Underground Library: Cute Idea, Slightly Shady Premise

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen this Underground Library project, developed by a group of students from the Miami Ad School, referenced in various magazines and blogs over the past several days (recent appearances include Atlantic Cities and the Paris Review blog). The concept is quite clever; as Co.Design explains it:

Subway smartphone users swipe at a special poster promoting a curated selection of books on offer, after which the first 10 pages will be automatically downloaded to their mobile device in an easy-to-read ePub or PDF format. Once they reach their stop and emerge aboveground, a map will pop up and direct them to the nearest available NYPL branches to nab the physical copy.

Downloading a sample from NY’s Underground Library

Options for technically realizing such a project (the proposed solution is Near-Field Communication) are addressed and debated in the Co.Design article and on Vimeo. A very similar project was proposed last year — by Vodafone — for the Victorei metro station in Bucharest: users could download selections from a curated collection of books and audiobooks, but rather than being directed to access the complete texts in the public library, users were pushed to the website for Humanitas, a book publisher.

Of course subway libraries aren’t new. We’ve got analog versions here in New York, and in Madrid and Stockholm. Plus, I’m sure some cities and towns are using some form of book vending machine in transit stations.

[Update 4/1: The Philadelphia Free Library announced a QR code-based virtual library at its Suburban Station platforms.]

Vodafone's Bucharest Metro Library
Vodafone’s Bucharest Metro Library
Underground NY Public Library: somebody's getting some Shirky action.
Underground NY Public Library: somebody’s getting some Shirky action.

Also worth a mention is Ourit Ben-Haim’s Underground New York Public Library, “a photo series featuring the Reading-Riders of the NYC subways”; the photos themselves are meant to coalesce as a “visual library.” (See this article about the project in the American Reader. Ben Haim’s work reminds me a lot of Adrian Tomine‘s illustrations of transit-reading.)

All the aforementioned examples are potential case studies for libraries considering more nimble, responsive modes and spaces of service (yes, I’ve written about this before.) But getting back to the project du jour: the NFC Underground Library: as much as I’m charmed by the project itself, I can’t help but be a little irked by the pitch that establishes its context:

Ever since the creation of the Internet, the use of public libraries has been on a decline. Now, with the invention of smart devices, people can learn about anything, anywhere. Well, almost anywhere. …[T]he Internet still does not work underground…

Ah, the converging myths of (1) ubiquitous Internetization of the entirety of the human cultural record and (2) universal public access! The false assumptions about public library use! These misconceptions are dispiritingly prevalent. Quite a few similar “nimble library” or “library outpost” proposals rely on similar false premises, as I’ve written about here:

At a time when digital information is replacing almost every kind of printed document, iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other similar portable devices have become books.

Many people would regard it as an anachronism to think that a library could still have any relevance as an architectural typology in the face of the digital upheaval that has changed the ways we approach information and objects, transforming entire industries, such as the video, music and printing industries.

With the advent of the internet…all of the world’s knowledge is available instantly to anyone who desires it.

We can celebrate these inventive projects without buying their false premises. As I wrote earlier, it’s understandable that the creators of these projects, and those who review them, would want to “ascribe some historical and cultural significance” to the transit or pop-up library “by suggesting, say, that a team of up-and-coming designers [or a group of entrepreneurs, or a telecom behemoth] has revolutionized a thousands-of-years-old institution by proposing a new program and making it mobile [and/or subterranean]; or by painting a really bleak picture of the status quo, to which your featured design offers an alternative.” But why do that? Why not acknowledge the realities — of information access, of library service, of the state of urban infrastructures — within which your proposed project operates? After all, if you’re promoting public reading, why not show that you’re doing a little homework yourselves — that you know your context?


Little Free Libraries / New York Jury

Airan Kang's "Luminous Words," which I saw this weekend @  Bryce Wolkowitzls
Airan Kang’s “Luminous Words,” which I saw this weekend @ Bryce Wolkowitz 

I was tremendously honored to be invited to join the jury for the Architectural League of New York / PEN World Voices Festival‘s Little Free Libraries / New York design competition. Other jurors include the Laurie Anderson, Andy Bernheimer, A.M. Homes, and Peter Mullan.

Which of these is unlike the (illustrious) others? That would be me (or, I).

The commissioned projects will be will be installed on May 4, 2013, as part of the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY festival. The ArchLeague offers more info about the free libraries (which I addressed in a fairly lengthy article about the larger “little library” movement last spring) and the competition:

The Little Free Libraries movement places small-scale book shelters in neighborhoods and is based on the premise of “take a book, leave a book.” Established less than three years ago, Little Free Libraries now populate 5,000 communities worldwide. Initially crafted to resemble miniature one-room schoolhouses mounted on a pole, each library is a unique structure, designed and constructed in a wide range of styles, often utilizing recycled, reclaimed, or salvaged materials… [I, for one, am hoping we’ll see some major typological innovations.]

In keeping with this year’s IDEAS CITY theme of untapped capital, the libraries will facilitate an informal exchange of books in the city’s public spaces, where local residents and visitors may use and contribute to these communal, non-market based resources. Architects and designers interested in creating a library as part of this project are invited to submit their qualifications and describe their interest in the project in response to this RFQ. A jury will select ten teams to each design and fabricate a library, hosted on the property or in the domain of a partnering community organization. Selected design teams will be matched with partner organizations by the PEN World Voices Festival and the Architectural League of New York.

Submissions are due, well, today — so it’s a bit too late to start brainstorming. But our work of adjudication is just beginning, and I’m super-excited to be involved.


No, Not Everything is on the Internet. And No, Libraries Aren’t Antiquated.

Bexar County's bookless library, via mySanAntonio
Bexar County’s bookless library, via mySanAntonio 

Between the continuing drama over the NYPL’s renovation of the 42nd Street building, the efforts to provide pop-up libraries for communities affected by Hurricane Sandy, author Terry Deary’s proclamation that libraries are “no longer relevant,” hype over that book-less library in San Antonio, and the Wall Street Journal‘s kind-of-weird-and-kind-of-awesome recent fascination with libraries, libraries have been a fairly consistent presence in my daily news feed lately.

[Update: a few minutes after I posted this, Urban Omnibus announced a Little Free Libraries/NY competition that will be part of the New Museum’s IDEAS CITY festival. Update 2: …and a few minutes after that, GOOD reported on a grassroots library effort in Rotterdam.]

This past summer there was another little flurry of press about libraries, including in particular the raging NYPL debate and the spread of “little libraries.” I contributed one such article back in May, and in that article, I commented on an even earlier wave of “giddy attention” paid to little libraries. After I wrote my article, several others appeared (see this and this and this and this). And now some of those articles, or the projects featured in them, are re-appearing.

Back in July I wrote about a tendency, especially within the design press, to “attempt to provide historical and cultural context” for these new library projects, but often “falling back on a bunch of myths and misconceptions” about libraries’ history, evolution, current use, current demand, etc. Unsurprisingly, those myths persist in the more recent press coverage, and they perpetuate myopia regarding what this institution is, has been, and can be. I still have concerns about the way libraries are framed in popular debate, so I’m pasting part of my original post below:

A47 Mobile Library, via Domus 

Don’t get me wrong: I love these projects and completely understand the enthusiasm. What bugs me is how they’re historically contextualized — or miscontexutalized. Consider this Domus article about Alumnos47/ PRODUCTORA’s Mexico City-based A47 Mobile Library:

At a time when digital information is replacing almost every kind of printed document, iPhones, iPads, Kindles and other similar portable devices have become books.

Okay, we’ve heard this before. But I think we’ve also recognized that it’s not quite so simple. There are plenty of printed documents that haven’t been, and won’t be, digitized. And iPhones haven’t “become books”; they can hold books, among many other media forms, but the phones themselves aren’t books.

It is hard to imagine the concept of a mobile library without immediately thinking of downloading its volumes from the Internet.

Are books themselves not portable? Have we not read Benjamin? He must’ve moved those books before unpacking them, no? And what about bookmobiles? Mule libraries in Appalachia? Biblioburro? Traveling lighthouse libraries?

Many people would regard it as an anachronism to think that a library could still have any relevance as an architectural typology in the face of the digital upheaval that has changed the ways we approach information and objects, transforming entire industries, such as the video, music and printing industries.

<Sigh> Do we have to do this?

How do you take something so opposite to a piece of architecture as a lorry and turn it into not just a library, but a structure capable of hosting an entire spectrum of cultural activities? Looked at in this way, the archaic idea of building libraries started to regain a sense of modernity. Working on this premise, Mexican architecture studio PRODUCTORA came up with the design for a cultural centre within a 20 square metres space on board a Freightliner M2 20K lorry — a travelling building.

