Delirious New York is still one of the best books on architecture, not least for its Jules Verne quality. It’s not simply an old-timey book about the future, it’s a book that includes investigations into old-timey views of the future, or at least the hyper-optimistic present. Even though it didn’t really see much or any of the digital and communications revolutions coming, it still had a capacity to reframe time and experience through lenses whose artistic sense of the bizarre holds up pretty well.
Coney Island, Rockefeller Center, the Waldorf Astoria, and the Downtown Athletic Club are a few of the objects of Koolhaas’s investigations, because they seemed to foresee a bizarre, enclosed, indulgent, and spectacular New York. While Koolhaas delighted enormously in the unfolding vision of Delirium, the rest of the world, and, more specifically, the rest of architectural history, seemed to miss the coming storm entirely. While Koolhaas was recounting and theorizing Luna Park and Dreamland, the rest of the world of architecture was trying to be satisfied with Mies van der Rohe and less is more. Or so it seemed. Even Venturi’s “Less is a bore” only allowed for a few more colors and gewgaws.
You would think that a book from the 1970s would fade into obscurity for an architect across decades of transformation from theory to practice and from very small scale projects to fairly large ones. In fact, a number of key elements from the book persist in the Seattle Central Library. The project, completed around 2006, is credited to the Office of Metropolitan Architecture and Partner in Charge, Joshua Prince-Ramus. But Koolhaas’s interests and themes seem apparent regardless. Indeed, the building seems to skip back past some of Koolhaas’s more recent theorizing–Junkspace, Guide to Shopping–directly to Delirious.
The stacking of programmatic elements in the library is like something directly from Delirious. It could be from the analysis of the Waldorf Astoria or the Downtown Athletic Club. Likewise the skin. Inflected by some popular theory on folding from the late nineties, this nonetheless seems to derive directly from Rem’s implicit critique of Miesian grids, his assessment that building enclosures are wrappers that conceal rather than structures that explain. And of course the building is a superblock, in a literal reiteration of one of Madelon Vriesondorp’s splendid graphics.
Lastly, amid the multifunctional craziness wrapped in literal and figurative surrealism, there is that sense of narrative, of a calm linearity snaking through the building. Part of it is the Dewey Decimal System, and the architects’ abiding desire to maintain a sense of organizational clarity for the people who still like to find books. Also, it’s hard not to think of Rem’s early career in filmmaking, which, even more than literature, cannot abandon its implicit linearity.
It’s amazing to think that these decades later, the building hews very close to the book, but that is well-suited to a library.
The building opened to widespread praise and numerous awards at first. Now, as people have become more accustomed to it, a broader chorus of criticism unfolds. It is heavy-handed, overwhelming, impermeable at the street where it should offer public space. I am looking forward to visiting to see for myself.