A Library That Cracks Time Open
From the sharp line that separates one building from the other issues the first and greatest pleasure of the Douglass-Truth Library expansion—the pleasure of a rupture. It is the bliss of a break that's epistemological, chronological, and spatial. The main building was made by an age that planted Prairie-style libraries across America, an age that did not hesitate to ornament these libraries with all types of mythical creatures, Mediterranean plants, and revived patterns. The expansion, on the other hand, has its place in the mind of our own time. Designed by Schacht/Aslani Architects, the expansion has no decorations, no references to ancient Italy, but, instead, is a smooth composition of curving and intersecting walls of glass that lead to and rise along the side of a sloping mass, whose copper skin is split by the course of a skylight. On clear mornings, as the sun rises in the east, the expansion scintillates like something hologrammed from the future. To use Cybotron's words: "Tomorrow is a brighter day."
The world of the long dead surrounds the expansion. The intersection has a row of renovated Victorian houses, a 1932 art deco fire station, and the street itself, Yesler Way, was once used to skid felled trees down to the sawmills that generated fast profits for the city's founding fathers. From the clearing rose the neighborhood that Douglass-Truth has served since 1914, the Central District. Instead of turning to (and recognizing) this past, which would have been the obvious thing to do, the architects made a clean break with it.
That discontinuity—the line along which one thing ends and something else begins—that breakage of rhythm, that "subversive edge," as Roland Barthes calls it in The Pleasure of the Text, gives us a bliss that's frankly erotic. Barthes writes: "The subversive edge may seem privileged because it is the edge of violence; but it is not violence which affects pleasure ... what pleasure wants is the site of a loss, a seam, the cut, the deflation, the dissolve which seizes the subject in the midst of bliss." The new Hearst Tower in Manhattan also has a thrilling breaking point, but it happens vertically rather than horizontally. "(I)ts chiseled glass form rises with blunt force from the core of the old 1928 Hearst building," the New York Times reports. "Past and present don't fit seamlessly here; they collide with ferocious energy."
The expansion is part of the Libraries for All capital project, an ambitious upgrading of the city's library system that began in the late '90s and is now in its late stages. Out of all the new buildings funded by this voter-approved program, the success of the Douglass-Truth Library expansion's design is second only to that of the Central Library, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas and completed in 2004. But the road to this high achievement was by no means easy.
During the planning stages of the expansion, the architects had to consider staffing issues, community concerns, and standards set by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board (the Douglass-Truth Library became a historic landmark in 2001). There were three options to double, on the existing property, the library's space (from 8,000 to 16,000 square feet): expanding on both sides of the main building, expanding above grade on the east lawn, or expanding below grade on the east lawn. The third option approach, coupled with a design that made no or little reference to the existing structure, was favored by the architects (Cima Malek-Aslani, Walter Schacht, and Eric Aman), and in 2003, the Douglass-Truth Branch Library Building Committee and the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board approved it for two different reasons: the former, because the design expressed the neighborhood's new and changing cultural energies; the latter, because the design didn't impact or alter the essence of the old building.
On January 12, 2004, Sheri Olson, then the Seattle P-I architecture critic, gave the set design a shake with an article that described it as "a metal-clad lamb chop," and pleaded for an addition "more sensitive to the 1914 design." But it's precisely the insensitivity (or better yet, the raw boldness) of Schacht/Aslani's design (which bears no resemblance to any lamb chop I've eaten) that makes it great. What we see, and what we must embrace when it opens in September, is not the illusion of gradual progress, of clear continuity but, instead, the suddenness of the past, the suddenness of a break, the suddenness of the present.