The Koolhaas Library Closes for a Week: Too Bad The Reason Isn't Maintenance

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Budget cuts to the Seattle Public Library haven't just resulted in the week-long furlough that begins today, they have also led to a lack of maintenance that is making the famous Rem Koolhaas-designed downtown facility look shabby. Only five years after the building opened to rave reviews nationwide, various signs of wear and tear can be seen.

There's the hole in the flooring in the Fourth Avenue lobby (above), leaving a gaping blot of white amidst the tan surface.

On an escalator, the neon-yellow side walls are marred by scratches and a bare patch of metal.


And all that glass--the signature feature of the building--is smeared with grime and bird droppings.


Library spokeswoman Andra Addison says the windows are cleaned "like twice a year, but I'm not sure it's gone to get done twice next year." That, and other limitations on upkeep, are due to the fact that the city cut the library's capital budget, allowing for maintenance at all the facilities, by two thirds in the biennium that ends next year, from $3 million to $1 million. At the same time, Addison points out, the new central branch sees tremendous traffic. "We have five, six, seven, sometimes 15 thousand people in the building in one day," she says.

It's that traffic and lack of maintenance, rather than the materials used, that Addison says is the problem. She says those materials--which include aluminum, concrete and polyurethane--were carefully scrutinized for durability. "We scratched it. We poked it." Library staff asked former board member Betty Jane Narver, now deceased but known then for her high heels, to walk all over the floors. They passed the test.

But the wear and tear amplifies what I've never liked about the aesthetic: its austerity. While the outside is a marvel of interesting angles and shimmering glass, the interior goes for a mod look, with its utilitarian materials and brightly-colored but spare furniture, that to my mind, doesn't lend itself to curling up and reading. I'd much rather plop myself down in the cozy, light-filled reading nook of the modest Beacon Hill branch.

Now the central branch seems even more austere. In plush surroundings, scratches and dings can disappear, but in an environment of concrete and aluminum, they stand out like graffiti on a prison wall.

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