Seattle Central Library

Coordinates: 47°36′24″N 122°19′57″W / 47.606699°N 122.332503°W / 47.606699; -122.332503
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Seattle Central Library
Seattle Central Library in 2019
Seattle Central Library is located in Seattle WA Downtown
Seattle Central Library
Location within downtown Seattle
General information
TypePublic Library
Location1000 Fourth Avenue
Seattle, Washington
Coordinates47°36′24″N 122°19′57″W / 47.606699°N 122.332503°W / 47.606699; -122.332503
Construction started2002; 21 years ago (2002)
Completed2004; 19 years ago (2004)
OpeningMay 23, 2004
Cost$165.9 million[1]
OwnerSeattle Public Library
Architectural196 ft (60 m)[2]
Roof185.01 ft (56.39 m)[2]
Technical details
Floor count11[2]
Floor area362,987 sq ft (33,700 m2)[3]
Design and construction
Architect(s)LMN Architects/Office for Metropolitan Architecture
DeveloperSeattle Public Library
Structural engineerMagnusson Klemencic Associates with Arup Group Limited
Main contractorHoffman Construction Company

The Seattle Central Library is the flagship library of the Seattle Public Library system. The 11-story (185 feet or 56.9 meters high) glass and steel building in the downtown core of Seattle, Washington was opened to the public on May 23, 2004. Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA/LMN were the principal architects, and Magnusson Klemencic Associates was the structural engineer with Arup. Arup also provided mechanical, electrical, and plumbing engineering, as well as fire/life safety, security, IT and communications, and audio visual consulting. Hoffman Construction Company of Portland, Oregon, was the general contractor.

The 362,987 square feet (33,722.6 m2) public library has the capacity to hold about one and a half million books and other materials. It offers underground public parking for 143 vehicles and over 400 computers accessible to the public. Over two million people visited the library during its first year. It is the third Seattle Central Library building to be located on the same site at 1000 Fourth Avenue, the block bounded by Fourth and Fifth Avenues and Madison and Spring Streets. The library has a unique, striking appearance, consisting of several discrete "floating platforms" seemingly wrapped in a large steel net around glass skin. Architectural tours of the building began in June 2004.

In 2007, the building was voted #108 on the American Institute of Architects' list of Americans' 150 favorite structures in the U.S.[4] It was one of two places in Seattle to be included on the list of 150 structures, the other being T-Mobile Park.


There has been a library located in downtown Seattle as far back as 1891; however, the library did not have its own dedicated facilities and it was frequently on the move from building to building. The Seattle Carnegie Library, the first permanent library located in its own dedicated building at Fourth Avenue and Madison Street, opened on December 19, 1906, with a Beaux-Arts design by Peter J. Weber. Andrew Carnegie, whose patronage of libraries later included five others in Seattle, donated $200,000 for the construction of the new library. That library, at 55,000 square feet (5,100 m2), with an extension built in 1946, eventually became too small and cramped for a city population that, by the time the library was replaced, had roughly doubled since the library's first opening.[5]

A second library, at five stories and 206,000 square feet (19,100 m2), was built at the site of the old Carnegie library and opened on March 26, 1960.[6] The new building designed by architects Bindon and Wright, with Decker, Christenson, and Kitchin as associates, featured an international-style architecture and an expanded interior, with features such as drive-thru service to offset the lack of available parking. George Tsutakawa's "Fountain of Wisdom" on the Fifth Avenue side (relocated to Fourth Avenue in the current library) was the first of that artist's many sculptural fountains. A remodeling finished in 1972 gave the public access to the fourth story, dedicated to the arts and sound recordings. By the late 1990s, the library became too cramped again and two-thirds of its materials were held in storage areas inaccessible to patrons. Renewed consciousness of regional earthquake dangers drew concern from public officials about the seismic risks inherent to the building's design.[7][8][9][10]

To make way for the current Seattle Central Library, which is the third library building to inhabit the city block between Fourth and Fifth Avenues, the second library was demolished in November 2001; a temporary library had opened on July 7 in rented spaced at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center.[11][12][13] Funding for the new Seattle Central Library building, as well as other construction projects throughout the library system, was provided by a $196.4 million bond measure, called "Libraries for All," approved by Seattle voters on November 3, 1998. The project also received a $20 million donation from Bill Gates, of Microsoft.