So Productora modernized the library by reimagining it as a site for an “entire spectrum of cultural activities”? Rather than heroicizing the designer, again, let’s give some credit to the librarians who already figured this out. The Carnegie libraries hosted an “entire spectrum of cultural activities” — as did, to some degree, the Library of Alexandria.

And here’s another recent “small collection of little libraries” post: To set up a contrast with the informal libraries they’re about to profile, Architizer paints the following picture of the traditional library:

Originally built to protect books from ruin, libraries are generally gigantic bunker-like buildings. Inwardly focused, they restrict access to their treasure troves to those who whisper and can thrive without sunlight.

Maybe a hundred and fifty years ago that was the case — before Labrouste, before open stacks, before children’s rooms, etc.

With the advent of the internet, however, all of the world’s knowledge is available instantly to anyone who desires it.

All of it? Really? I bite my tongue.

Books are no longer precious for the information within them, but rather for their physicality: you can’t hold the internet or turn a webpage (discounting the swipes of an iPad). This frees libraries to pursue another of their functions: to foster dialogue and investigation.

Have not libraries been fostering dialogue and investigation for millennia? Sure, for a good portion of their history, when books were scarce and valuable, protecting the books was a prime concern. But that era ended quite some time ago — unless you’re talking about rare books libraries, which I don’t think they’re thinking of here.

In short: Yes, I understand that you want to ascribe some historical and cultural significance to the design projects you’re reviewing — by suggesting, say, that a team of up-and-coming designers has revolutionized a thousands-of-years-old institution by proposing a new program and making it mobile; or by painting a really bleak picture of the status quo, to which your featured design offers an alternative — but let’s try not to fabricate that context.


Murdoch on Carnegie: The Wall Street Journal’s Library Coverage

Murdoch with his in-office library. Via  NY Times
Murdoch with his in-office library. Via NY Times 

Geez Louise, is the Wall Street Journal ever into libraries. Or so it seems, based on the amount of coverage libraries have received in these first two weeks of the new year. Of course they closed out the old year with Ada Louise Huxtable’s last-ever critique, a take-down of Norman Foster’s proposed renovation of the 42nd Street New York Public Library:

This is a plan devised out of a profound ignorance of or willful disregard for not only the library’s original concept and design, but also the folly of altering its meaning and mission and compromising its historical and architectural integrity. You don’t “update” a masterpiece.

There’s something perfect about Huxtable’s career ending with a look at one of New York’s most magnificent public spaces — but I, for one, can’t say that this was Huxtable’s most magnificent piece; she focused more on the presumed mission of the library than on the architecture, and I think her characterization of what libraries are for adopted many of the same stereotypes that compromised the Summer 2012 debate over the renovation.

via WSJ: "Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong is cataloging the collection of screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, including the costume in this box, worn by Willem Dafoe in the 1992 movie 'Light Sleeper.'"
via WSJ: “Ransom Center archivist Amy Armstrong is cataloging the collection of screenwriter and director Paul Schrader, including the costume in this box, worn by Willem Dafoe in the 1992 movie ‘Light Sleeper.'”

Then on January 3 the paper ran a piece about the sale of authors’ archives to libraries; of course this being the Journal, personal archives were framed not as a public good, but as an untapped source of potential income (Barry Newman, “As Trash Goes, Authors’ Clutter in the Right Hands Is Very Bankable”). A few days later they featured a rather nettlesome opinion piece by Peter Mandel (“Welcome to the Library, Where Shushing Is Overdue”) about the criminal invasion of noise into the library:

Long a refuge from the bustle of daily life, and a haven for adults and children who like the company of an engrossing page, the libraries I’ve been visiting lately are awash in almost as much noise and activity as a busy Starbucks.

I studied library acoustics for a couple years and published a few articles (including this one) on the topic. There’s so much to be said in response to this opinion piece — and, fortunately, many readers have written in to retort — but I’ll say only three things: first, there’s no reason “sounded” and silent activities can’t coexist in the same building, if it’s designed properly; second, libraries have long incorporated sound-making activities (e.g., some early Carnegie buildings included gyms, bowling alleys, music halls, etc.); and third, it’s been a while since libraries focused solely on books; they collect media in a wide variety of formats, including those for which sound is integral.

This is what they're doing in the library in Overland Park, KS.
This is what they’re doing in the library in Overland Park, KS.

In a rather funny coincidence, the very next day the Journal offered Owen Fletcher’s “Check These Out at the Library: Blacksmithing, Bowling, Butchering,” which examined the growth and diversification of library programming — much of which is, yes, quite noisy. This sh*t would drive Peter Newman nuts! Of course the question arises: what does butchering have to do with libraries? The answer is: libraries likely have books on butchering — so why not think of the library as a place where patrons can put that book-knowledge into action? Books, live demonstrations, and workshops are simply different media, different platforms for education — all of which can have a place in this institution.

The BPL's new Info Commons, via WSJ
The BPL’s new Info Commons, via WSJ

A week later the Journal turned its attention to Brooklyn. Jennifer Maloney’s “Library Eyes New Page” examined the Brooklyn Public Library’s renovation and digital-upgrading strategy, which will involve selling off some unfit old branch buildings and upgrading others; introducing an Info Commons, a digital lab and resource center, into its central building (just a couple blocks from where I live); and adding spaces for creative work. Of course closing branches is never a popular idea; when I spoke with the BPL’s Richard Reyes-Gavilan last winter for my Places article on “little libraries,” he asked me not to mention that, in their drive to become a more “nimble” institution, they were considering “messing with” (my words) the branches. Any perceived threat to the branches freaks people out. This was the case in every city I visited while researching for my book.

But as Reyes-Gavilan reinforced in our conversation, and as the library emphasized in the Journal article, “liberating” buildings that simply don’t function well in serving their communities, is actually an integral part of helping the BPL better serve its branch communities. According to the article, these real-estate dealings are done in support of the library’s main goals: “better serving the borough’s impoverished families, providing more resources for immigrants, and embracing Brooklyn’s now-established creative class with writers-in-residence, acquisitions of Brooklyn-penned oeuvres and studio space for artists” — which of course supplement their core mission: “ensur[ing] the preservation and transmission of society’s knowledge, history and culture, and…provid[ing] the people of Brooklyn with free and open access to information for education, recreation and reference.”

Predictably (I can imagine that Monday’s article incited a few branch-loyalist freak-outs), there was a follow-up article from Maloney the next day (“Proposal Would Replace Shuttered Brooklyn Libraries With New Spaces“), clarifying that “the library would replace any facilities it closes with new spaces in the same neighborhoods.” The sale of out-of-shape buildings, including some Carnegies, would “be used to pay for repairs and create new spaces designed for the digital age.” CEO Linda Johnson repeated: “We are not abandoning neighborhoods… There are some neighborhoods where we’ve got a library, but it’s just on the wrong block.”

Maloney’s original article referenced a report, issued last week by the Center for an Urban Future, on “Branches of Opportunity” in New York’s public library systems. Many of the challenges and opportunities and new developments examined in these various Journal articles are also addressed here, in the Center’s report. I spoke with David Giles, the report’s author, over the summer as he was gathering data. The main take-away is this: “New York City’s public libraries are serving more people in more ways than ever before, and have become an increasingly critical part of the city’s human capital system; but they have been undervalued by policymakers and face growing threats in today’s digital age.”

Pages from BranchesofOpportunity1


While Brooklyn, Queens, and the NYPL’s branches grapple with budget woes, aging infrastructure, Hurricane Sandy damage, etc., and work hard to devise creative solutions to accommodate the needs of their communities in this hybrid analog-digital media age, the NYPL flagship continues to focus on what seem like, in comparison, the “first world problems” of high-end architectural preservation. Just hours ago the Journal posted Jennifer Maloney’s “Engineer Unpacks Plan for the Stacks” (Maloney’s apparently become their library beat reporter!), in which Robert Silman Associates assures its client and public that it is possible to remove “seven levels of century-old book stacks that support the Fifth Avenue building’s Rose Main Reading Room like a 53-foot-high Erector set.” How? They’ll “install 12 new support columns in between the existing stacks,” and “transfer the weight of the reading room to new supports without causing so much as a crack in its historic, red-quarry tile floor.”

via WSJ

“All while library patrons read in the vaulted space above.” No disruptions necessary. No need to divert one’s attention from her book to contemplate the engineering feats — the insane playing-with-the-laws-of-physics stuff — taking place beneath her feet. This unawareness, or perhaps we should just call it obliviousness, seems to characterize the way we often think about our public libraries: we — and by we I mean particularly those of us among the “haves” of the information age — so often fail to recognize just how many people these institutions serve (including us!), what vital roles they play in those folks’ lives, how freaking complicated the logistics of running a library are, how much infrastructure and expertise is needed, and just how much support — moral, political, financial — they deserve.


