Function over form

Is this a choice of function over form, philistinism over aestheticism, or a good, usable library over a glamorous architectural trophy? Last week the Seattle Library Board killed off the idea of holding a design competition to pick an architect for the new downtown library—the building that could redefine the city, were it to succeed the way Vancouver's new library has. Mayor Schell was cool to the idea (as were some architectural advisers), city librarian Deborah Jacobs was openly opposed, and she and the Library Board are in sync—in this as on other matters.

Jacobs feared that a design competition would give too free a rein to designers: "It would mean a design is presented to us and we choose whether to accept it." And, she adds, "it isn't the kind of thing" this board is used to dealing with. Instead, the board endorsed a two-stage process last week, to solicit statements of qualifications first, then proposals from interested firms.

Jacobs notes that, of the many major new city libraries built in the past decade, two of the most notoriously unserviceable, in Chicago and Denver, resulted from competitions. But that's a double-edged argument: Perhaps the most notorious of all, San Francisco's New Main, whose soaring atrium awed patrons till they discovered it didn't have enough room for books, was not chosen via competition. And perhaps the most acclaimed, Vancouver's, was (with a public advisory vote to boot). Of course, Vancouver did have on its board a politically savvy architect, Bing Thom, to shape the process. And its librarians did push hard to make sure Moshe Safdie produced a functional, not just inviting and inspiring, design. But that's what good clients do.

Without holding competitions, Seattle and its cultural institutions have notched a notorious record of mediocre-to-miserable public buildings. May we expect more of the same from this long-awaited project? Architect John Pastier (a sometime contributor to this paper, and the most outspoken architect advocate of a design competition) fears that the two-stage scheme "will amount to a much-reduced, half-baked version of a competition, with many of the disadvantages but without the depth of product and evaluation that a competition allows." He argues that the design fee for the main branch posited in one budget document, 6.5 percent of construction cost, is "far too low to get a good building."

Peter Steinbrueck, the lone architect on the City Council, is glad the library is dispensing with a design competition, but also worries it will cheap out on design. "Six percent is miserably low and would assure mediocrity. The fee needs to be higher than it would be on a private project of this scope, because of the public process." He notes that such private-project fees could run to 20 percent. Alexandra Harris, the library's capital-plan director, says the fee should actually run to "around 8 or 9 percent of the total. We feel the project is adequately budgeted."

Is it also adequately stocked with expertise? It's not clear how the library will work with the city arts and design commissions on this and 21 concurrent neighborhood library constructions and renovations. The Library Board plans to appoint a "citizen implementation review panel" by the end of March, and is also considering establishing a design advisory panel (of architects and/or other building professionals) to watchdog the project and deflect criticism. But at last week's meeting two board members, Gil Anderson and Gordon McHenry, worried that such a panel could breed conflict, confusion, and "bureaucracy." McHenry wondered if design review was still needed: "As opposed to last summer, when we really needed it, the process is well along now."

"That's admitting they didn't do their homework last year," complains Pastier. "Reservations like that are just a sign that getting a great building is not high on the list of priorities. Vancouver got a great library because they really wanted one. I haven't seen that [sentiment] at all in Seattle."

Early decadence

Talk about millennial mania in overdrive— now that we've figured out all there is to figure out about this decade (See "Remembering the '90s," SW 12/31/98), forward thinkers are already trying to sum up the next one. And computers aren't the only instruments with a Y2K problem; what are we going to call the decade that (depending on who's counting) starts in 2000 or 2001? The Double-Os? The Zeroes? The Naughts? The Zippies? If the on- going retro/recycling/remake trend goes on further, this could be the Re-Decade (Recade for short). But my guess is it will reflect a more recent fashion. Call it decade.com.

Grimace and bear it

And talk about unintended consequences. In 1996, Washington voters overwhelmingly passed I-665, which banned hunting bears with bait and cougars, bears, and bobcats with hounds. Now the animal-welfare advocates who spearheaded I-665 are sounding alarms over several legislative bills that would overturn it; one, which would merely reinstate cougar hunting with hounds, cleared committee last week. But another, arguably crueler bear-hunting measure has already been reinstated, to much less fanfare. The irony is, it appears to be an unexpected result of I-665.

In late December, the state Fish and Wildlife Commission gave permission for the first-ever springtime bear hunt in Eastern Washington, in the Blue Mountains at the state's southeast corner. The problem with spring hunting is that hunters may unknowingly kill the mothers of newborn cubs, which will then be left to starve in their dens. That, says US Humane Society lobbyist Lisa Wathne, is why Colorado voters voted (by 70 percent) to ban the spring hunt, and why Ontario recently banned it. The Washington commission is "going against the wishes of the voters," she complains. "Initiative 665 sent a very clear message about unfair and unsporting hunting practices. People don't want them used."

Unfortunately, the message as to how to manage big carnivores without such practices isn't quite so clear. Steve Pozzaghera, who manages the Department of Fish and Wildlife's carnivore section, says that banning bait and hounds made it so much harder to bag the elusive bruins that the commission lengthened the fall hunt, starting it in August rather than September—and found that hunters were taking many more female bears than before, especially in the Blue Mountains. "That's not unexpected when you move from selective hunting, as with bear baiting or hounds, to opportunistic hunting," says Pozzaghera. It's much easier to scope out a bear's sex (and spare any females, as they're supposed to) when the bruin's been treed by hounds or is scarfing down bait scraps than when you chase it down in "sporting" fashion.

Pozzaghera adds that since mama bears are less likely than males to be out and about in spring, a spring hunt should take more males and hurt the breeding population less. Any plans to open it up in other parts of the state as well? "Not currently," he says.

This all sounds reasonable, but begs another question. You can argue that some sort of cougar control is necessary, to keep the big cats from expanding into inhabited areas and menacing livestock, pets, and joggers. But the shy bears have never been a big danger in Washington. Why hunt Yogi at all?

Related links:

Seattle Public Library's capitol plan

 
comments powered by Disqus