I Hate the Beacon Hill Library, and You Should Too
A Journey to Seattle’s Heart of Darkness
photos by malcolm smith
You have seen this before. An immigrant is having a drink by himself at a bar. He is enjoying his day off. He works so hard for his money. He is giving himself a little treat by not ordering the cheapest beer. He is dressed in some of his best threads and wears with pride a hat that's a bit fancy—it's a safari Panama straw fedora. Suddenly, a group of drunken white men burst into the bar. They are loud and laugh at anything that falls from their mouths. As one of them requests a bucket of beer (it's party time!) from the bartender, another begins to show great interest in the immigrant's exotic hat. "Man, that's really cool," the white man says to the immigrant. The immigrant smiles weakly and continues drinking. "Can I try it?" asks the white man. But before the immigrant even gives him an answer, the man grabs the hat, puts it on his own head, and begins to move his neck back and forth like a funky chicken. "Man, I should buy one of these. It's so cool."
You have seen this sort of thing before. You have seen it and felt your soul cringe, felt it crinkle like tinfoil. Oh no, he didn't. Oh yes, he did—and he just won't stop doing his jive thing with the rim of the hat low on his eyes.
Keep that image in your mind and now think about the Beacon Hill Library. The core inspiration of this 10,800-square-foot building, which was designed by Carlson Architects—a firm that's no longer with us (it did not survive the Great Recession)—and completed almost a decade ago (2004) at a cost of $5,358,990, was to reflect, capture, and express the diversity of one of the few neighborhoods in Seattle that has a white minority. But what we ended up with was nothing about the community and everything about that white man jiving in that exotic hat. This is why the building makes my soul crinkle every time I pass it. I know it's trying to be cool, trying to be dynamic like immigrants, with their spicy foods, sensual rhythms, and colorful ways.
Just look at it. Where does one begin with all of this inspiration? The exuberance of the rooflines and roof forms? The quarry stones with the haikus? The suddenness of the tall, modernist windows in the reading nook? The tiles that are seasick green? The tiles that are rocky red? The tiles that are earthy brown? The sheet-metal tiles on the east? The boxy and bulky parts at the front and sides of the building? That scupper that opens its birdlike mouth and ejects rainwater on the courtyard? The "dream ship" that punches a hole through the dramatic awning and tries to soar above the neighborhood? It's all a bit much, as you can see. Yet this cringe-worthy building was greeted with lots of praise and back-patting. The Seattle Design Commission saw it as "not only a library but also a gathering place, cultural center, landmark, and gateway for Beacon Hill's diverse population." Metropolitan Home saw it as one of the 100 most "extraordinary objects in the world of innovative designs." From Friends of the Seattle Public Library: "Beacon Hill is very diverse, and there are few places where all the different populations can mingle. [This] library is a great place for that."
On top of the praise, the planners of the ceremony for the library's opening went out of their way to force the real multiculturalism of the neighborhood onto the phony multiculturalism of the design. For example, after Trio Los Latinos performed their music, the white sculptor from Pullman, Miles Pepper, was scheduled to explain his kinetic boat thing rising from the roof. After that, there was taiko drumming beneath the expressive awning.
What was this really about? The fact that Beacon Hill is diverse, and the conflicting fact that the power structures in Seattle are not. These two facts generate tension. So it is not implausible that the white architects Donald Carlson, Mark Withrow, and Jim Hanford attempted to resolve it by designing a building that's all over the place, that has a little of everything, that has no center, no gravity, that is restless, bold, and creative, like powerless immigrants. The exact same thing that's wrong with the Beacon Hill Branch is wrong with City Hall, which was designed by Peter Bohlin, the man behind Bill Gates's high-tech Xanadu. Both are cut from the same bad intention: inspired multiculturalism. It's architecture trying to heal. Architecture as a hospital for social ills.
The Marxist cultural critic Fredric Jameson discusses this sort of thing in his important book The Political Unconscious. What he points out is this: In French cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss's memoir Tristes Tropiques, there is a chapter about a Brazilian tribe, the Caduveo, that wore elaborate facial paintings that weren't found, to the same excessive degree, in other neighboring tribes. The reason for the elaborate decorations, concludes Lévi-Strauss, and Jameson, is the Caduveo have, unlike the other tribes, great and unresolvable social inequalities that result from its rigid hierarchical class structure. So this tribe resorts to elaborate face painting to compensate for the lack of a more meaningful social mechanism that could actually address or ease class tensions. The Beacon Hill Branch and City Hall are much the same as this face painting. The buildings are expressions not of a multicultural utopian ideal but the city's persistent failure to make meaningful political progress in racial and cultural affairs.