Jury-Rig It: Shadow Infrastructures

Generally, these aren’t ideal conditions for telecommunications equipment. Verizon’s headquarters @ 140 West Street after Hurricane Sandy, via the Wall Street Journal 

Our out-of-sight-out-of-mind / ignore-’em-’til-they-break infrastructures have certainly made their presence known this week, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Many of us — including folks perched comfortably in the upper echelons of “First World” Manhattan — have had a bitter taste of some #thirdworldproblems. Consequently, we’ve all been reminded that the infrastructures we rely on for our most basic day-to-day activities are far from smart, seamless, and invisibly ubiquitous. Instead, they’re physical, fallible, easily conquered by falling trees and salt water. And when they fail us, we often have to resort to extreme measures to access the same services they otherwise so unobtrusively provide.

Geographer Stephen Graham reminds us that, in some parts of the world, infrastructural blackouts and break-downs are a common occurrence. This is, of course, assuming that there are existing sewer and power lines and cell phone towers to break down. In what Karen Bakker calls infrastructural “archipelagos” — “spatially separated but linked ‘islands’ of networked supply in the urban fabric” — “[i]nequality of access is literally embodied in urban infrastructure” (“Splintered Urbanisms” in Matthew Gandy, Urban Constellations (2011): 63). She proposes that “splintered urbanisms,” to borrow a term from Graham, are in fact the global norm, and universal access to public goods, which many of us have come to expect, is instead the aberration.

The Global South of course contains many such archipelagos, and it’s also the site of many acts of “undocumented innovation” and “private (non-governmental) strategies” to gain access to water and power and other “staples” (Bakker). AbdouMaliq Simone writes that “African cities are characterized by incessantly flexible, mobile, and provisional intersections of residents that operate without clearly delineated notions of how the city is to be inhabited and used. These intersections, particularly in the last two decades, have depended on the ability of residents to engage complex combinations of objects, spaces, persons, and practices. These conjunctions become an infrastructure — a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city” (“People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg” Public Culture 16:3 (2004): 407-429). Anthropologist Brian Larkin writes of similarly provisional infrastructural practices — jury-rigging, repurposing, pirating — in Nigeria (Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria (2008)).

In recent days, communities in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Rockaways, and devastated New Jersey coastal towns have developed their own “shadow” infrastructures, many of which re-purpose old technologies and rely heavily on biopower.

Community generator cell-phone-charging station in the East Village, via New York Magazine’s Daily Intel 
Reviving obsolete technology, via ABC News
Collecting water from an open hydrant on the Lower East Side, via New York Magazine’s Daily Intel 
Bodega shopping by candle light, via Wall Street Journal 

While I don’t mean to equate a week-long blackout or mass-transit shut-down with the nonexistence of electrical networks or public transit in some parts of the world, both conditions point to the inadequacy of existing systems. “We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns,” Governor Cuomo acknowledged. “We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems, and that is not a good combination.” As Cassim Shepard and Varick Shute wrote today in Urban Omnibus:

Financial, political, and practical collaboration will be vital to creating an infrastructure commensurate with the challenges ahead. The investments necessary won’t come top-down from the federal government in our current political climate. Nor can we rely exclusively on the DIY, bottom-up efforts of community groups and individual citizens to build the infrastructure of the future. Both national leadership and community stewardship will be necessary, mediated by the policies, investments, and interventions of states and cities. To “build it back smarter,” as Governor Cuomo has called for, will require a shift in understanding what infrastructure means, how it performs, and how – when it’s well designed, resilient, and responsive – its public benefits extend outwards across multiple and nested scales of citizenship, from community, to state, to nation, to planet.


Revisiting Paju

Photo by Yeong Ran Kim.

I spent the month of July in Seoul, researching Paju Bookcity with my research assistant Ran. I wrote about my Korean adventures here and here and here. A landscape and urbanism journal asked me to write an article about my research — and as I put the finishing touches on that article tonight, I thought it might be useful to review my “fieldwork” and post a few pictures, so they’re easily shareable with my editor. The following research agenda is a little stilted because I had to write this up to satisfy the requirements for two different funders’ final reports:

I conducted two on-site visits to PBC: one full-day visit on July 20 and one two-day visit on July 24-25. During that time I, with help from my research assistant/translator, employed the following methods:

  • We toured – by car and foot – PBC and conducted spatial analyses of the site (e.g., examining the variety of architectural forms and facades and how companies made use of both their interior and exterior spaces, understanding how buildings are situated in relation to one another and how people who work and live in the area circulate throughout Bookcity, etc.);
  • We documented PBC via photo, video, and audio;
  • We toured the surrounding area – Heyri Art Village, the DMZ, various nearby “new towns” – to get a sense of the local landscape and of PBC’s design “context”;
  • We spoke informally with shop owners and office workers, who told us what it’s like to work in Paju, and what new opportunities and challenges working in Paju has presented to them and their companies;
  • We met on July 24 with Lee Hojin, Assistant Manger of PR and Marketing for the Bookcity Culture Foundation, who spoke with us about the original goals for Bookcity, how the Bookcity cooperative measures success, and its future plans for growth.
  • We met on July 24, for nearly five hours (which was highly unexpected!), with Yi Ki-Ung, President of Youlhwadang Publishing and Chairman of the Bookcity Culture Foundation and the Cooperative of Paju Bookcity. Mr. Yi, the driving force behind Paju Bookcity since the late 1980s, told us about his inspiration for the project and recounted PBC’s coming into being. He also addressed the core values of Bookcity and his vision for future development, and while doing so, he shared with us various renderings for future design projects at PBC.
  • We met on July 25 with Chang Ki Young, Director of the Korean Electronic Publishing Association, with whom we spoke about how digital media are changing the Korean – and global – publishing worlds, and how these changes are or aren’t reflected in the infrastructure of Paju Book City. As a tenant of PBC, Chang was also able to discuss what it’s like to work there.
  • We met on July 25 with Lee Hwang-Gu, Managing Director of the Bookcity Culture Foundation and the Cooperative of Paju Bookcity, who told us about the mechanics of the project’s development, including its financing.
  • We met on July 25 with Kim Young-Joon, Principal of yo2 Architects, who’s been involved with the design of PBC since the beginning, is leading the design of Phase 2, and has developed the macro-scale design scheme for Phase 3. He discussed the challenges the designers faced in Phase 1, discussed his plans for future development of PBC, and shared models and renderings for Phases 2 and 3. He kindly provided us with copies of the project’s design guidelines.
Photo by me.
The not-so-exciting behind-the-scenes stuff that’s still an integral part of making books. Photo by me.

We also interviewed a few individuals in Seoul:

  • On July 19 we were given a guided tour of the Kyobo bookstore and, afterward, met with Baek Won Keun, Chief Researcher of the Korean Publishing Research Institute, with whom we discussed the history and future of Korean publishing, and how that past and future have informed, and should inform, the evolution of Paju Book City.
  • On July 23 we met with leading architect Seung H-Sang, one of the primary design coordinators for PBC, who discussed with us his own involvement in the design of Phase 1 of Paju Book City, his thoughts about contemporary Korean urban planning, and his hopes for the future development of Paju.


Koolhaas’s Libraries

Today I read the New Yorker feature on Bjake Ingels (whom we discuss in my Media + Architecture class in our lesson on comics, and who, as was mentioned a couple times in the article, was the subject of the first issue of CLOG). The piece mentioned Ingels’s work on the design for the Seattle Public Library, which, as anybody reading this probably already knows, was the subject of my dissertation — and a big part of my book. Anyway, it got me thinking about Koolhaas’s other library and educational space designs. So I went back to a draft of my pre-dissertation lit review and dug out the section in which I look at OMA’s previous library projects. The writing itself is rather embarrassing (I take everything at face value, and I quote way too much!), but it was still interesting, for me at least, to revisit these projects — to see how concepts and forms are shared between the various sites, to consider how they foreshadowed the Seattle Public Library, and to examine how they individually and collectively represented a particular turn-of-the-21st-century epistemology.

Please don’t judge; I was a 23-year-old fool when I wrote this (in 2000).

*   *   *   *   *

[I first talked about the Educatorium @ Utrecht; the Kunsthal in Rotterdam; the Grand Palais in Lille, France; and the Nederlands Dans Theater in The Hague.]

