Superman never made any money for saving the world from Solomon Grundy

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

I gave the labyrinth another try

A stroll through the ruins of HKC, the ur-blog, will reveal my historical distaste for the Seattle Central Library, the award-winning ugly building that is the "flagship library of the SPL system" (according to Wikipedia). Well, I found myself downtown today with a little time to kill and decided to give the building another try.

I entered and took the elevator to the tenth floor. The lonely suicide balcony now has some signs that try to convince you it is a viewpoint, and I guess it is, albeit one that is hidden and has no ambiance or amenities.

I waked down the sloping floors past the silent reading room to the ninth level, which is the start of the book stack spiral. I followed the spiral all the way down Dewey's decimals, from Reference, Biographies, and the 900s to the 000s, straying off the path only at 741.5 for a quick perusal of the shelves there. The trip was actually pleasant; the sloping floor has the same effect as the wide spiral of the Guggenhein museum: a tendency to keep one moving forward, down, and out. I was pleased to see that some folks had found snags in the current: there were lots of people in the shelves and working at desks scattered about.

Eventually I found myself on level six, and once again, as at the grand opening years ago, I was struck by the banality of the end of the spiral. It is physically and spiritually a back alley of the library, the cul-de-sac of computer science, magazines, and "general works." Nothing marks the end of the trail, no reading room, no grand egress, not even a sign. The experience of the stacks-spiral ends with all the ceremony of a projector feeding past the end of the film: abrupt and inconclusive.

I sighed and found a fire-department stairwell; it took me to level five, the "Mixing Chamber," one great room full of computer terminals, transients, and librarians. From there an escalator led to the third floor, but bypassed four, sparing me the menstrual-red meeting-room level whose hallways look like the giant heart your biology teacher made you walk through at the science center.

The third floor has a Fifth Avenue/Uphill entrance; I wanted the first floor, on the Fourth Avenue/Downhill side. I grabbed another back stairwell; this one wound down only to level two, a staff-only floor, and stopped at a key-coded door. A library employee happened to be coming out; I asked him how to get down to the first floor and he said I would have to go back up to three first. Back up on three, I asked a volunteer how to get down to Third Avenue.

"Well, there are two ways. We have an elevator, or you can go outside and walk around the block."

"But there aren't any stairs?"

"No, no stairs."

Unless the architects planned to make navigating the library a physical manifestation of the research process, replete as it is with false starts, dead ends, and do-overs, I can't understand the thinking behind a design that actually impedes communication between spaces. The building is sharp and attractive in many ways, even as it starts to show signs of wear (it is approaching its tenth anniversary, after all) but I can't get past how poorly it is programmed. Or maybe I'm just without the skillset SPL expects of its visitors. I don't know, I'm just used to being able to get from one floor to another without map, and I'm not sure I can do that in the Central Library.

1 comment:

Richard Bensam said...

I didn't think there could be another building to equal this one:

but they're like unholy siblings. I had to check and make sure they didn't share a designer. I'm not familiar with the CU academic building interior as you are with the SCL, but the spaces at ground level can only be described as soul-crushing.