The Seattle Central Library, like every library, may be said to be a database in the most literal sense: “essentially a structured collection of data that stands in the tradition of ‘data containers’ such as a book, a library or an archive….” (Christiane Paul).If the library is a collection of books, then it would follow to design a building as a container for this data. This seems to have been the general thinking of the Seattle Library Association when they first met with the team of architects from Rex, as recalled by Joshua Prince-Ramus’s in his Ted lecture (video).
In contrast, lead architect Rem Koolhaas envisioned the library of the future as “an information storehouse, orchestrating the coexistence of all available technologies.” This expands the concept of the library as a database of books, to a database of information, only some of which is contained in material books, but all of which must be contained within the building (“storehouse”).
Additionally, Josha Prince-Ramus points out that libraries, as envisioned by Andrew Carnegie, have traditionally had two roles, the first being to circulate texts, the second being to serve a “social role.” Because, he claims, libraries are one of the “last vestiges of free public space,” the Rex team and the Library Association designed the library’s first floor “Living Room” as “an unprogrammed space where people can do anything, including eat, yell, play chess and so forth.”
The addition of “unprogrammed space” as a element within the data container that is the library, reveals a distinctly different – new media as opposed to traditional media – conception of a database. This is a database as “a nimbus of potentialities” (Hayles & Gannon), as a paradigm (Manovich) from which unlimited actual narratives (syntagms) may be constructed.
According to Manovich, in literature and cinema, the narrative or syntagm is made material (appearing on the page or screen) while the paradigm is implicit, imagined. “New media,” he explains, “reverses this relationship. Database (the paradigm) is given material existence, while narrative (the syntagm) is dematerialized.” The living room is “unprogrammed space;” its narratives are dematerialized and imaginary, from the point of view of the buildings conception.
Roughly speaking classical architecture features frames and prosceniums within which humans appear as actors; modernist architecture imagined cinematic experiences of shifting, embodied views as individuals moved through its spaces. Theater and cinema are both undeniably narrative.
In contrast, SCL’s conceptual artwork reveals, from the early planning stages, a foregrounding of data storage – especially the necessity for making its material data storage as flexible as computer data storage – and processes, not as narratives but as algorithms.
As a new media database, the SCL is not without its hierarchical aspects. In many of the documents of popular, library-visitor discourse, annoyance is expressed at the designation of the top, eleventh floor as the private domain of the library’s administration (which includes corporate and private sponsors).