Joshua Prince-Ramus is the architect behind the Seattle Public Library, which has been described as “one of the great buildings of our time”. He presents three buildings to us, designed to present three ideas:
The first is the “hyper-rational process” – pulling rationality to its ends and producing something surprising. The second idea is the absence of authorship – hyper-rational process has no great architectural signature, just teams and editing. The third idea is “compartmentalized flexibility”, a challenge to the “high modernist notion” that spaces are infintely flexible, that a well designed room could be used for anything.
He walks us through the design of the Seattle Public Library, a bruilding designed around these principles. He asked the library staff to define the functions a library needed to carry out – he, and they, were surprised to discover that only one third of the functions dealt with books and media – the other two thirds dealt with the library as social and community space.
The heart of the building – which maps very neatly to a diagram of the functions a library carries out – is a “book spiral” – a “parking garage” for books. From the sixth to tenth floor, it’s a continuous stairstepping that allows the whole collection to be indexed in order by the Dewey Decimal system. The building also recognizes that libraries are the last vestige of free, urban space – the library features a large unprogrammed area, where people can eat, yell, play chess… (all at once?)
The Dallas Theatre is notorious for its history of working in temporary space. The flexibility of that space meant that the company could blow holes in the wall or floor if they needed it for a production. How do you create a building that allows this flexibility – as well as the flexibility to present theatre in an arena, proscenium and in the round – in a new building?
Prince-Ramus did it by turning the theatre “on its head”, turning front of house and back of house into above and below house. The building’s skin is open to the outside, allowing for productions that bring motorcycles roaring onstage from the street, or aircraft on stage. This also means that the building can be transformed during a performance, removing balconies or the proscenium line. The building is now under construction in Dallas.
The third structure he shows just won a competition to build a new museum in Louisville. It’s an impossible architectural challenge – the museum is a multi-use space that includes over a million square feet, placed between I-64, a levee, the new Muhammed Ali Center, above the city’s main power line and blocking a view corridor. It’s “a public thing in the middle of a bathtub that floods”. Prince-Ramus proposed a set of towers, which looks a lot like a chair – an art museum lofted on a set of towers, literally raised above the site. It should be completed by 2010.