The Seattle Library That Might Have Been


The New York Times’ Michael Kimmelman has a rave review for a new library on New York’s East River, across from the UN. Thereby hangs an interesting Seattle story.

The architect for the new Queens public library is the Northwest-trained Steven Holl, celebrated around the world and revered locally for the St. Ignatius Chapel at Seattle U., a beloved icon, and (less-beloved) the Bellevue Arts Museum.

And Holl was almost the architect of Seattle’s Central Library, where he was the runner-up to Rem Koolhaas. A friend was on the selection committee that picked Koolhaas, and he tells a disturbing story about that process and the library that got away.

After calling for candidates for the plum job, the Library committee ended up with five finalists, including Koolhaas, Holl, the Portland firm of Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, and two other safe-and-famous international firms. The last two mysteriously dropped out of the competition, possibly because of limited funds for the competitors. The Portland firm was eliminated next, likely because of the limited sex-appeal they would have in raising funds for the big library.

Koolhaas gave a kind of TED Talk to the public meeting, very cool and disruptive. His firm was then intent on getting an important American job, and his wooing continued in earnest when the selection committee visited European works by the two finalists. Holl, honoring the no-contact etiquette of the final decision, hung back. Another factor, I’m told, was the reluctance of the Library to pick an architect who had done a major project in (gasp!) Bellevue.

I’ve always thought the choice of Koolhaas was a mistake, given the ungainly (though celebrated internationally) library we got and given the remarkable career of Holl, now based in New York City. Granted, his new library in Queens, New York is much smaller than the Seattle Central Library, but the Holl design looks wonderful, full of the poetry of light and sculptural forms.

The Times story is worth reading for all these reasons (and the good photos), and also for its analysis of the tremendous obstacles the building faced with the many uncoordinated regulators of design in Manhattan. That said, New York still produces many architectural masterpieces, and it appears to have a new one. I think of only one truly splendid architectural work in Seattle in the past 10 years: the National Nordic Museum (by Mithun Architects).

Image: Stephen Holl Architects

David Brewster
David Brewster
David Brewster, a founding member of Post Alley, has a long career in publishing, having founded Seattle Weekly, Sasquatch Books, and His civic ventures have been Town Hall Seattle and FolioSeattle.


  1. David, you sly dog, (I say that with utmost respect and affection), the entire story is convoluted and rife with back stories and side stories. I know that you know that, however you get to the heart of the matters always. The REM/Joshua library delivered little of what Rem promised and will require untold bucks to fix what afflicts it, when the powers that be finally acknowledge the need. It is dramatic, perfect for stills from “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”, etc. but mark my words. The ills belying the development of the Bellevue Art Museum were apparent from the fund-raising stage and got worse as the project went on. The project was an orphan, mis-programmed, criminally under-budgeted and it’s development not simply mis-managed, but unmanaged. Steve Holl does not walk on water but he is honest and sincere. Rem promised that he wouldn’t do a “signature” building, which was a veiled jibe at Steve Holl. He showed a scheme that was ironically similar to the Queens Library by Holl, a rectangle with a few sections cut away. Hah! Oh those architects. Gotta keep and eye on them! I’m tellin’ ya.

  2. As a Seattle guy with plenty of early-life Ballard cred and Norwegian family immigrant history, I wince at the description of the National Nordic Museum as a “masterpiece.” The old steel-faced Fenpro factory on its site made munitions, chain link fence, maybe glasswork — with an ugly rusting facade bumped up right along Market Street. If the museum is intended to evoke “fjord,” that facade instead reminds us us old-timers of the rusty, unassuming but still remarkably uncharming hulk that stood there for decades. My fellow Nordics should have cut a few of those Koolhaas/Holl jigsaw pieces out of the Market Street wall. Or added the blue Fenpro logo. It would be hard to tell the difference from what was there before.

  3. I’d choose Koolhaas any day over Holl. Holl is big on the concept, the metaphor, the unifying idea, which then imposes itself over the entire project (even the parts of it that might not fit). When Holl talks about those ideas he can be compelling (look here for a gallery of dazzling projects). But experiencing Holl in the actual space can be quite another thing. The chapel is great, yes. But many of his spaces have little to do with the ways people – yes actual people – need to use the space.

    The Bellevue Arts Museum is a good example. As an idea it’s interesting, and it is an arresting street presence. You walk into a soaring space, but it’s not very usable. In fact the amount of space in the building that can show art is shockingly low. And most of that space is awkward to use for art. No one has really yet figured out how to use it well. Then there’s the shocking lack of durability of the materials. The interior has plenty of dings, but the outside facade is cracking and crumbling. In short, Holl’s buildings can make striking visual statements (usually appreciated from a distance) but their usability clearly takes a back seat.

    I know you don’t like the Koolhaas building, and I admit the outside is ungainly and ungraceful. But inside I think it is inspired in the ways it addresses what a library might be, and the ideas are the product of deep thinking about the functions of a library, not a set of ideas that impose (and impinge) on what it needs to do. In a city of (mostly) marginal architecture, it stands out – likely Seattle’s best building by far.

    • “De Gusitibus Non Est Disputandum”, of course, but to be fair, the Bellevue Art Museum was programmed to be a facility that would exclusively house educational programs, lectures, demonstrations, classes, etc. It was not meant to house art exhibits at all. It must be said, again, that the obstacles to getting the Museum completed, self-inflicted as they were by an inept and disinterested Board, makes the existence of the Museum somewhat wondrous, despite what one may otherwise say about it.

      • Actually, this isn’t true. Back when it opened it was the Bellevue Art (no “s”) Museum and it was meant as a museum that shows art. Yes, do other things, but showing art was what it was built around. In its early days in the museum it had a terrific curator, but the museum was not a success. Then it closed and reinvented itself, adding the “s” and trying to find a better formula. It does show exhibitions, some of which have been terrific. But the building itself does those no favors.

        • Incorrect. It was programmed by a former employee of mine, at the behest of the Board, to be an education center only; however with a criminally small budget, a Board that turned the process over to an on-loan Boeing exec who had a one-word vocabulary (NO!), a key staff member who embezzled more than $300K when the Museum was just finding its feet, the Museum nearly did fail, but not because of its design or architecture.


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