I wanna rock and roll all nite and party every day - KISS
I went to a high school in the ‘70s where soul music reigned. But one day this freaky, outrageous rock band came on the scene that blew my musical paradigm to pieces: KISS. I had never really experienced such dangerous and provocative music before. Gene Simmons was especially treacherous. He was “The Demon.” Gene had a tongue that was five- feet long and fire came out of his mouth. He even had a bass guitar the shape of an ax that he would throw across the stage lit up with flames! He scared me!
A few years ago, while going through a mind-numbing channel-changing fit, I came across Gene Simmons Family Jewels — his own reality show. I quickly became fixated with his behind-the-scenes life, anticipating a shocking daily routine just like his onstage persona. After several episodes, my infatuation turned to disillusionment. Once the makeup was off, he was a pretty frumpy, middle-aged, suburban guy who had a lot of personal warts. Dude, where was the glam, the danger I sipped from??? This got me thinkin’ ...
I really hate to say this around architects, but our Downtown King County Library reminds me of Gene Simmons’s reality show. Don’t get me wrong — there are many stunning spaces and jittery forms to enjoy. I am talking more about living with Gene Simmons than going to his concerts.
When Rem Koolhaas first came to town with the new design for the library, I felt like I was at a KISS concert in 1978 listening to Hotter Than Hell or Love Gun. The building was risky and outrageous. The cantilevered forms, the edgy edges, the unsettled geometries were so unapologetically “in your face.” They got my architectural adrenaline pumping. I sooo wanted to love this building. But, now that I’ve worked next door to it for the last two years, it’s starting to feel a bit like Gene Simmons’s frumpy, warty life.
If I had a reality show about the library, I’d start each episode walking around outside of it on a dreary rainy day in February. I’d make sure it was shot at eye level and experienced as part of the urban fabric rather than as a bird’s-eye icon. This is the way I see it most days going to work. I have to walk by it.
The sloppy, street-level façades and spaces are close to dismal. They seem to almost dare one to find a civic expression. They have virtually no human scale or articulation, and the sparse landscape screams of value engineering. The south façade (which my desk faces) is probably the worst, feeling more like the back of a warehouse in Renton than the greatest rock show in Seattle history.
The 4th Avenue entrance and lobby could be an amazon.com delivery center. When one does finally discover the entrance along 5th Avenue, no one can deny the spatial excitement of the “living room.” I bring all my out- of-town friends here for the Gene Simmons on Fire experience of these spaces and then shuffle them through the blood-red assembly floor above. By then they are ready for the next Seattle tourist attraction.
Now I know this will sound old fashioned – and probably abhorrent to Rem – but I still go to libraries to find and read books. Two of the central concepts of the whole design were the “mixing chamber” and “book spiral.” On a gloomy Seattle day, the mixing chamber, where reference and technology come together in celebration, is about as damp and gloomy as Paul Stanley’s crawl space. Even Paul doesn’t paint himself that black!
And yeah, the continuous “book spiral” with the cadence of the Dewy Decimal System was a catchy idea, but it is actually a really bad way to find books. The tight dimensions, ramp with no relief or exit, glaring, cheap lighting over the cheaper Lexan Panel ceiling and awkward tilt all contribute to the sensation of being locked in Gene Simmons’s tacky, KISS-memorabilia-stuffed man-cave without a key. It’s merciless and relentless.
Ok, so let’s say I’ve finally found the book I’m looking for—KISS and Make-up, by Gene himself. I’ve strained to figure a way out of the book spiral. Now I want to sit down and actually read. It isn’t easy to find a day-to-day human, intimate space that begs one to linger and ponder the pages. No soft seating here, no warm colors or materials. I feel like these spaces were afterthoughts to the big ideas of the shifting floor plates. And you know, maybe in another decade when we have completely done away with words on paper it won’t matter, but it still does to me.
By the time you read this, the relentless winter rains will have come. I’ll be getting off the bus every day and walking by Gene Simmons Family Jewels. Yeah, I might still pay $50 to see him stick his tongue out in concert, but his behind-the-scenes life is too flawed and tedious to watch on a regular basis anymore.