Experiment in Cubism

Creative solutions from the team's contractor and structural engineer enable a radical vision of the library of the future to come to life.
August 11, 2010

When Rem Koolhaas's Office of Metropolitan Architecture first presented its concept for the building to replace Seattle's Central Library, board members were so taken aback by the irregularly shaped transparent steel and glass cube that they asked the design team to step outside while they conferred privately.

Although they were concerned about public reaction to the design, the board members approved it on the basis that it fulfilled the program requirements they had given OMA.

They needn't have been so worried. After its opening in May 2004, the $125 million project has received critical acclaim as not only the first truly twenty-first-century library, but as an example of the power of architecture to provoke thought and redefine the form and function of public buildings.

Located in the heart of the city on the site previously occupied by its 1960 predecessor, the library is on par with the Space Needle and Frank Gehry's Experience Music Project as one of the Emerald City's most popular tourist attractions.

But without "incredible innovation" demonstrated by the largely local Building Team, notably general contractor Hoffman Construction Co., structural engineer Magnusson Klemencic, and LMN Architects (in a joint venture with OMA), the project would have never come to fruition, says Building Team Project Awards juror John Durbrow, AIA, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology's School of Architecture, Chicago.

The building's form, which has been likened to a Rubik's Cube cinched by a corset, hinges on OMA's interpretation of the changing function of today's libraries: to manage an ever-increasing flow of electronic information, while allocating sufficient storage, current and future, for print volumes. Thus, the library's reference section contains 148 public-access computers (of 400 total in the building); and while only 32% of the 362,967 gross square feet is currently devoted to books, the library has room to double its collection to 1.45 million volumes.

The 11-story building is divided into five "floating" platforms that vary in size and shape according to the function they serve. The diamond-shaped latticework of structural steel and glass that drapes the platforms like a giant fishing net completes the building's form while also providing seismic stability.

The building's structural design employs an array of steel and concrete forms tilted at various angles to transfer loads throughout the jutting arrangement of offset platforms down into the more conventionally designed columns of the basement parking garage. The degree of structural gymnastics involved in the project was greater even than in the Experience Music Project, says Jon Magnusson, principal of Magnusson Klemencic, whose firm worked on the EMP with Hoffman Construction.

Because the perimeter trusses that support the floating platforms were too large to be preassembled and had to be stick built, more than 320 tons of temporary steel and support footings were required to support the perimeter trusses. The temporary steel was later recycled.

The building exceeds Seattle's energy code requirements by 20%, thanks to a specially designed "shark skin" glazing that reduces heat gain and an HVAC system comprised of five small heating and cooling plants instead of one large one to simplify utilities and allow for zoned climate control. These and other environmental credits enable the library to gain a LEED Silver certification from the U.S. Green Building Council.

Construction Costs

Demolition/excavation $1,800,000
Shoring 1,000,000
Sitework 1,260,000
Masonry 62,000
Structural steel/metal deck 18,300,000
Metal wall panels 700,000
Misc. iron/ornamental metals 2,000,000
Casework 1,900,000
Fireproofing 880,000
Waterproofing/roofing 870,000
Curtain wall 19,000,000
Storefront/interior glazing/skylight 2,700,000
Doors/frames/hardware 1,000,000
GWB/framing 3,200,000
Ceilings 1,300,000
Flooring 1,500,000
Mechanical 10,000,000
Electrical 10,400,000
TOTAL $125,000,000