Architect Rem Koolhaas inspecting a model of the building. Joshua Prince-Ramus is kneeling.
Seattle Central Library interior

Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of the Dutch firm Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA), working in conjunction with the Seattle firm LMN Architects, served as the building's principal architects. Ramus served as the partner in charge. Bjarke Ingels designed the interior boxes for OMA.[14] OMA was not one of the firms invited to compete for the project. Ramus, formerly a Seattle resident, found out from his mother one day in advance that the library board was inviting interested firms to attend a mandatory public meeting. He flew in, and OMA ended up winning the project.[15][16]

Deborah Jacobs, Chief Librarian in the Seattle Public Library system, spearheaded the project from the library's perspective and served as the primary client voice, while Betty Jane Narver served as president of the Library Board.

The architects conceived the new Central Library building as a celebration of books, deciding after some research that despite the arrival of the 21st century and the "digital age," people still respond to books printed on paper. The 11-story Central Library has a capacity for over 1.5 million books, in comparison to only 900,000 in the old library building.[11] The architects also worked to make the library inviting to the public, rather than stuffy, which they discovered was the popular perception of libraries as a whole.

Although the library is an unusual shape from the outside, the architects' philosophy was to let the building's required functions dictate what it should look like, rather than imposing a structure and making the functions conform to that.


The first level, facing 4th Avenue, has a lobby, holds pick-up, and a children's center. It also includes the Microsoft Auditorium, which seats 275 people for events. An escalator connects the 4th Avenue lobby to the third level, which faces 5th Avenue and is named the Norcliffe Foundation Living Room. It includes a small cafe, a gift shop, and a teen center.[17] The fourth level, named the "Red Floor", uses 13 shades of red paint on surfaces and includes four meeting rooms and two computer labs.[18] The main computer lab is located on the fifth level, named the Charles Simonyi Mixing Chamber, with 338 computer stations and a reference desk.[19]

A major section of the building is the "Books Spiral", which is designed to display the library's nonfiction collection without breaking up the Dewey Decimal System classification onto different floors or sections. The collection occupies the sixth, seventh, eighth, and ninth stories on a continuous series of shelves with a maximum slope of 2 degrees.[19] This allows patrons to peruse the entire collection without using stairs or traveling to a different part of the building.[citation needed] The eighth level also includes music practice rooms, while the ninth level has a genealogy collection and map room. The tenth level is divided between the Seattle Room, which contains local history collections, and the Betty Jane Narver Reading Room with 400 seats. It also includes the highest viewpoints in the building.[19]

New functions include automatic book sorting and conveyance, self-checkout for patrons, pervasive wireless communications among the library staff, and over 400 public computer terminals.

Below the library is a 143-stall parking garage that is open for use by library patrons and other members of the public for a fee.[20]


An overhead view of one floor of the library

Use of the building is more than double the predicted volume.[21] In the library's first year, 2.3 million people came to visit the library; roughly 30% were from outside Seattle. The library generated $16 million in new economic activity for its surrounding area in its first year.[22] The opinion of architectural critics and the general public has been mixed. Paul Goldberger, writing in The New Yorker, declared the Seattle Central Library "the most important new library to be built in a generation, and the most exhilarating."[23] The American Council of Engineering Companies (ACEC) of Washington awarded the Library its Platinum Award for innovation and engineering in its "structural solutions". The library also received a 2005 national AIA Honor Award for Architecture.[24]

Lawrence Cheek, the architecture critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, revisited the building in 2007 and found it "confusing, impersonal, uncomfortable, oppressive" on the whole, with various features "decidedly unpleasant," "relentlessly monotonous," "badly designed and cheesily detailed," "profoundly dreary and depressing," and "cheaply finished or dysfunctional," concluding that his earlier praise for the building was a "mistake."[25]

The library was roundly condemned by the Project for Public Spaces, which noted "if the library were a true 'community hub,' its most active areas would connect directly to the street, spinning off activity in every direction. That is where Koolhaas's library, sealed away from the sidewalks and streets around it, fails completely." It went on to note "critics have cast it as a masterpiece of public space design. As if blinded by the architect's knack for flash and publicity, they cannot locate, or perhaps refuse to acknowledge, the faults in his creation."[26]

The confusing layout of the library's structure was also addressed in a book by architect Ruth Conroy Dalton and cognitive scientist Christoph Hölscher, called Take One Building : Interdisciplinary Research Perspectives of the Seattle Central Library.[27] Researchers examined it as a model case for investigating the interplay between the building's complexity and individual differences in wayfinding ability.[28]

Additional images[edit]


