive from the outside.

  • Franco

    Ingels! Ingels!

  • Óscar Cornejo

    Pretty cool building, have been there several times and has a lot of awesome different spaces.

  • SeattleGuy

    I have to say, I live in Seattle and I HATE this building. In person it’s ugly, features a “suicide leap” where one could jump from the top of the center shaft to the concrete floor 5 floors down, a confusing and relatively unusable fluorescent lit “spiral”, and the public art throughout the building is very subpar. In person it is NOT bright and crystaline. It is neon, dark in any area that is not adjacent to a window, simplistically furnished with materials that are already scuffed, dirty, and nasty, and in a certain sense oppressive in the book stacks. The old building, which was from 1960 and sadly replaced a Carnegie library from 1906, was in some ways better than the current library.


  • Xing

    I heard lots of complaints about lost in finding the way of up and down: could not find the stairs. Is that true?

  • SeattleGuy

    Well, the stairs does not connect at every level in the same way and *contrary to what is depicted in the book spiral diagram above* there is only *one* escalator going up. The rest of the escalators are pairs, but the escalators from the “mixer” or whatever they call it to the top is one way only. There is no return escalator (this was cut due to reduce cost) instead there is either the choice to walk through the spiral until you find the stairs, find the elevator, or make it to the bottom.

    It is frustrating and ugly. I wish I could find the other concept books that were submitted online.. but it’s almost impossible to find other than this particular vision for the library..

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  • Glen Buschmann

    After one visit I wrote a harshly critical letter to SPL admin and got the “sorry you had a poor experience, there was ample time to give input beforehand” letter. I agree with much of the criticism about flow, color, signage, noise, and general hospitality. and won’t reitate that.

    One criticism I’ve not read and yet seems to sum up the poor planning is the spiral floor. It is deliberately uneven. The Spiral wierdness was made both more unfriendly and more expensive by the flooring. Why deliberately install ridges? NO-ONE would consider a flat floor with such ridges, but somehow it was perfectly acceptable to put bumps to stumble over on a slanted floor. When hiking I expect to encounter roots and rocks and unevenness in going up and down a trail. Not so on a floor of a building, ramp or level grade. People with arthritis, other foot and walking troubles, and general balance issues, are unable to comfortably negotiate this unevenness.

    • m.j.

      have you used the Spiral in a wheelchair? The bumps enable me to pause without rolling in any direction, and without putting on my pesty breaks.

      of course, criticism is due, the building is far from perfect, but pause for a moment and think from the perspective of many of the users: it’s a type of architecture rarely presented in public spaces, it is free access to contemporary art and design, and it’s one of the best-equipped libraries in the world for computer usage.

      yes, it’s flawed, but it’s also one of the first of its kind.
      have you ever seen a library like it?
      i’ve seen many a museum with similar traits, but never a library.

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  • john

    mangstap ini bang………

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