Some people find the future boring. But in Seattle, the future looks pretty exciting. Not because of the backdrop of sci-fi speculation symbolised by the Space Needle, but because set within that backdrop is the Seattle Public Library; a building which affirms ones faith in the future. To some people architecture is a straightforward case of aesthetics, a code to signify certain social moments, or political movements which for better or worse are long gone. If you take that approach you could imagine a new public project in the city riffing on this post-war futurism in a cack-handed postmodernist kind of way.
How does it do that? Rem Koolhaas has said that he writes architectural scenarios. This may seem apposite but if we look at how his early work is represented in film, then we can get an idea of why this later public building works so well. In Ila Bêka and Louise Lemoine’s film Koolhaas Houselife we see an apparently critical view of The House in Bordeaux, a seminal project by OMA completed in 1998 seen through the eyes of Guadalupe Acedo, caretaker and cleaner of as she fulfils her daily chores.
At first glance, the film is damning. Following Guadalupe, we see how hard it is to clean certain parts of the building. She doesn’t like the exterior circulation in her own quarters. She frantically crams books into the correct position on shelves as she passes them on the hydraulic lift at the centre of the house. She is critical of many aspects of the house: its astonishing inability to keep out water, its awkward corners, and – in parts – its sheer opulence. We experience the building as a real place to be lived in rather than an object to be admired.
Yet whilst Koolhaas Houselife probes away at the awkward realities of construction, its star, Guadalupe, is nobody’s fool. She is not simply there to deflate pretensions (although there is a funny bit where she takes this piss out of Koolhaas’s sticky-outy ears). She also expresses her awe at the beauty of the place not to mention the ingenuity of its construction. One of the most telling moments is when she shows the crew that the upper floor is open on three sides. A feat that is clearly achieved by with the agency of a showboating cantilever.
Nor is the cleaner the only critical eye through which we perceive the building. Bêka and Lemoine’s camera captures an astonishing flood of water one moment and then in the next shot shows a window cleaner cleaning the skylight as the camera slowly descends in the central lift, a feature of the house which performs a huge variety of roles: getting laughs and exclamations of awe almost by turn. The film at core is about the difference between how architecture is conceived and how it is experienced, a simple way of appreciating architecture’s complexity. The architect is absent, of course, as he tends to be when we experience a building.
Koolhaas Half-life debunks the myth of the genius auteur through the simple agency of a cleaner. Any other architect would be in paroxysms. It would finish Gehry. Yet Koolhaas has long since learned to look beyond a sense of architecture as a series of sculptural tricks. In later buildings, notably the Seattle Public Library, he has shown that he is a true democrat. The phrase ‘architectural scenarios’ could convey a sense of passive consumption as we (or the camera) gaze at the interior of say, a John Lautner pad built for a Hollywood mogul but incorporated into a Bond film. But it also conveys a political idea of providing space for society to perform in and more importantly, to consider itself in.
The processional way in which the citizen is taken from the commercialised streetscape of an American city to an interior of shared civic space is a civilising process cannot be underestimated. It’s cinematic in a very architectural way, an inversion of the process that Henry Hill is taken on in through the kitchens in Goodfellas; the kid from the backstreets taken to the front table, going from pauper to thug prince in one long shot. Yet there is nothing cheap about the Public Library. Some people tend to forget Modernism is not about fetishising concrete but a means of creating space, particularly public space, in a fashion which serves society as it really is. From formidable exterior, to interior then to the coil of books which forms the buildings heart then to an open civic space of reading and learning. After that one takes in the view of the city from which one has come: this series of scenarios has a profoundly positive and life affirming activity; just the way that the monorail to the Space Needle lifted the spirits of all those groovers back in 1962. I find the future exciting.