Seattle, public space, and libraries

I just got back from a visit to Seattle, where I gave a keynote to facilities developers of large US YMCA’s. This is the second time I’ve been asked to keynote a YMCA event and, until my first talk, I have to say I was a little confused as to why I had been asked. But now I get it. If there was ever a non-profit organization that could stand to benefit from the application of psychologically sustainable design, it’s there in a group whose very mission statement includes the words “building healthy spirit, mind and body and for all.” If that doesn’t start my psychogeographic wheels turning, then nothing can. I really enjoyed the event and had a chance to have a few inspiring conversations with attendees who were keenly interested in how to make people feel positive, communal and perhaps even a little awestruck when they entered a space. I’ll say more about that in a later post but for now I just wanted to mention a visit to one of Seattle’s most prominent architectural landmarks, the central library.  I actually knew a little bit about the library before some of my hosts urged me to visit. Based on this paper, I had serious expectations that the space would be illegible and confusing.  To some extent, these expectations were met. For a space that is as gigantically open as this one, I was surprised by how much I had to lean on the wayfinding signage to find my way from floor to floor. There’s a grand statement at play in the building that I think has to do with the centrality of physical books to our understanding of what a library is and what it can do. For all of the pixelation of the world, there’s a tradition going all the way back to the beginning of the written word in Sumeria, where we revere the physical thingness of the book. I think that a part of this Seattle library, perhaps especially the continuous spiral of books that winds through five floors, pays homage to that idea.

Another aspect of the library, though, and actually the one that prompted my visit, was the suggestion that it evoked awe, an emotion that interests me particularly, especially as it might relate to things that buildings do to us. The Seattle Central Library is a truly massive envelope of space, enclosed by lots of glass, filled with natural light and available to view from a series of vantage points, some of them so high and precarious that someone nervous about heights might not even venture in. I’m not particularly afraid of heights (though I do have a peculiar aversion to looking upwards when I’m high above the ground), but I also found it a little bit unsettling. I’m not sure whether or not I felt awe.  Sometimes I worry that I’ve become so analytic about this stuff that I can’t make myself open enough to the raw experience of a building. I think architects somehow cultivate and hone that feeling of openness whereas my analytic mind gets closed off unless I jam a zen-soaked foot in the doorway to keep it open.

I won’t make any conclusions here other than to say that my own response was ambivalent. I had great respect for the intentions, I felt some of the emotional impact that I think was baked into the space purely by virtue of its light and immensity, but I left feeling as though this was not a place where I’d want to curl up with a good book, so much as something like an aerie from which to contemplate the world.

I’m not finished with my Seattle experiences yet, but I’ll leave things there for now and return later.  I have more to say about public spaces.

Next up, I’m actually at home now for almost a whole two weeks (luxury!) and then off for a short visit to NYC, one of my favourite cities in the world. I’ve done a fair bit of experimental work on the streets of New York, and I often find myself being drawn back to those routes, but this time I’m attending (but not speaking at) a conference, and also plotting with some new collaborators. I imagine all of that will fill the well nicely.


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