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Joshua Prince-Ramus on Seattle's library

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I'm going to present three projects in rapid fire. I don't have much time to do it. And I want to reinforce three ideas with that rapid-fire presentation. The first is what I like to call a hyper-rational process. It's a process that takes rationality almost to an absurd level, and it transcends all the baggage that normally comes with what people would call, sort of, a rational conclusion to something. And it concludes in something that you see here, that you actually wouldn't expect as being the result of rationality.

The second -- the second is that this process does not have a signature. There is no authorship. Architects are obsessed with authorship. This is something that has editing and it has teams. In fact, we no longer see, within this process, the traditional master architect creating a sketch that his minions carry out.

And the third is that it challenges -- and this is, in the length of this, very hard to support why, connect all these things -- but it challenges the high modernist notion of flexibility. High modernists said, we will create sort of singular spaces that are generic. Almost anything can happen within them. I call it sort of "shotgun flexibility." Turn your head this way; shoot; and you're bound to kill something. So, this is the promise of high modernism: within a single space, actually, any kind of activity can happen. But as we're seeing, operational costs are starting to dwarf capital costs in terms of design parameters. And so, with this sort of idea, what happens is, whatever actually is in the building on opening day, or whatever seems to be the most immediate need, starts to dwarf the possibility and sort of subsume it, of anything else could ever happen. And so we're proposing a different kind of flexibility, something that we call "compartmentalized flexibility." And the idea is that you, within that continuum, identify a series of points, and you design specifically to them. They can be pushed off-center a little bit, but in the end you actually still get as much of that original spectrum as you originally had hoped. With high modernist flexibility, that doesn't really work.

Now I'm going to talk about -- I'm going to build up the Seattle Central Library in this way before your eyes in about five or six diagrams, and I truly mean this is the design process that you'll see. With the library staff and the library board, we settled on two core positions. This is the first one, and this is showing, over the last 900 years, the evolution of the book and other technologies. This diagram was our sort of position piece about the book, and our position was, books are technology -- that's something people forget -- but it's a form of technology that will have to share its dominance with any other form of truly potent technology or media.

The second premise -- and this was something that was very difficult for us to convince the librarians of at first -- is that libraries, since the inception of Carnegie Library tradition in America, had a second responsibility, and that was for social roles. OK, now, this I'll come back to later, but something, actually, the librarians at first said, "No, this isn't our mandate. Our mandate is media, and particularly the book."

So what you're seeing now is actually the design of the building. The upper diagram is what we had seen in a whole host of contemporary libraries that used high modernist flexibility. Sort of, any activity could happen anywhere. We don't know the future of the library; we don't know the future of the book; and so we'll use this approach.

And what we saw were buildings that were very generic. And, worse, not only did we see buildings that were very generic -- so, not only does the reading room look like the copy room look like the magazine area -- but it meant that whatever issue was troubling the library at that moment was starting to engulf every other activity that was happening in it. And in this case, what was getting engulfed were these social responsibilities by the expansion of the book. And so we proposed what's at the lower diagram. Very dumb approach: simply compartmentalize. Put those things whose evolution we could predict -- and I don't mean that we could say whatever would actually happen in the future, but we have some certainty of the spectrum of whatever would happen in the future -- put those in boxes designed specifically for it, and put the things that we can't predict on the rooftops. So that was the core idea.

Now, we had to convince the library that social roles was equally important to media in order to get them to accept this. What you're seeing here is actually their program on the left. That's as it was given to us in all of its clarity and glory. Our first operation was to re-digest it back to them, show it to them and say, "You know what? We haven't touched it, but only one-third of your own program is dedicated to media and books. Two-thirds of it is already dedicated -- that's the white band below -- the thing you said isn't important -- is already dedicated to social functions." So, once we had presented that back to them, they agreed that this sort of core concept could work. We got the right to go back to first principles -- that's the third diagram. We recombined everything. And then we started making new decisions.

What you're seeing on the right is the design of the library, specifically in terms of square footage. On the left of that diagram, here, you'll see a series of five platforms -- sort of combs, collective programs. And on the right are the more indeterminate spaces; things like reading rooms, whose evolution in 20, 30, 40 years we can't predict. So that literally was the design of the building. They signed it, and to their chagrin, we came back a week later, and we presented them this.

OK? And, as you can see, it is literally the diagram on the right. OK? We just sized -- no, really, I mean that, literally. The things on the -- on the left-hand side of the diagram, those are the boxes. We sized them into five compartments. They're super-efficient. We had a very low budget to work with. We pushed them around on the site to make very literal contextual relationships. The reading room should be able to see the water. The main entrance should have a public plaza in front of it to abide by the zoning code, and so forth.