  1. ^ History of the Central Library Retrieved on February 15, 2015
  2. ^ a b c Emporis: Seattle Central Library Retrieved on February 19, 2015
  3. ^ About Central Library Retrieved on February 15, 2015
  4. ^ Smith, Andy (2007-02-06). "108. Seattle Public Library (2004) - Seattle, WA; Rem Koolhaas; Office for Metropolitan Architecture; LMN Architects (America's Favorite Architecture)". Archived from the original on 2013-09-26. Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  5. ^ Becker, Paula (July 1, 2011). "Central Library, 1906-1957, The Seattle Public Library". HistoryLink. Retrieved October 24, 2021.
  6. ^ Wilma, David (April 16, 2003). "Central Library, 1960-2001, The Seattle Public Library". HistoryLink. Retrieved October 24, 2021.
  7. ^ Proposal for the Central Library, 1998 Libraries for All capital plan. Archived 2006-07-20 at the Wayback Machine Seattle Public Library. March 13, 1998. Retrieved May 26, 2006
  8. ^ Victor Steinbrueck, Seattle Cityscape, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1962, p. 71.
  9. ^ "Tsutakawa Fountain reinstallation begins at new Central Library on Monday, April 12, 2004" (Press release). Seattle Public Library. 2004-04-09. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  10. ^ HistoryLink Staff (2000-01-01). "Seattle Public Library's new central library building is dedicated in 1960". HistoryLink. Retrieved 2007-11-07.
  11. ^ a b "LMN". Seattle Central Library. Retrieved November 1, 2016.
  12. ^ "That chapter is over". The Seattle Times. November 10, 2001. p. B4. Retrieved May 8, 2021.
  13. ^ Davis, Jiquanda (July 6, 2001). "Temporary library site will open tomorrow". The Seattle Times. p. B1. Retrieved May 8, 2021.
  14. ^ Ian Parker, "High Rise", The New Yorker, 10 September 2012. Retrieved 8 October 2012.
  15. ^ Jose Juan Barba (April 23, 2018). "Seattle Central Library by OMA. "The Most Exciting New Building"". Metalocus. Retrieved April 17, 2022.
  16. ^ "Seattle Central Library in the USA, Designed by Reb Koolhaus". Design Build Network. May 19, 2008. Retrieved April 17, 2022.
  17. ^ "The Central Library Expands Hours, and 20-Plus Things to Do There". Shelf Talk Blog. Seattle Public Library. January 17, 2023. Retrieved January 23, 2023.
  18. ^ "The Central Library's Iconic Red Floor Reopens To The Public". Shelf Talk Blog. Seattle Public Library. July 18, 2022. Retrieved January 23, 2023.
  19. ^ a b c "Take a tour of the Central Library". Seattle Public Library. Retrieved January 23, 2023.
  20. ^ "Paid parking at the Central Library". Seattle Public Library. Retrieved March 19, 2023.
  21. ^ Marshall, John (September 2008), "A moment with ... Joshua Prince-Ramus/Architect", Seattle Post-Intelligencer
  22. ^ Kenney, Brian (August 15, 2005), "After Seattle", Library Journal, archived from the original on February 21, 2006, retrieved 2006-05-25
  23. ^ Goldberger, Paul. High-Tech Bibliophilia. The New Yorker. 17 May 2004. Retrieved May 25, 2006.
  24. ^ Smith, Andy (February 6, 2007), America's Favorite Architecture: Seattle Public Library, American Institute of Architects, archived from the original (AIA blog) on 2013-09-26, retrieved 2013-02-17
  25. ^ Cheek, Lawrence (2007-03-26). "On Architecture: How the new Central Library really stacks up". Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Retrieved 2012-08-15.
  26. ^ Fried, Benjamin (July 2004), "Mixing with the Kool Crowd: Have architecture critics forgotten how to judge public spaces?", Making Places Newsletter
  27. ^ Dalton, Ruth Conroy; Hölscher, Christoph (8 June 2018). Take one building : interdisciplinary research perspectives of the Seattle Central Library. ISBN 978-1-138-61658-5. OCLC 1065322205.
  28. ^ Kuliga, Saskia F.; Nelligan, Benjamin; Dalton, Ruth C.; Marchette, Steven; Shelton, Amy L.; Carlson, Laura; Hölscher, Christoph (2019-04-12). "Exploring Individual Differences and Building Complexity in Wayfinding: The Case of the Seattle Central Library". Environment and Behavior. 51 (5): 622–665. doi:10.1177/0013916519836149. ISSN 0013-9165. S2CID 150719300.

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