New Central Library opens in downtown Seattle on May 23, 2004.

  • By Walt Crowley and Alyssa Burrows
  • Posted 5/20/2004
  • Essay 4304

On May 23, 2004, The Seattle Public Library opens its new Central Library at 1000 4th Avenue. Some 26,600 people come downtown on a sunny Sunday to celebrate the opening. Designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas with Seattle-based LMN architects, the new structure’s angular exterior is clad in a grid of steel and glass and its airy interior features a continuous “book spiral” for the library’s main collection. The $155.5 million building was funded with 1998 "Libraries for All" bonds and private donations.

Dutch Treat?

In 1998, 70 percent of voters in Seattle endorsed $196.4 million in "Library for All" bonds to remodel or replace the Central Library and 22 Neighborhood Libraries, and to build three additional branch facilities. Prior to the election, the Library Board and new City Librarian Deborah Jacobs concluded that the new building should be erected on the existing Central Library block, which it has occupied since 1906, although this would necessitate finding a temporary home during construction at a cost of $10 million.

After an international competition, the Library Board selected Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and his Office of Metropolitan Architecture to design the Central Library. OMA teamed with Seattle-based LMN Architects and unveiled a controversial concept for the building in December 1999. The design featured a staggered floor plan sheathed in a mesh of steel and glass. Its radical asymmetry drew criticism, to which OMA designer Joshua Ramus later replied, “A truly rational building will not look rational.”

Form Follows Function

Despite its unconventional appearance, the design was guided by a detailed functional “program” for public spaces, work areas, storage, and technology, and intended to take the greatest advantage of view corridors while flooding the interior with natural light. The 11-story building can accommodate more than 1.4 million books, compared to 900,000 in its predecessor, and more than 400 public computer terminals compared to 70 in the old library.

The Central Library relocated to temporary quarters in what is planned to be the new home of the Museum of History & Industry at 800 Pike Street in fall 2001 and demolition of the 1960-vintage Central Library began that winter. The library’s opening day slipped eight months due to unforeseen excavation and construction issues, and construction costs exceeded original estimates by about $8 million, which was covered with additional private donations and interest earnings from the Libraries for All bonds.

Initial reviewers of the building were positive if a little puzzled. Seattle Times writer William Dietrich called it “a Christmas package so lumpy it torments you with guesses,” and Time Magazine commented, “If Picasso ever painted a library, it might look like this.” Herbert Muschamp, architecture critic for The New York Times, declared on May 16, 2004, “In more than 30 years of writing about architecture, this is the most exciting new building it has been my honor to review.” He praised City Librarian Deborah Jacobs and her staff for their vision and determination because “there’s never been a great building without a strong client in the history of the world.”


William Dietrich, “Meet Your New Central Library,” The Seattle Times Pacific Northwest Magazine, April 23, 2004; Time Magazine, April 26, 2004; Herbert Muschamp, “The Library That Puts on Fishnets and Hits the Disco,” The New York Times, May 16, 2004; Susan Gilmore et al., “A Special Report: Seattle’s New Library,” The Seattle Times, May 16, 2004; The Seattle Public Library Website accessed on May 24, 2004 (

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