Steven Holl's Seattle library that got away

We narrowly missed getting a major work by this hugely influential architect. A new library by him in New York gives a glimpse of the lyrical architecture that might have been here.

Crosscut archive image.

Model of the new Steven Holl library for Queens

We narrowly missed getting a major work by this hugely influential architect. A new library by him in New York gives a glimpse of the lyrical architecture that might have been here.

One of the more intriguing what-ifs in Seattle architectural history is this one: What if Steven Holl had been chosen architect for the downtown Seattle Public Library, rather than finishing second to Rem Koolhaas? Well, part of that answer is now on view, since Holl has designed a striking branch library in the Queens borough of New York City, which will begin construction next year. The New York Times' architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff has just given it a rave review.

Ouroussoff points out that Holl "has influenced a generation of architects and students," and has become a "star in faraway places like Scandinavia and China, where he is celebrated as someone able to imbue even the most colossal urban projects with lyricism." By contrast, "his career at home has been negligible," especially in New York where he lives. The Queens library, on a prominent waterfront site across the East River from the United Nations, is expected to remedy this.

Holl, 63, grew up in Bremerton and was educated at the University of Washington. He has left his mark in the Seattle area with two notable buildings, the beloved Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University, a glorious evocation of the way light comes into the meditating soul at different hours of the day; and the less successful but striking Bellevue Arts Museum, which suffered from being part classroom, part small museum (not the architect's fault).

When the downtown Seattle Library held its high-profile competition to select an architect for the downtown main branch, Holl was among the final three, along with the ultra-hot Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and the Portland firm of Zimmer Gunsel Frasca, one of the best design firms in this region. Both Koolhaas and Holl presented riveting lectures as part of the competition; ZGF quickly washed out with the black-turtleneck crowd.

The Seattle competition then took an odd twist, to Holl's disadvantage. A group of the selection panel and some library advisers flew to Helsinki to inspect Holl's much-admired Kiasma Contemporary Art Museum, only to find that the 1998 building was already showing signs of disrepair and faulty construction. Holl, who was not on hand for the trip, protested that the construction problems were not his fault and he had not selected the contractor, but the damage was done. The group then was given a personally guided tour by Koolhaas in Holland and France of some of Koolhaas's buildings, and he soon had the prize commission.

I suspect that one of Holl's problems was that he had recently completed the Bellevue museum, and Seattle trendsetters probably didn't want to come along behind the suburb. Also, Holl would have had a hard time topping his Seattle U. chapel. So we missed the chance, just as the nation has largely missed chances to commission major work by this huge talent.

So, looking at the Queens library, what might we have got for a Seattle library? Koolhaas achieves iconic presence by a tortured steel skeleton, at the cost of lots of usable indoor space. Holl's Queens library does this far more beautifully and evocatively by carving giant, curvy windows from the 8-story facade of rough aluminum. These huge windows let in light, create great views back across the East River, and glow at night "like ghosts trapped inside a machine," according the critic Ouroussoff. Other attractive features: a reading garden; a rooftop terrace for fair-weather lectures and performances and more great views; and a reading room cantilevered out over the lobby. Sigh.


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