…His current commissions include a concert hall in Porto, Portugal; a student center on the campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology; three U.S. stores for Prada, the Italian fashion designer; the Dutch Embassy in Berlin; Guggenheim galleries for the Venetian resort in Las Vegas; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; and plans for the development of the Whitney Museum of American Art and the cultural district around the Brooklyn Museum of Art.  These new projects range from civic and educational architecture to exhibition and commercial architecture to urban planning.  The variety allows for—and promises—a great deal of cross-pollination.  In a preview of the Las Vegas Guggenheim project, the Las Vegas Business Press (October 2, 2000) raises the question of a “commercial entity using a nonprofit museum as a tourist draw” (p. 1).  Nicolai Ouroussoff, architecture critic for the Los Angeles Times, raises another: “How does architecture assert its value in [Las Vegas,] a world saturated by manipulative advertising and mass-market entertainment?” (p. F1).

The Unbuilt: OMA’s Libraries

Koolhaas has addressed similarly provocative questions in his previous designs—particularly in those designs that have never been built.  One question he has explored in a few projects is how to house information in the digital age, or how information structures architecture in the digital age.  Koolhaas’s unrealized plans for the Library at Jussieu University in Paris; the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, also in Paris; and the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM), a “mediatheque” in Karlsruhe, Germany, show how OMA has become “specialists (in library design) without having built one” (Goldsmith, May 27, 1999, ¶23).  Unfortunately, because there are no physical structures to tour, the Seattle Library Board missed the opportunity to explore OMA’s three conceptualized pseudo-libraries.

Jussieu. Via Design Enaction 

Yet these three projects in particular convey Koolhaas’s “fear of repetition” and his aversion to “the whole idea of a typology” (Zaera Polo, 1992a, p. 20).  As is evident in these three projects, Koolhaas is instead “interested in invention,” in “shocking or provoking” (Zaera Polo, 1992a, p. 18).  Architecture critic Michael Speaks (July 2000) explains the “real significance” of OMA’s inventive architecture:

Problem solving simply accepts the parameters of a problem given by society or, in the case of architecture, by the client.  The object of design is then to work within those parameters until a solution to the problem is reached, a final design.  This is how “the art of architecture,” traditionally represented by cultural institutions such as the Pritzker Prize [which Koolhaas won in 2000], and indeed by much of the architectural establishment, approaches the dramatic changes thrown up by the forces of globalization.  Innovation…works by a different, more entrepreneurial logic where, by rigorous analysis, opportunities are discovered that can be exploited and transformed into innovations (p. 92).

OMA has even opened a New York based office dedicated solely to “virtual architecture”—that is, “designs or redesigns of human environments that don’t resort to the tools of the construction industry” (Wolf, June 2000).  “My ambition,” says Koolhaas, “is to modernize and reinvent the profession by making use of our expertise in the unbuilt….” (Wolf, June 2000).

Via CracPreservation 

Koolhaas’s and OMA’s methodology for invention involves linking an architectural form to “a whole range of associations: mechanical, industrial, utilitarian, abstract, poetical, surrealist…” (Wortmann, 1993, p. 22).  He considers the social, cultural, economic, and technological conditions in which a project must function—and allows those conditions to inform his design.  Zaera Polo (1992b) claims that OMA’s recent work “tests a redefinition of temporal and spatial paradigms through material practices.  It initiates a new approach to architecture as the discipline of material organization within post-capitalism” (p. 32).

How do the social, cultural, economic, and technological conditions of a digital, global, post-capitalist system influence each of his library designs?  Ayad Rahmani (Winter 2000), architecture professor at Washington State University, argues that Koolhaas is brilliantly capable of “synthesizing the metaphors of the electronic age, namely the idea of the Web, with the need to make for a new structural expression”—especially for the library—“in architecture” (p. 26).

Libraries, Sorbonne University, Jussieu, France

Koolhaas’s design for the Jussieu Library considers both the urban condition and the state of information.  The project entailed constructing two libraries and several communal facilities for the Jussieu campus of the Sorbonne University, which had been unfinished since 1968.  As Koolhaas explains, “Our task was to create a lively public domain, to integrate the campus into the city and to turn it into an urban experience” (Harbort, 1993, p. 81). The building was to integrate the university’s science library, its humanities library, and an existing parvis, or enclosed courtyard.  In the June 1993 edition of ARCH+, Hans Harbort describes the design:

The science library with its relatively large proportion of closed storage areas is partly sunk beneath ground level, with the freely accessible storage facilities of the humanities library above.  Both libraries are separated by the entrance and reception area, which is part of the urban axis linking the Metro station with the River Seine.  This realm of social activities extends into the lower library in the shape of a double helix, forming an entrance to the conference center adjoining the library.  This double helix of the lower part of the building consists of two elements: the vie sociale, a ramp with cafeteria, auditorium and squash courts, and the series of ramps serving the science library.  Both of these ramps intertwine in one and the same space without touching….  The individual superimposed floor levels of the building are cut and deformed in such a way as to connect with the next level above and below, forming a continuous circuit which winds through the entire building like a meandering boulevard lined with all the elements of the library like houses lining a street….  The visitor becomes a flaneur who is seduced by the world of books and information, of urbanist situations such as plazas, parks, monumental stairways, cafes, boutiques, etc., which supplement the program of the two libraries (Harbort, p. 81).

Another “continuous circuit”: the “book spiral” @ Seattle. via OMA

Why should the science library include so many closed storage areas, while the humanities library affords free access to its materials?  What does the placement of the building’s elements—the science library rooted in the ground with the humanities library above—say about the nature of scientific knowledge and about the knowledge of human constructs?  Why should the social areas of the building extend into the research areas in the form of a double helix?  What does this double helix structure, the structure of DNA, say about the social or educational functions of the library?  Why should the building’s floors be integrated into a “continuous circuit?”  What does this continuity say about the division of knowledge into classes and disciplines?  Why should the “continuous circuit” winding throughout the library resemble an urban street?  Why is the visitor regarded as a flaneur, and why should he or she be “seduced” by books and information?  How does flanerie impact one’s mode of inhabiting the library space and the uses one makes of the space?  What does this act of seduction say about the nature of knowledge and the processes of knowledge acquisition?  Is the library obligated to play a role in this seduction?  Has the library outgrown its role as a storehouse for knowledge and become a purveyor of info-tainment?  These are among the questions that the Jussieu design raises.

Sanford Kwinter (1992) asserts that “all of OMA’s recent urbanist work is about the setting into motion of dynamic self-regulating and self-driving informational ecologies” (p. 85).  What kind of an informational, or media, ecology is “set into motion” at Jussieu?  According to Alejandro Zaera Polo (1992b), partner of Foreign Office Architects in London and Tokyo, the Jussieu library embodies “the change of phase between diverse states of information: from the solid phase of storage to the liquid state in its active phase.  …The amount of information is inversely proportional to the structure of the system” (p.45).  In other words, more information is available in less structured systems.  It follows that the most information-rich environments are those with relatively open, flexible floor plans and open access to their resources.  Koolhaas proposed such an open plan for Jussieu.  Instead of using fixed walls within the library, Koolhaas used movable and removable partitions, walls, and curtains to differentiate between open and intimate spaces (“Office for Metropolitan Architecture: Two Libraries,” Autumn 1993).  As one author explains, these differentiated spaces serve not as a collection of rooms, but as a “series of incidents”—“and because every floor has different incidents, there is also a kind of identity for each floor.  It is no longer simply a library but rather a system with many different components” (Harbort, 1993, p. 81).

Jussieu. Via OMA 

This notion of architecture “as a series of incidents” is an important part of Koolhaas’s design philosophy.   According to Herbert Muschamp (February 25, 2001) of the New York Times, “Koolhaas excels in conveying the idea that architecture is an art of organizing urban relationships, not the styling of discrete objects in space” (p. 42).  Koolhaas’s approach to design lies somewhere between architecture and urban planning.  He claims allegiance to a “New Urbanism”—a term Koolhaas uses to refer to a design method concerned not with “the arrangement of more or less permanent objects but with the irrigation of territories with potential”; a method aiming not for “stable configurations but for the creation of enabling fields that accommodate processes that refuse to be crystallized into definitive form”; a method not about “separating and identifying identities, but about discovering unnamable hybrids”; a method obsessed “with the manipulation of infra-structure for endless intensifications and diversifications”; a method committed to “the reinvention of psychological space” (Koolhaas, Winter/Spring 1995, p. 19).