Have I gone off the deep end? Am I just being mean and saying things that have no basis in reality? Look at the other library branches that, like the Beacon Hill Branch, were built in the mid '00s with the $196.4 million that voters approved in 1998, a year Seattle felt it was on top of the world. There is the Montlake Branch, designed by Weinstein A|U, which is functional, orderly, compact, and done with. There's the Ballard Branch, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, which takes some risks (it has a sweepingly huge green roof), but all of its experimentation is kept in control, all of the parts of the building fit together nicely. Then there's the Capitol Hill Branch, designed by Johnston Architects and Cutler Anderson Architects, which has no features that can be described as "vibrant" or "vivacious" or "voluptuous."
But let's think about the Capitol Hill Branch for a moment. Imagine if the architects had decided that it would be a great idea if they tried to capture the "gay culture" of Capitol Hill in the building's design. Imagine they felt this way because they saw gays as underrepresented and economically disadvantaged in this society. Now, instead of really doing something about these perceived social problems, the architects could have designed a building they thought celebrated homosexuals by saying to the public: "Look at me, I have lots of waterfalls, Doric columns, and unicorn sculptures—I'm so gay." If you can imagine that soul-crinkling mess, you can see exactly what's bad about the Beacon Hill Branch. It's trying ever so hard to be diversity.
Carlson Architects, a firm that got its big break designing Larry's Markets in the late 1980s, has also done solid and serious local work, such as the addition at the School of Social Work at the University of Washington and the Ballard Lofts. But judging from that work, and the work in their book Carlson Architects: Expanding Northwestern Regionalism, it's hard to believe they ever took a serious interest in diversity. That was not their thing. What they did well, what dominated their projects, was the industrial aesthetic. And so what did Carlson Architects fill this lack of experience with multiculturalism with? Please be prepared to weep, as this is really the tragedy of my story: They filled it with quirkiness. The boat in the sky like a weather vane, the upside-down hull-like roof, the scupper that's shaped like a beak, the poetry on the stones—all of this is quirky.
So what exactly is wrong with quirkiness? First, it has nothing to do with diversity. It is instead that white guy in the bar jiving with the immigrant's exotic hat, or Donald Rumsfeld with a chopstick balanced on his upper lip, or the wacky people who flash-mob the light rail in their underwear, or whatever enters and exits the mind without a thought. Secondly, even an arrogant warmonger like Rummy can be quirky. It's fun to be quirky because it means nothing to be quirky. And something that has no meaning is striving for political neutrality. And political neutrality is the desired result of projects funded by those in positions of power, like developers and pro-business associations. Political neutrality promotes the idea or illusion that there are things in capitalist society that are universal, natural, that can be shared or enjoyed by all with no consequences. Those in power want us to believe that such neutral social spaces and practices actually exist within the limits of the market, as this shows that the market is only about itself and is wholly outside of the sphere of daily social struggles. And why do those in power want the public to see the market as neutral? Because if you fail in the market (fail at getting a job, fail with the credit agency, fail at keeping your home), you will have to conclude it has nothing to do with the market but everything to do with you. For the neutral market to reward you, you need to work harder, do more, invest more time and energy. This is what the emptiness of quirkiness provides the system. This is the beak of the scupper opening its mouth. This is also, by the way, the architecture of Frank Gehry.
There is one last thing I have to point out. It's what you realize when you walk into the Beacon Hill Branch for the first time: It is designed like the hull of a ship. The critic at Architectural Record was impressed by the boldness of this quirky feature: "Resembling an upturned canoe, the building's roof is composed of two curving sections that jut out from the facade at an off-axis angle from the surrounding streets: forming an instant landmark and beacon for the neighborhood. This hull-like form is echoed by an abstract sculpture of a boat that rises on a pole at one end of the building, puncturing its roof."
The inside does not look like an "upturned canoe." The beams and bolts are too huge for the canoe in one's imagination. What it resembles instead is the inside of an old cargo ship. Now let's think about this for a moment. What if Carlson had made this building for the black American collection at the Douglass-Truth Branch? Do you get my drift? The interior of a ship might be about adventure, spontaneity, and excitement for one group of people but mean something completely different to another group of people. Such are the dangers of quirkiness. What's fanciful here is historical there. The first thing I thought when I walked into the Beacon Hill Branch: "Why, I'm in the hull of a slave ship." But instead of whips, there are books; instead of chains, there are computers; instead of pirates, there are librarians. This is a postmodern heart of darkness for sure.
I do not want to leave this short essay with the positive note of a solution. How do we prevent something like the Beacon Hill Branch from happening again? By being vigilant and keeping in mind that social problems need to be solved by politics and not architecture.