Seattle Central Library / OMA + LMN

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 library, but an enhaced public space around knowledge.

Architects: OMA + LMN
Location: Seattle, Washington,
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 30 Sep 2014. <>


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    @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.

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

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

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    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.

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      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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    Heya i am for the first time here. I found this board and I find It truly useful & it helped me out a lot. I am hoping to provide one thing back and help others like you helped me.

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    thank’s for all informations given about this amazing building!!it gives so much sens to the architecture!

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