Via OMA 

In creating “psychological spaces” instead of buildings and rooms, Koolhaas focuses more on the human experience of space than on the autonomous existence of the space itself.  In fact, he approaches architectural design in much the same way that a filmmaker approaches cinema.  In an interview with Arthur Lubow (July 9, 2000) of the New York Times Magazine, Koolhaas, a former screenwriter, explains that architecture, like film, involves the design of “episodes” and “montage” (p.37).  “It’s very scripted, the way people move and the possibilities he leaves for people in his buildings,” his partner, artist Madelon Vriesendorp, acknowledges.  “The experiences are laid out….  He sees a space and he sees what could happen—a scene in space” (Lubow, July 9, 2000, p. 37).  At Jussieu, the library is more than a building; it is an experience—a research experience, an informational experience, an urban experience.  And in the design process, Koolhaas is more concerned with negotiating the experience, or the empirical functioning, of the library—and hence its “operative” ideology—than in redefining the institution linguistically.  As Zaera Polo (1992b) explains, “OMA’s…work seems to indicate a new beginning with a basis that is not linguistic or textual experimentation, but the proposal of a series of geographies or topographies whose meaning is fundamentally operative rather than significant” (p. 35).  Although the negotiation process itself often requires establishing a linguistic or textual articulation of the ideas, ideals, and values embodied in a design, the physical building provides an “operative” embodiment of those ideologies.

Furthermore, in OMA’s projects, according to Kwinter (1992), “the argument always takes precedent over the project” (pp. 84-5).  He explains:

In other words, there is always primarily an engine, be it discursive or diagrammatic, never a design that is introduced in the urban milieu to be reconfigured.  It is never a question of organizing a space at the outset, but rather of unleashing, triggering, or capturing larger and already existing processes (Kwinter, 1992, pp. 84-5).

Via m[A]estronic
One of these “larger and already existing processes” is human movement, or existing circulation patterns.  Consequently, another key concept explored in, or another “engine” that is driving, Koolhaas’s design for Jussieu is that of circulation.  As Harbort (1993) maintains, the 1.5-km long boulevard winding throughout the building at a two- to four-percent slope provides for an “urbanist” means of movement—but the library’s elevators and escalators offer movement of another sort.

If the architectonic movement of the ramps is indeterminate and ambling, the mechanical movement of the elevators and escalators is linear and determinate.  Together these two types of connections form a complex network of spatial relationships, a variety of different paths through the building (Harbort, 1993, p. 81).

These two methods of movement symbolize two means of information gathering.  The “meandering boulevard” fosters a “flaneurial” type of information gathering.  Visitors may stroll through the stacks and browse through the titles on display.  In the process, they may find themselves “seduced” by flashy book covers or computer interfaces—or they may discover interesting resources through serendipity.  The direct route made possible by elevators and escalators allows for a “linear and determinate” means of movement throughout the building; as Zaera Polo (1992b) acknowledges, “it was always the revolutionary potential of the elevator to introduce a new era of liberated and randomized relationships between different components of a building” (p. 68).  But inside a library this transportation technology also fosters also a “linear and determinate” approach to research.  The visitor can enter search terms into a computer database, identify a resource that he or she wishes to access, and then take the elevator directly to the floor where that book is shelved—with no wandering or exploration en route.  He or she retrieves the material, takes the elevator back downstairs to circulation, checks out his or her book, and departs.  The elevator thus makes possible a “new era of liberated and randomized relationships between different” resources in a library, too (Zaera Polo, 1992b).

The ephemeralization of information, the increasing speed and quantity of information, and the challenges of accessing and sifting through that information—all are among the “social, political, economic and technological disruptions wrought by globalization” (Speaks, July 2000, p. 92).  And according to Koolhaas, his work is “aligned with the forces of modernization and the inevitable transformations that are engendered by this [modernizing] project which has been operating for 300 years” (Lootsma, January 1998, p. 40).  His design for Jussieu is in part a response to the speed of information and to the disintegration of the city center.  The library becomes a city—a social network—in and of itself.

It is the “center of gravity” on campus and within its greater urban setting (Harbort, 1993, p. 81).  The library sits at the convergence of several circulatory routes: the parvis, which runs through the building, is connected in the south with the Metro station and in the north with the Seine.  In addition, the library serves as a focal point for the region south of the Seine.  The entire building is enclosed in an envelope of overlapping, irregularly shaped “shingles” of tinted glass.  Again, Harbort (1993) explains the unique visibility afforded by this glass skin:

The interior of this urban building can be read from the outside like an x-ray photograph, revealing the dialectic between the regularly spaced needle columns and the irregularly deformed floor levels.  Floating within this structure are various enclosed volumes: reading rooms, separated studies, the cabins of the hydraulic elevators, book repositories, etc.  Looking from the Institut du Monde Arabe, the building appears so transparent as to be almost invisible.  If the building thus seems to dissolve when seen along the green axis (gardens along the river), it shows a stronger presence along the urban axis, facing the city (p. 82).

The library’s visage thus depends upon the perspective of its beholder.  This dynamic appearance conveys both a sensitivity to context—that is, an attempt to make the structure harmonize with its natural and urban surroundings—and an awareness of the dynamic nature of the institution itself.  The building’s varying opaqueness and transparency could even symbolize the two kinds of resources—digital and physical—held within.

Takeo Higashi (Summer 1993) addresses the compound identity of the Jussieu library—and how that identity can be embodied in a physical form:

What sort of image, and what basic functions should the library, with its massive stock of books, possess?  The information processing activity of symbolizing and classifying books, which possess their own microcosmos, and further simply arranging them, specifies the architectural program itself.  The virtual space of a vast and transparent information matrix is created here.  A physical space indispensable to the life of the campus, the library is also a communication space for people on campus.  The pliant human body, the space of the gardens that receives and terminates the circulation flow, and the hard edge of the city as a perceptual information space all come together here (pp. 92-3).

Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, Competition Entry

Via OMA 

Koolhaas again plays with the ideas of the virtual and the physical, solids and voids in his 1989 competition entry for the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF).  President Mitterrand called for “an entirely new (building) type,” and, according to Claire Downey (February 1990), the Paris correspondent for Architectural Record, “the competition for the Library of France provided the opportunity to explore both an architecture of addition—to Paris, to the history of library design—and a point of departure that envelops new technologies and techniques” (p. 123).  In other words, the competition involved the re-thinking the ideologies of place and of library that are embodied in this important civic building.  As Koolhaas says in his 1995 monograph S,M,L,XL, “we became more and more resistant to the norms of architecture in which everything has to be resolved through the invention of form.  We sought for the first time to really invent, architecturally” (p. 24-5).

Via OMA 

The three-million-square-foot space was to include five different libraries: a cinemathèque, a library of recent acquisitions, a reference library, a catalog library, and a scientific library—“each with its own idiosyncrasies and its own public” (Koolhaas, 1996, p. 23).  Because 60% of the program consists of public spaces and storage, Koolhaas proposed that all the storage “could be seen as one enormous cube, and then all the public spaces could simply be excavated” from that cube (Koolhaas, 1996, p. 25).  His design begins with a “solid block of information, a repository of all forms of memory, books, optic discs, microfiches, computers, etc.” (Zaera Polo, 1992b, p. 68).  The major public spaces are integrated as “absences of building, voids carved out from the information solid”—with the most highly public spaces located at the lower parts of the building, and those areas requiring darkness located at the core (Fisher, April 1990, p. 125; Koolhaas, 1996, p. 26).  Koolhaas refers to these carved out spaces as “multiple embryos floating in a field of memory” (Ouroussoff, April 17, 2000, p. F1).

Why should the materials storage areas be envisioned as, variously, a “solid block of information” and “a field of memory”?  Are not these two images of the “solid block” and the memory “field” somewhat opposed?  What does this imagery—and the seeming contradiction in the images—say about the materials housed in the library?  What ideologies about library does it embody?  And why should the public areas be regarded as, alternatively, “voids,” and “embryos”?  Can these public areas represent both absence, through the void, and life, through the embryo?  What ideologies of public do these “absences” and “embryos” imply?

Furthermore, in Koolhaas’s design each of the voids has a distinctive shape.  The Sound and Moving Image Library resembles, according to one critic, pebbles.  The Recent Acquisitions Library is a cross-shaped space containing audio and television viewing spaces that slope toward the river and intersect at an amphitheater.  The Catalog Room takes the shape of egg, and it provides a panoramic view of Paris.  The Research Library is housed in a loop or moebius strip.  And the Reference Library is a continuous, thrice-twisted spiral that connects five floors of semi-open storage and study carrels (Fisher, April 1990, p. 125; Zaera Polo, 1992b, p.70).

