Seattle Public Library

Seattle Public Library

Building as Diagram


The Seattle Public Library is an idea of a building, or perhaps an idea of many buildings, of space and of architecture. It is a diagram, a representation of thought and an exploration as abstract as the lines which describe it on paper, regardless of its physical presence and material manifestation. Joshua Prince-Ramus, lead architect of OMA New York, describes the design process for the library as hyper-rational, accepting “the constraints, conditions and challenges” of a project, and returning to “first principles” to solve them.1 This working methodology, exemplified by the apparently simple but charged diagrams Rem Koolhaas employs, has resulted in an abstraction of architecture, formulated and generated from the diagrams used to illustrate conceptual ideas. In a sense, the diagram becomes architecture. Some critics of the library argue against this so called hyper-rationality as slavery to the matrix, however, the idea of hyper-rationality seems insufficient to properly describe the library as a coded space. I would argue that although sharing a superficial relationship to the rational, data driven architecture that writers such as Michael Rock refer to as “Dutch design”, the work of Rem Koolhaas extends much further by declaring the building as a conceptual tool, a reference point for the understanding of the architecture itself. The building as diagram becomes the most useful, dynamic, interactive and informative study of the institution of the library.

Published accounts of the Seattle Public Library nearly always feature a comprehensive series of graphic and textual representations of the building. These are often accompanied by a number of photographs but seldom are the conventional “diagrams” of architecture, plans and sections, heavily relied on to convey the central ideas of the project. A pancake of floating, named boxes; a spiraling car park of book stacks; a mixing chamber where divergent constituents collide. The physical experience of the building is more closely related to the seemingly non-descript graphics than the plans or sections from which we can read the space. Prince-Ramus, considering the library, says: “I always take people through the logic of it, and every move in that project was obsessively rational—to a fault even.”2

If the “…almost dumb process…”3 is obsessive to a fault, the building is surely up for criticism. Michael Rock, founder of 2×4 and professor at Yale, criticizes Koolhaas’ approach (and that of other Dutch practices) as an impotent portrayal of the designer. With his lecture entitled “Mad Dutch Disease” Rock questions the positioning of the designer “…not as originator, but as one who marshals undeniable economic, legal, textual, demographic and civic forces and follows them to their irrefutable conclusion.”4 He cites Rem Koolhaas’ plan for New York’s MoMA as an example. The scheme used the zoning envelope as a form generator, coupled with the title “Architecture without Architects.”5 However, I argue that Rock’s assessment of Koolhaas is misguided, for it is not the eradication of the architect’s hand, but a completely new method of diagramming that he is pursuing. This is not a case of “submission to the data” whereby the system is created, and then “slavishly” followed to “some logical conclusion.”6 Koolhaas creates the system only to further understanding. The building as an outcome of the system is also its most crucial component: its diagram.

The diagram exists in a symbiotic relationship with architecture. William Braham discusses it as an embedded one: “if such concepts could be adequately expressed or understood separately from their manifestations, then the buildings themselves would be unnecessary.” Furthermore, “concepts only exist fully in their realization…”7 Thus the diagram as a conceptual tool for generating and understanding architecture, can only be truly effective when the architecture itself can be understood. The abstracted graphic portrayals of Koolhaas’ library then, would not be powerful explanatory tools without the presence of the building which embodies them. However, Koolhaas is not simply after a diagrammatically derived embodiment of ideas: he takes it a step further.

As Auriel and Mastrigli discuss in their article “Architecture after the Diagram”, there exists a paradoxical challenge in diagramming intention for architecture. “Materializing the spatial insubstantiality of the diagram, the architectural form aspires to the creation of formal possibilities rather than presenting itself for what it is: a concrete fact.”8 It is here that the paradox is explicit: “from a tool that should adapt the architectural design to reality understood as an immaterial becoming of flows, it turns into an iconographic fetish in which movement is represented in the most static mimesis of form.”9 Many diagrammatic projects, while attempting to respond to a design challenge with a hyper-rational strategy that legitimizes decisions, are “nothing but representations of something that is inexpressible through architecture, precisely because they [diagrams] are intended to represent the use of architecture i.e. the life that goes on inside it.”10 However the Seattle Public Library does not suffer the fate of stasis because Koolhaas has liberated the architecture from serving only as building, and created a diagram.

The Seattle Public Library is the most comprehensive diagram of itself. It is not pie charts, or graphs, or drawings of spatial relationships. Rather, it presents a fundamental reimagining of the functions, organization and role of the library in four dimensions. Its constructed physicality allows for human engagement, navigating the ramped stacks or being coerced into suggested relations with strangers. Every movement within the building shifts the information, and unlike most diagrams, the library benefits or suffers from the passing of time. The ideas that generated Koolhaas’ understanding of the library were merely the seeds of a much larger project for the gathering of information. The library is a living diagram, changing and responding and providing everyone who chooses to examine it with a set of representations of itself that serve to inspire new ways of seeing, and perhaps new methods of solving problems that have never before been attempted. More useful than any paper drawing, the generative diagram of the library is constantly in flux.

In this way, the Seattle Public Library can be compared to the idea of the abstract machine proposed by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattan. “The diagrammatic or abstract machine does not function to represent, even something real, but rather constructs a real that is yet to come, a new type of reality.”11 In this same way, Roemer van Toorn describes “projective architecture” as that which does not seek to predict the future, but is instead attentive to the unknown.12 In the words of Koolhaas himself, “Liberated from the obligation to construct, it [architecture] can become a way of thinking about anything—a discipline that represents relationships, proportions, connections, effects, the diagram of everything.”13 This approach is wholly appropriate for realization of the library, an institution with a long-established set of rules and conventions that is bending with the weight of the new world upon it. Digitalization, a shrinking globe, information available in hyper-abundancy at every moment, the potential redundancy of paper reading material. These are the conditions within which Koolhaas was asked to design, and conditions within which he could only adequately respond with an abstract machine. It would be impossible to conceive of the particular situation the library will find itself twenty-five years from now. The library as “projective architecture” instead seeks to invite the unknown in, to digest it and diagram it. Koolhaas himself must be observing its effects carefully.

The Seattle Public Library diagram is not an architectural solution to a set of challenges, but rather an ongoing investigation into the nature of the problem and its inherent context. As a diagram, it is indeed descriptive of the life that goes on inside it, and prescriptive as a way of imagining architectural thinking in our time. Le Corbusier’s declaration that “truth is in the diagrams!” may never have been truer than it is now.14

  1. Andrew Blum. “The Koolhaas Kids Come of Age.” Business Week Online, February 23, 2006. Accessed January 29, 2008.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Ibid.

  4. Michael Rock. “Mad Dutch Disease.” Premsela lecture 2004 Stichthing voor Nederlandse Vormgeving. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Premsela (2004) 15.

  5. Ibid, 16.

  6. Ibid, 15.

  7. William Braham. “After Typology: The Suffering of Diagrams.” Architectural Design 3 (2000): 9.

  8. Pier Vittorio Aureli and Gabriele Mastrigli. “Architecture after the Diagram: Note on the limitations of a concept.” Lotus International 27 (2007): 104.

  9. Ibid.

  10. Ibid.

  11. Braham, 9.

  12. Roemer van Toorn. “After Criticality: The Passion for Extreme Reality in Recent Architecture… and Its Limitations.” Crossover: Architecture Urbanism Technology. Rotterdam, Netherlands: 010 Publishers (2006).

  13. Auriel and Mastrigli, 104.

  14. Ibid.