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).