Zaera Polo (1992b) explains the significance of these shaped absences: “Since they are defined as voids, the individual libraries can be spaces defined strictly to their own logic, independent of each other, of the external envelope and of the classical obstacles of architecture…” (p. 68).  But what is the logic behind the choice of shape for each space?  Why should the Recent Acquisitions library resemble a cross?  And why should its multimedia areas converge at an amphitheater?  Does the theater’s positioning at this confluence point suggest that this classical auditorium—and the oral culture that it represents—still play a key role in our contemporary media culture?  Furthermore, does the egg shape of the Catalog Room imply that knowledge and enlightenment are nurtured and hatched in this area?  Or are these shaped purely functionally derived?

Canadian Centre for Architecture Exhibition, 2012 (which happened to be up while I was in residence there this summer) Via Abitare. 

Although each public area differs in form and function, these public spaces are all linked by escalators to provide continuity throughout the entire structure.  “Ordering the apparently arbitrary spatial forms is a series of parallel shear walls and a grid of nine elevators” (Fisher, April 1990, p. 125).  Downey (February 1990), in her review of the BNF competition entries, imagines that Koolhaas’s nine elevators enable one to move through the building “as if though ideas and information, almost like tracing the plan of a computer chip, yet far more serene” (p. 125).  What does it mean to inhabit information—to view knowledge as a physical landscape through which one can glide in a glass car?  Koolhaas (1996) proposed: “the elevator shafts…could be electric signs whose words, texts, or songs represent the destinations of the individual elevators.  All these letters, moving up, would make the building seem to hover, entirely supported by the alphabet” (p. 28-9).  It is significant that the alphabet provides the structural integrity for this highly digitalized library.

Standing amidst this core of elevators is the Great Hall of Ascension, where floors of glass “display the building’s treasures” (Zaera Polo, 1992b, p. 70).  What ideologies are embodied in this transparent building material, in the techniques of “display”?  From the great hall one can also view vertical electronic billboards on each of the elevator shafts.  Even the building’s glass facades, of varying degrees of transparency, become projection surfaces.  Koolhaas (1996) explains, “We thought we could use glass in such a way that it sometimes made disclosures.  Sometimes, like a cloud, it would obscure what was happening behind, and at other times it would simply block what happened by being opaque” (p. 30).  Other building elements play optical illusions, appearing at times as windows, at other times as tunnels, and at still other times as what Zaera Polo (1992b) calls “polished stones” (p. 74).  According to Downey (1990), this architectonic and optical play symbolizes that “word and image are joined.  The library…can become as much of an information transmitter as any video screen, turning the building itself into a readable surface and collector of images” (p. 125).  Thus, the library itself becomes a resource, a text, a medium.

Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM), Karlsruhe, Germany

Again, in his 1989 competition entry for the Center for Art and Media Technology (ZKM) in Karlsruhe, Germany, Koolhaas explores similar themes: circulation, mediation, virtuality, and physicality.  Yet there is one major distinction: the ZKM is not a library. It is a media center.  A feature on the design competition in the March 1990 edition of Diadalos, identifies the unique challenges of designing this brand new institution:

The historical library, the memory of national knowledge, already appears to be a thing of the past, given the present technological possibilities, in both its form and function of storing books and—in particular—as a site of academic work.  The “media center,” which everyone is now talking and thinking about, is a phenomenon which has yet to be defined precisely with respect to its real performance, function and appearance.  The architect, when designing, participates in a “hare and tortoise race” in which the hare of communications technology will always be a nose ahead of the architect-tortoise (and his well designed information container) (p. 123).

In other words, the ideologies that come to be codified in the media center do not entirely precede the process of architectural design, but emerge and are negotiated in the design process itself.  They are constructed along with the building.

According to Jeffrey Shaw (n.d.), Director of the Institute for Visual Media at the ZKM, the Center was originally proposed in 1984 as the centerpiece of an urban enhancement project and did not reach its “final definition” until 1989.  Koolhaas was selected to design the facility—but on July 16, 1992, the city council voted to abandon the project (Office for Metropolitan Architecture, Koolhaas, Mau, 1995).  In S,M,L,XL (1995), Koolhaas writes that the “fiasco showed that even where such a culture needs recombinations, the inevitable slowness of architecture—its inability to embody experiments quickly—tends to obliterate the fragile opportunities that occur in the unstable constellations of political and economic forces that indeed seal our fate” (p. 763).  The ZKM was later realized, by another architect, in “a massive monumental industrial edifice built in 1918 as an armaments factory” (, ¶3-4).  This seems an oddly appropriate site to house an institution dedicated to forging “new meeting grounds between art, science and society,” to nurturing “artistic achievement in the various fields of the media arts” and bringing “new qualities into the evolution of our technological culture” (, ¶2).

Via OMA 

But at the time of the competition Koolhaas’s design was deemed the most appropriate structure to house a media center, and was selected from among all the competition entries.  When the competition was announced in 1983, city officials sought proposals for the redevelopment of Karlsruhe’s station area and the dilapidated area south of the station (Werner, 1991, p. 78).  Thus, the ZKM design had to respond to a “series of relationships between the existing city and the implications of the site and program” (Zaera Polo, 1992b, p. 118).  Zaera Polo (1992b) explains:

The classical city of Karlsruhe in itself contradicts the presence of a futuristic center of Art and Technology; while the railway station building is oriented toward the city center, the ZKM is oriented toward the periphery; part of the program accommodates research for the artists, while the other part is devoted to the public; the museum for modern art offers a spectrum of exhibition possibilities ranging from traditional to experimental (p. 118).

Furthermore, at that time, “nobody knew exactly what a ‘Medienzentrum’ really was, or ought to be” (Werner, 1991, p. 78).  “How then was it possible for an architect to define a…program, not to mention an architectural form, for something that could no longer be imprisoned in concrete materials, and for which he could find neither examples to serve as a comparison nor typological precedents?” (Werner, 1991, p. 79).

What architectural form did Koolhaas choose?  The cube.  Werner (1991) explains that this primary shape allows for the introduction of “an unexpected fluctuation of spaces exclusively in its nucleus” (p. 81).  In expecting the unexpected, in preparing for fluctuation in the institution’s mission and program, Koolhaas proposed a structure that emphasizes flexibility.  Despite such adaptability, however, Koolhaas (1996) claims that a “museum for media” is, in a sense, destined to be always already outmoded:

There is an incredible pressure for the media to always change, in terms of both its content and its form.  What is different about doing a museum for media is that curse of continuously accelerating events, combined with the problems of creating real space as well as space that is virtual, ephemeral, or destructible (pp. 34-5).

Eventually, though, the Center’s directors finalized a mission statement and established an identity for the ZKM.  According to Shaw (n.d.), the ZKM was to be

not a single entity, but a multiplex consisting of a number of synergetically interrelated departments.  The Museum of Modern Art…is a permanent collection of major international artworks with the emphasis on contemporary media art relations and with the intention to show the historical continuity of media art in relation to traditional forms.  The Media Museum…is a popular science museum with specially made exhibits that offer the general public ways to better understand the nature and future directions of our technological culture….  The Media Library is a large interactive library of audio visual and printed materials….  [The] Theater is a general purpose space for experimenting [with] the conjunction between media technology and the performing arts (

Just as the Center has multiple departments, Koolhaas’s cube, like all cubes, has multiple dimensions and axes.  And most critics see in Koolhaas’s design an attempt to position and organize along each of these axes the seemingly contradictory dimensions that the facility would have to incorporate: center and periphery; the classical and the futuristic; tradition and experimentation; and demonstration (public areas) and production (private studio areas) (Werner, 1991, p. 87).  Koolhaas’s design attempts to embody, in a single structure, these contrasting ideologies—and, in the process, to construct the ideology of the “media center” itself.

In linking these seemingly incongruous programmatic elements within a regular, clean cubic form, Koolhaas’s design also links ideologically several seemingly opposed ideas.  By architecturally connecting a traditional museum recording the history of contemporary art; an interactive media “museum,” or laboratory, with computers and audio-visual recording studios; an experimental theater; and a library containing archives and databases, Koolhaas brings the traditional arts into contact with new media arts—and thereby decreases the ideological distance between them.  His design “is charged with restoring a correct relation between the manually-based traditional arts and the abstract knowledge underlying digital technology” (Pogacnik, June 1990, p. 79).  Marco Pogacnik (June 1990) claims that by integrating old and new, the ZKM brings “research…down from its traditional ‘ivory tower’ and into the real world” (p. 78).  “The ZKM’s mission,” he continues, “is to see the design process as the transformation of reality into a ‘gesamtkunstwerk,’ a total work of art” (p. 79).  Here, classical distinctions, divisions, and dichotomies are dissolved.

