Gehry vs. Koolhaas: signature architects in Seattle

My pilgrim’s progress as a Seattle tourist continues, and in the last couple of days I have visited to significant newish buildings by world renowned architects, both of which have made an impact on the cultural life of Seattle.  One is largely a success; the other is a chaotic mess.

On Tuesday I went to the Experience Music Project/Science Fiction Museum in the Seattle Center, the former grounds of the 1962 World’s Fair and the home of the Seattle Space Needle.  The affair is a very rich man’s “folly”.  Paul Allen (one of the founders of Microsoft) has collected tens of millions of dollars of rock  and science fiction memorabilia, and, essentially, he needed a place to put it.  So he hired Frank Gehry (of Bilabo and Disney Concert Hall fame, not to mention the Peter B. Lewis Building at Case Western Reserve University) to build a structure to house it all.  The city of Seattle went along with it–who doesn’t want yet another major tourist attraction?  The building is typical Gehry, with undulating multicolored folds, like a pile of melting raspberry and lemon and cherry sorbet dumped on the street.  The inside is dark and cave-like, with no definable paths to anything, restrooms hidden, no clear entrance to the structure.  It is impossible to know directly how to get from one exhibit to another.  There is no “narrative structure” to either of the museums, which are in the same building.  (I finally had to ask a staff person how to get to the Science Fiction Museum, because there was no sign to tell me how to get there.)  The collections are fabulous–the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland ought to be green with envy to have some of the artifacts; but there is so much stuff, that it is overwhelming and overstimulating.  I finally just had to get out.  I can’t remember such an unpleasant museum experience.  And, unfortuately, it can be laid at the feet of Mr. Gehry.  It’s a quite wonderful architectural sculpture, but it is a horrific museum.

By contrast, the new central Seattle Public Library building, opened in 2005 and designed by Rem Koolhaas, is a triumph of light, space, practicality (with one notable exception) and rectolinearity, which is so important in a library.  From the outside the building looks anything but a rectangular building, but once you get inside, you can tell that it is and that it is just the “skin” of the building that’s at bizarre angles, which create the light and airiness of the reading spaces.  One of the most interesting innovations is the “book spiral” which contains the collection book stacks, all in one continuous ramp over 4 or 5 floors, which means that the collection can expand and contract as necessary, without needing to move from one floor to the next.  Specialist librarians are stationed on each level of the ramp, near the Dewey classifications of their specialty.    The only major miscalculation is the “red floor” which contains the library’s meeting rooms.  The entire space is various shades of fire-engine red: floor, walls, ceiling, with red light.  The walls are glossy and curved, and it is quite disorienting, and could be intolerable for a person with vertigo or visual impairment.  It is striking, but problematic.  The elevators and escalators are color-coded in highlighter yellow.  The interior structure is natural concrete, but with splashes of highly patterned carpeting to define spaces.  The exterior glass panels create wonderful natural light, which is so important in a city noted for its clouds and rain.  The building is an astonishing success. I spoke to several librarians, all of whom said that there are details of the building that could be better, but over all it works very well.

Would that Mr. Gehry’s wealthy patron fared so well.

(Photos to come on Flickr after my return to Cleveland.)

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