Imaginative content and building form in the Seattle Public Library

Julie Brand Zook, Sonit Bafna

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


The inquiry extends space syntax methodologies beyond descriptions of social content to assess how buildings engage imagination. We proceed with a case study of the Seattle Central Public Library, designed by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture and completed in 2005. Social staging is construed by describing routes taken by users as they carry out specific, contrived tasks that are germane to the library program. Points along these routes are described using standard space syntax analytical techniques that characterize the distribution of potential views, exposure, and access to different parts of the program. In the second part of the analysis, the social staging is set against phenomenal staging, understood here as the underlying strategies by which the sensory phenomena of the building are presented to the builder users. We then observe ways by which the phenomenal staging modifies the social reality constructed by the building.
The study thus makes the case for an analytical approach that distinguishes between two distinct sets of architectural tasks that are often conflated‐‐‐those that support everyday activity, as captured by space syntax, and those that excite reflective engagement through imaginative perception, as described in the phenomenal staging. We propose that the critical success of a building may depend not on assimilating these tasks into a seamless form, but rather on exploiting the tension that is often generated between them. As far as supporting everyday activity is concerned, the Seattle library retains a typical genotypical structure of reading areas organized about stacks. Phenotypically, however, it sets up an absorbing imaginative experience that decenters the visitor and excites exploration. In the last analysis, the critical success of the Seattle library lies in its capacity to tune the qualitative, subjective, conscious experience of visitors to the reciprocal relationship between the sense of self on display and the sense of self as onlooker and to the generally fleeting experience of life in an urban setting.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationProceedings: Eighth International Space Syntax Symposium
EditorsMargarita Greene, José Reyes, Andrea Castro
Place of PublicationSantiago de Chile
StatePublished - 2012
Externally publishedYes


  • Aesthetics
  • Library
  • Theory
  • Visual
  • Social


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