Via OMA 

Furthermore, this total artwork becomes an immersive space.  Shaw (n.d.) explains, “Here the viewer is no longer a consumer in a mausoleum of images and objects, rather he and she are travelers, discoverers and creators in a dense new space of audio-visual information.”  Again, as in the BNF, Koolhaas’s design plays with the idea of inhabiting information: in the ZKM, “the artist and the spectator are no longer confronted by an object or work, but are inside it, in a hyper-real space created by a mix of holograms, music, words, computer graphics, and laser technology” (Pogacnik, June 1990, p. 79).  Koolhaas (1996) conceived of the theater as a “space where every single plane can be seen as a surface for projection; in that sense the entire space can be completely manipulated” (pp. 32-3).

This “information space” theme continues through to the building’s exterior, where a structural shell functions as a gigantic telescreen, “a monumental ‘magic lantern’ that projects onto its exterior an ever-changing array of snapshots, scenes, and videoclips of the various activities that are going on inside the building” (Werner, 1991, p. 81).  According to Koolhaas (1996), “the word, represented on the exterior of the building, presents to the outside a certain kind of message, in the most vulgar communicative sense” (p. 34).  Koolhaas revisits the architectonic illusion, which appeared in his design for the Jussieu libraries, too.  Pedestrians passing the ZKM would see it as a “black block which does not reveal its true content”—“a screen on which spectacle is projected” (Wortmann, 1993, pp. 22-3).  As they approach the building, however, it “dissolves into an abstract and airy pattern of cylindrical shafts” (Werner, 1991, p. 83).  What ideologies are communicated through this shift from slick screen to mechanical structure?  Could Koolhaas have planned this perceptive shift to represent the ZKM’s commitment to both traditional mechanical media and new digital media?  Could it symbolize the deceptive ability of visual technologies to hide their mechanical natures and internal structures?  Regardless of Koolhaas’s intention, Werner claims, “what matters most about this enormous visual barrel organ is its metaphorical significance: the medium is the message” (p. 83).

via arcspace 

And in Seattle, through what medium will OMA convey the Seattle Public Library’s message?  What ideological messages—about the place, the public, and the library—will the architectural medium embody?  How will those messages be negotiated and codified—or, as McLuhan might say, “massaged”—into a physical structure?


via SPL

The Tenure Verdict: My Own Personal Closing Ceremony

Ori Gersht, Blow Up, via

Nature is constipated the sap doesn’t flow
With tenure the classroom is empty
et in academia ego

the ketchup is stuck inside the bottle
the letter goes unanswered the bell doesn’t ring.

David Lehman’s “With Tenure

Don’t burst my bubble, David. Let me enjoy this for a little while.

*   *   *   *   *

Last summer I was in the midst of compiling my tenure dossier. I posted about the challenges of writing the Statement of Purpose, the components that made it into my 4″ dossier binder (I also included a copy of my Table of Contents), and the elation I felt at handing over five print and five digital copies of that 882-page *@!%&. In the latter post, I added what was, in my estimation at least (undoubtedly compromised by weeks of mental anguish), a pretty clever poem — a pseudo-cento — about the whole process.


Seoul: Week 3 – Paju + The Vertical Village

This past week was dedicated primarily to research on and in Paju Bookcity. On Monday Ran and had the honor of meeting with Seung H-Sang, one of the chief design coordinators for PBC. We discussed his thoughts about contemporary Korean urban planning, his own involvement in the design of Phase 1 of Paju Bookcity, and his hopes for the future development of Paju. And I forgot to mention that last week we met with Baek Won Keun, Chief Researcher of the Korean Publishing Research Institute, with whom we discussed the history and future of Korean publishing, and how that past and future have informed, and perhaps should inform, the evolution of PBC. Tuesday and Wednesday (in addition to last Friday) were dedicated entirely to on-site research and interviews in Paju. I’ll offer a more comprehensive picture of our work in a later post.

For now, I’ll talk about a fantastic — and highly relevant, given the week’s recurring discussion themes — exhibition I saw at the Total Museum of Contemporary Art yesterday. MRVDV / The Why Factory were invited to present “The Vertical Village,” a big, dynamic, playful, and terrifically smart exhibition about city-building. After hearing so much talk this week, in our conversations with architects and planners, about their general dissatisfaction with the pace and products of recent Asian urban developments — and after seeing so many interchangeable “New Towns” along the road from Seoul to Paju — “The Vertical Village” presents a provocative look at some alternatives. (It’s worth noting that Paju Bookcity’s planners prided themselves on their rejection of Western-style master-planning and capital-driven development, and their foregrounding of collaboratively-defined, humanistic design values.)

Looking out the window of the Jijihyang Guesthouse in Paju Bookcity, with a mess of white “New Towns” visible on the horizon (you’ll have to click to open a larger version of the image)

From the lovely little Welcome to the Vertical Village catalogue (which I got for free, in exchange for completing a survey about the exhibition!):

For centuries, the fabric of East Asian cities has been formed by urban villages that are built up of small scale, informal, often ‘light’ architecture: the hutongs in Beijing, the small — mostly wooden — houses in Tokyo, the villages in Singapore, the kampungs in Jakarta, as well as the individual houses and rooftop-extensions in Taipei.

These urban villages form intense, socially connected communities where strong individual identities and differences are maintained. Because they are, and have been, inhabited mostly by the poor, land is cheap — and therefore, change comes easily…

Driven by demographic and economic forces since the start of the second millennium, these cities are rapidly changing. In a relentless ‘Block Attack,’ massive towers, slabs and blocks with repetitive housing units, floor plans and facades are invading — scraping away the urban villages that have evolved over hundreds of years. These alien buildings provide a Western standard of living, destroying indigenous communities in the process. They obstruct urban innovation and discourage differentiation, flexibility and individual ideas.

Is there a better way to develop these areas? Could we densify them without sacrificing the informality of the urban village? Could we even apply the principles of informality to generate new neighborhoods? What if we could grow urban villages vertically, as an alternatives to the monotonous sea of blocks?

This approach could enable housing types with terraces and roof gardens that accommodate leisure activities. This comfortable lifestyle might even attract the middle and upper classes, leading to a more mixed and less segregated society. Homes could even be combined with small-scale offices and workspaces. In contrast to the blocks, this new village type might enable an architecture based on individual expression and identity…

Can this new kind of village be developed in an evolutionary manner? Can a workable model for a self-organized process of city-building be provided?… Such a development would require a framework and a set of principles to regulate and support the individuality of its elements, while guaranteeing safety, sunlight, sanitation, and the wishes of its inhabitants. What technologies would be needed? How can health regulations and air rights be addresses? What about fire safety? Can development be phased?

We need to provide a workable model for a truly self-organized manner of city building — a model that combines individuality, differentiation and collectivity with the need for densification, as an alternative to the Block Attack. A model that can generate a vertical village — a three-dimensional community that brings personal freedom, diversity, flexibility and neighborhood life back into Asian — and maybe even Western — cities.

A model of the exhibition at the gallery entrance

The exhibition is organized into 15 “stations”:

  • The Introduction, from which I quoted above
  • “Block Attack,” which defines the phenomenon
  • “The Properties of Communities,” which draws on such thinkers as Christopher Alexander and Jane Jacobs to identify the qualities that distinguish healthy communities
  • “The Death and Life of the Urban Village,” which “trac[es] the evolution of nine very different Asian cities [to provide] insight into the development, the current status and the future of urban villages”
  • “Unfulfilled Domestic Desires,” which features videos of young families in Taipei discussing what they look for in a “nice house”
  • “The Housemaker(c),” a prototype “software program that can address the many requirements of prospective homebuyers,” e.g., number of rooms, layout, shape, materials, etc.
  • “Dream,” a section whose specific focus I don’t recall!;
  • “Google Search,” which features a selection of search results when one googles phrases containing the phrase “vertical” and “village,” and examines what we can learn from these precedents;
  • “Investigating Evolution,” which features the results of an experiment: designed “[]
    o enhance knowledge of the Vertical Village’s growth, to understand the relationships among its different elements, and to test the necessary rules…. Cubes represented individual houses, with each color representing one parameter. Growth over X years was simulated for six days, for six identical plots, following six parameters, resulting in a battle of conflicting desires. How does the village’s economy compete with community?…”
  • “Ask the Experts,” where various designers, academics, officials, etc. share their thoughts on the challenges and opportunities presented by the Vertical Village;
  • “SuperKampung,” which examines “the socioeconomic side of communities in Jakarta,” and tests what might happen if nine different kampungs, each with its own informal structures and economies, joined forces into a Super Kampung;
  • “Five Villages,” which presents five possible manifestations of a Vertical Village on a plot of a standard size, with a given number of inhabitants and development time-span;
  • “The VillageMaker(c),” “an open-source software program that allows future inhabitants to collectively develop a vertical village in an evolutionary way” (I couldn’t play because everything was in Korean!);
  • “A Day in the Life of…,” where we can “peek in on the lives of the inhabitants of the VV”;
  • and “Project Chronology,” which is what it says it is.
Out on the patio — the “Preface” to the “Introduction” station.
“The Housemaker(c)” Stations
A not-so-great shot of the lowest of the three levels of the exhibition. It’s much larger than it appears!
Peeking through a peephole into one of several Vertical Village models

It was such a fun and engrossing show I spent a good hour in the museum. And on my way out, I caught a glimpse of a strange form up in the hills of Pyeongchang-dong — so I hiked up some crazily steep streets to get a closer look. I’d love to learn more about this place:

So awesomely weird!