So, you see the five platforms -- those are the boxes -- within each one a very discrete thing is happening. The area in between is sort of an urban continuum, these things that we can't predict their evolution to the same degree. To give you some sense of the power of this idea, the biggest block is what we call the book spiral. It's literally built in a very inexpensive way -- it is a parking garage for books. It just so happens to be in the sixth through 10th floor of the building, but that is not necessarily an expensive approach. And it allows us to organize the entire Dewey decimal system on one continuous run: no matter how it grows or contracts within the building, it will always have its clarity to end the sort of trail of tears that we've all experienced in public libraries. (Laughter)

And so this was the final operation, which was to take these blocks as they were all pushed off kilter, and to hold onto them with a skin. That skin serves double duty, again for economics. One, it is the lateral stability for the entire building; it is a structural element. But its dimensions were designed not only for structure, but also for holding on every piece of glass. The glass was then -- I'll just use the word impregnated -- but it had a layer of metal that was called "stressed metal." That metal acts as a micro louver, so from the exterior of the building the sun sees it as totally opaque, but from the interior it's entirely transparent.

So, now I'm going to take you on a tour of the building. Let's see if I can find it. For anyone who is -- gets motion sickness, I apologize. So this is the building. And I think what's important is, when we first unveiled the building, the public thought -- saw it as being totally about our whim and ego. And it was defended, believe it or not, by the librarians. They said, "Look, we don't know what it is, but we know it's everything that we need it to be based on the observations that we've done about the program." This is going into one of the entries. So it's an unusual building for a public library, obviously.

So now we're going into what we call the reading room -- sorry, living room. This is actually a program that we invented with the library. It was recognizing that public libraries are the last vestige of public free space. There are plenty of shopping malls that allow you to get out of the rain in downtown Seattle, but there are not so many free places that allow you to get out of the rain. So this was an unprogrammed area where people could pretty much do anything, including eat, yell, play chess and so forth.

Now we're moving up into what we call the mixing chamber. That was the main sort of technology area in the building. You'll have to tell me if I'm going too fast for you. Now up. This is actually the place that we put into the building so I could propose to my wife. Right there. (Laughter) She said yes.

I'm running out of time, so I'm actually going to stop. I can show this to you later. But let's see if I can very quickly get into the book spiral, because I think it's, as I said, the most -- this is the main reading room -- the most unique part of the building. You dizzy yet? OK, so here, this is the book spiral. So, it's very indiscernible, but it's actually a continuous stair stepping. It allows you to, on one city block, go up one full floor, so that it's on a continuum.

OK, now I'm going to go back, and so I'm going to hit a second project. I'm going to go very, very quickly through this. Now this is the Dallas Theater. It was an unusual client for us, because they came to us and they said, "We need you to do a new building. We've been working in a temporary space for 30 years, but because of that temporary space, we've become an infamous theater company. Theater is really focused in New York, Chicago and Seattle, with the exception of the Dallas Theater Company." And the very fact that they worked on a provisional space meant that for Beckett they could blow out a wall; they could do "Cherry Orchard" and blow a hole through the floor, and so forth.

So it was a very daunting task for us to do a brand-new building that could keep the -- be a pristine building, but keep this kind of experimental nature. And the second is, they were what we call a multi-form theater: they do different kinds of performances in repertory. So they in the morning will do something in arena, then they'll do something in proscenium and so forth. And so they needed to be able to quickly transform between different theater organizations, and for operational budget reasons, this actually no longer happens in pretty much any multi-form theater in the United States, so we needed to figure out a way to overcome that.

So our thought was to literally put the theater on its head: to take those things that were previously defined as front-of-house and back-of-house and stack them -- above house and below house -- and to create sort of what we started to call a theater machine. We invest the money in the operation of the building. It's almost as though the building could be placed anywhere: wherever you place it, the area underneath it is charged for theatrical performances. And it allowed us to go back to first principles, and redefine fly tower, acoustic enclosure, light enclosure and so forth. And at the push of a button, it allows the artistic director to move between proscenium thrust and, in fact, arena and traverse and flat floor in a very quick transfiguration.

So in fact, we can go, using operational budget, we can -- sorry, capital cost -- we can actually achieve what was no longer achievable in operational cost. And that means that the artistic director now has a palette that he or she can choose from between a series of forms and a series of processions, because that enclosure around the theater that is normally trapped with front-of-house and back-of-house spaces has been liberated. So an artistic director has the ability to show -- have a performance that enters in a Wagnerian procession, shows the first act in thrust, the intermission in a Greek procession, second act in arena, and so forth.

