Architecture Minnesota
The Magazine of AIA Minnesota

September - October 2006
Vol. 32 No. 5
Editor's Note

A Tale of Two Cities

Successful 21st-century city libraries don’t all look the same. Recent projects in Minneapolis and Seattle offer proof.

chris I think it’s a safe guess that many of you architecture enthusiasts who followed the design and construction of the new Minneapolis Central Library (page 28) had another building looming in the back of your mind. I know I did. That building would be the Seattle Central Library, an eye-popping edifice designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) that opened to great acclaim in the spring of 2004. Well, I think our brains were onto something. Placing the two libraries side by side makes for an interesting study of the different paths large city libraries can take to success.

To be sure, the two projects have their similarities. Both paired an international “starchitect” (Cesar Pelli in Minneapolis, Rem Koolhaas in Seattle) with a local architecture firm (Architectural Alliance, LMN Architects) and occupy an entire city block. They opened two years apart almost to the day, and their grand-opening attendance was nearly identical. Square footage? The Seattle library is a tiny bit larger. Both facilities feature dedicated spaces for teens and children, underground parking, state-of-the-art book-sorting systems, and wireless Internet access in all (Minneapolis) or most (Seattle) areas of the building. Most important, both institutions have enjoyed considerable increases in visitation and circulation.

The differences, however, are striking. For those of you unfamiliar with the Koolhaas structure, I wish I had the words to do it justice. (For a good visual overview, check out the Central Library slide show at Is it a cubist greenhouse? A glimmering piece of architectural origami? Whatever you want to call it, the irregular composition of crisply folded planes of glass and latticework steel grabs you by the collar. Inside, that irregular shell yields a heightened spatial experience, as angled glass walls and ceilings dramatically frame the sky and skyline.

For all its avant-garde good looks, though, the Seattle library has a “function first” mentality. In fact, OMA designed this seemingly sculptural building from the inside out, first stacking and arranging five functional areas (book stacks, meeting rooms, administrative offices, staff work spaces, and parking) and three signature public spaces (the Living Room, Mixing Chamber, and Reading Room), and then cloaking them in angular glass and steel. The approach—and its results—has awed architecture critics from coast to coast, and for good reason. Public favor isn’t quite so universal, but if the Seattle Central Library has lost any patrons it has replaced them with wide-eyed tourists.

The Minneapolis Central Library’s virtues are equally apparent, though admittedly less dizzying. More restrained than its Seattle counterpart, even with its majestic winged roof and lofty central atrium, our library asks to be used, not experienced. It was designed to be inviting and easy to navigate at every turn. Approach the library on foot and you’re extended a native welcome; the exterior’s horizontal bands of Minnesota limestone and nature-themed fritted glass lend a reassuring sense of place. Step inside, into the atrium, and you instantly understand the building. Sleek elevators and escalators and a cantilevered staircase show the way up and down. Enter any floor in the larger north section of the building and you find it’s all in front of you: A touch-screen kiosk, computer stations, and lower open tables ensure excellent sight lines to the stacks and the fireplace beyond. I can’t think of a more pleasing place to open a laptop or a good book than a table overlooking the atrium, with a true cross-section of the community milling about.

Seattle has itself a new icon, Minneapolis an exceedingly friendly public resource. Surely there are Seattleites and Minneapolitans who would trade buildings if they could, but by and large it seems that each city got what it was looking for. Sleepless in Seattle? Feeling Minnesota? An exceptional public library awaits you.

Christopher Hudson
Architecture Minnesota