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My final days in Seoul were dedicated to lots of writing, a final meet-up with Minhyoug (during which we apparently crossed paths with some Korean TV stars, whom I never would’ve recognized); final climbs up Inwangsan mountain (where I discovered a marvelous temple tucked up in the rocks) and Namsan; and an evening in Hongdae and Hapjeong with Ran, during which I marveled at all the cute cafes in the back alleys, and finally recognized just how central convenience stores seem to be to public life in Seoul: the Family Marts commonly put tables outside, and local folks of all stripes hang out and drink — and, while I was there, watch the Olympics.

My final full-day in Korea was the first honest-to-God mostly-sunny day I was able to enjoy on my entire trip, so I caught a nice northern panorama from the top of Namsan:


Seoul: Week 2

Buam-dong’s profundities

Most of my time this week was spent finishing up this book chapter; meeting with my RA, who arrived on Monday, to finalize our research plans; and conducting our first day of field research and our first interview at Paju. When I wasn’t doing that,I was doing this:

I went with Minhyoung on Sunday to Yongsan, her neighborhood, for dumplings, and then to the National Museum of Korea. It’s interesting to see that they’re building a calligraphy museum (or something of the sort) next door. We also swung by the Han River because I had read an article in Arch Daily just the previous week about Seoul’s Floating Islands, and I was intrigued:

H Architecture in New York and Haeahn Architecture in Seoul collaborated and won a design competition to create the floating islands that will become a cultural icon of Seoul. Programmatically, the islands contain several cultural, educational, and recreational functions. They will be the venue for many featured events in the city. The design concept stems from the stages of a blooming flower: a seed, bud, and blossom. Each of the islands take on the form of one of these stages, manifesting as delicate yet bold structures of glass, wood, and steel. When completed, the islands were named “Sebit Dungdungseom” which translates to “3 Floating Lantern Islands.”

via Haeahn Architecture, by way of Arch Daily

Sounds lovely. But what Arch Daily didn’t tell us is that those islands  — along with the hideous new City Hall addition by iArc — are apparently a sore spot for some locals. They blame previous administrations for pushing through these and other unwanted and unpopular projects. And a day after the Arch Daily post ran, the Korea Times ran a story about the “grave errors” in the Floating Islands project:

Seoul City’s special audit team announced Thursday that the previous municipal administration bypassed proper procedure to recklessly press ahead with a controversial Floating Island project.

The team said that the construction project for the island on the Han River turned out to be riddled with “grave errors” and that it had decided to take disciplinary action against 15 officials in charge of the project. The action will include layoffs, salary reductions and reprimands.

“The project will be recorded as the most problematic private investment project in Seoul’s history,” said Kim Sang-beom, deputy mayor of the city government. “We will correct the inappropriate parts of the contract.” Ouch. I revisited the Han River again today — our first “sunny” day (ha!) in a while — to get a closer look at the Islands.

Anyway. Earlier this week I revisited that little village north of the Blue House that I happened upon last week, and discovered that it’s called Buam-dong. I found the Whanski Museum hidden in the hills. It was designed by Kyu Sung Woo, but it looks a bit like the Kimbell Art Museum. I couldn’t find a vantage point to get a good shot:

On my walk I also encountered a Navkingdom “streetview” car taking panoramic photos for some company’s mapping system; and a construction site about which I can find nothing online: half is a museum-ish contemporary building; the other half is built into a hill.

The following days involved some more art. At the Seoul Museum of Art Ran and I saw the “Mapping Realities” show (which mapped Korean politics to art movements) and “Hidden Track” (which I didn’t really get, but which included a few interesting pieces), and then we sat for the entirety of a really nice screening of Asian shorts (about which I can’t find anything online! — but I do remember that Apichatpong Weerasethakul was among the filmmakers).

Art Press translations from the 70s
A tower of boxes. I couldn’t find the wall label, so I have no idea who’s responsible for this.

Several works at in the “Mapping Realities” show were drawn from the archive of Pool art space, in the northern part of my neighborhood, so we headed up there — after some awesome patbingsu at Cafe Spring (our food and the place were so lovely I regret not taking photos!) — later that afternoon. They had a really interesting, if not entirely cohesive, show called “25hr sailing,” which “looks into the Euljiro area for image projection and picks out 3 vanishing points to focus on…: cinema business, printing companies and moon snails.” Disappearing media spaces: right up my alley.

25hr sailing
I liked this row of chairs.

I also dedicated a couple hours one afternoon to a Koolhaas tour — but we had a bit of bad luck. We went to see his art museum at Seoul National University but found a sign on the door indicating that it was closed, unexpectedly, for several days. I’ll have to settle for an exterior view because I’m not heading all the way back to campus again.

Seoul National University Museum of Art

Then we headed to Leeum, the Samsung Museum of Art (I’ve discovered that there’s an implied “Samsung” in front of every institution’s name here), a totally chi-chi space for which R.K. designed one of the three main buildings — but it, too, was closed, for two openings: Art Spectrum, featuring emerging Korean artists; and Pippilotti Rist. The stream of fancy cars kept us from examining even the facilities — so this trip was a complete bust. But I was resolved to return. I couldn’t miss these buildings — nor Pippilotti, namesake of my cat. (Leeum follow-up visit photos below)

The following day we began our interviews, and when they were over we went for lunch nearby in Insadong — which happened to be near Samcheong, where there were a few recently opened shows I wanted to see. So we took an hour to visit Cheng Ran’s “Cinema of Silence” at Arario; Jungmin Ryu’s “The Path of Error” (photocollages we really enjoyed) at Trunk Gallery; and “Desirable Routine” (mostly-Danish-modern-furniture-and-art vignettes, which, again, I enjoyed) at Gallery Hyundai.

Cinema of Silence
Close-up of “The Path of Error”
Desirable Routine

The following day we were “in the field” at Paju (about which I’ll write separately) — but before heading back to Seoul, we swung by an observatory to catch a glimpse of the neighbors to the north. Off there in the mist is an Axis of Evil. Can you feel it?

North Korea!


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UPDATE: Ran and I revisited Leeum on Sunday. It was well worth the trek. What an impressive space — with three buildings, each of distinctive character, designed by Mario Botta, Jean Nouvel, and Rem Koolhaas — and what fantastic shows! I understand that some folks think of the museum as rather extravagant and showy — and there is indeed a haughty air permeating the space — but I can’t deny that it’s a fabulous museum, and very much accommodating of a wide variety of art forms. I seemed to get in trouble every time I tried to take a picture, so I have few photos to share — but there are plenty of images on the Leeum website.

Mario Botta’s building, with a Feliz Gonzales-Torres installation in the rotunda
Looking out the window from Jean Nouvel’s building

I really appreciated the modern and contemporary Korean art, much of which I wasn’t familiar with, in this wing. I especially enjoyed Bahc Yiso, Bae Bien-Yu, Jung Yeondoo, and Kim Hong-Joo’s work.

Koolhaas’s building, w/ a great black-box theater where Pippilotti Rist’s fantastic work was shown

The Koolhaas wing housed the two special exhibitions: ArtSpectrum and Pippilotti Rist. Both were excellent. My surreptitious photos can’t do justice to the multiplanar projections of Rist’s work in the black-box theater. And there were several intriguing and entertaining works in ArtSpectrum: Oak Jungho and Jun Sojung’s work was particularly memorable.

My failed attempt to capture the “inhabitable images” of Rist’s installation

While I thoroughly enjoyed my experience at Leeum, I couldn’t help but sense the tangible agency of the architecture and the institution itself. Guards, ready to offer not-so-gentle directions regarding the proper way to navigate the space, were everywhere. Circulation was carefully calculated and clearly marked, and the space “disciplined” me into compliance. Textures and colors and floor coverings offered material cues regarding proper behavior: you knew where you were supposed to go, how you were supposed to act, where you were supposed to stand to appreciate various works, etc. It was a bit oppressive — but still very much impressive in its punctilious planning and “total design”-ness.