So I'm going to show you what this actually means. This is the theater up close. Any portion around the theater actually can be opened discretely. The light enclosure can be lifted separate to the acoustic enclosure, so you can do Beckett with Dallas as the backdrop. Portions can be opened, so you can now actually have motorcycles drive directly into the performance, or you can even just have an open-air performance, or for intermissions. The balconies all move to go between those configurations, but they also disappear. The proscenium line can also disappear. You can bring enormous objects in, so in fact their -- the Dallas Theater Company -- their first show will be a play about Charles Lindbergh, and they'll want to bring in [a] real aircraft. And then it also provides them, in the off-season, the ability to actually rent out their space for entirely different things. This is it at night -- sorry, from a distance. Open up entire portions for different kinds of events. And at night. Again, remove the light enclosure; keep the acoustic enclosure. This is a monster truck show.

I'm going to show now the last project. This also is an unusual client. They inverted the whole idea of development. They came to us and they said -- unlike normal developers -- they said, "We want to start out by providing a contemporary art museum in Louisville. That's our main goal." And so instead of being a developer that sees an opportunity to make money, they saw an ability to be a catalyst in their downtown. And the fact that they wanted to support the contemporary art museum actually built their pro forma, so they worked in reverse. And that pro forma led us to a mixed-use building that was very large in order to support their aspirations of the art, but it also opened up opportunities for the art itself to collaborate, interact with commercial spaces that actually artists more and more want to work within. And it also charged us with thinking about how to have something that was both a single building and a credible sort of sub-building.

So now I'm going to -- this is Louisville's skyline -- and I'm going to take you through various constraints that led to the project. First: the physical constraints. We actually had to operate on three discrete sites, all of them well, well smaller than the size of the building. We had to operate next to the new Muhammad Ali center, and respect it. We had to operate within the 100-year floodplain. Now, this area floods three to four times a year, and there's a levee behind our site similar to the ones that broke in New Orleans. Have to operate behind the I-64 corridor, a street that cuts through the middle of these separate sites. So these -- we're starting to build a sort of nightmare of constraints in a bathtub. Underneath the bathtub are the city's main power lines. And there is a pedestrian corridor that they wanted to add that would link a series of cultural buildings, and a view corridor -- because this is the historic district -- that they didn't want to obstruct with the new building. (Laughter)

And now we're going to add 1.1 million square feet. And if we did the traditional thing, that 1.1 million square feet -- these are the different programs -- the traditional thing would be to identify the public elements, place them on sites, and now we'd have a really terrible situation: a public thing in the middle of a bathtub that floods. And then we would size all the other elements -- the different commercial elements: hotel, luxury housing, offices and so forth -- and dump it on top. And we would create something that was unviable. In fact -- and you know this -- this is called the Time Warner building. (Laughter)

So our strategy was very simple. Just lift the entire block, flip some of the elements over, reposition them so they have appropriate views and relationships to downtown, and make circulation connections and reroute the road. So that's the basic concept, and now I'm going to show you what it leads to.

OK, it seems a very formal, willful gesture, but something derived entirely out of the constraints. And again, when we unveiled it, there was a sort of nervousness that this was about an architect making a statement, not an architect who was attempting to solve a series of problems. Now, within that center zone, as I said, we have the ability to mix a series of things. So here you can see that these -- this -- sort of an x-ray -- the towers are totally developer-driven. They told us the dimensions, the sizes and so forth and we focused on taking all the public components -- the lobbies, the bars, everything that the different commercial elements would have -- and combined it in the center, in the sort of subway map, in the transfer zone that would also include the contemporary art museum.

So it creates a situation like this, where you have artists who can operate within an art space that also has an amazing view on the 22nd floor, but it also has proximity that the curator can either open or close. It allows people on exercise bicycles to be seen or to see the art, and so forth. It also means that if an artist wants to invade something like a swimming pool, they can begin to do their exhibition in a swimming pool, so they're not forced to always work within the confines of a contemporary gallery space.

So, how to build this. It's very simple: it's a chair. So, we begin by building the cores. As we're building the cores, we build the contemporary art museum at grade. That allows us to have incredible efficiency and cost efficiency. This is not a high-budget building. The moment the cores get to mid level, we finish the art museum; we put all the mechanical equipment in it; and then we jack it up into the air. This is how they build really large aircraft hangars, for instance, the ones that they did for the A380. Finish the cores, finish the meat and you get something that looks like this.

Now I only have about 30 seconds, so I want to start an animation, and we'll conclude with that. Thank you. (Applause)

Chris asked me to add -- the theater is under construction, and this project will start construction in about a year, and finish in 2010.

Video Details

Duration: 19 minutes and 40 seconds
Country: United States
Language: English
License: Dotsub - Standard License
Genre: None
Producer: TEDTalks
Views: 216
Posted by: tedtalks on Dec 19, 2008

Architect Joshua Prince-Ramus takes the audience on dazzling, dizzying virtual tours of three recent projects: the Central Library in Seattle, the Museum Plaza in Louisville and the Charles Wyly Theater in Dallas.

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