Seattle, cover to cover

Spend a day exploring Seattle's new public library
Lawrence Cheek

It's fitting that the West's most literate city would have the coolest new library. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Ramus (of the Office for Metropolitan Architecture) with LMN Architects, the Seattle Central Library, which opened last May, is nothing short of a rethinking of the form, function, and spirit of the public library. Outside, it's an immense crystal chiseled into crisp creases and pointy planes, a bizarre and bombastic alien presence in a crowd of towers dressed in dowdy business suits. Inside, you've never seen a library that so welcomes exploration.

Its vast, atrium-like Living Room on level 3 at the Fifth Avenue entrance is the downtown park that Seattle has never had. The Mixing Chamber on level 5 is a trading floor of information, with wireless-equipped reference librarians mingling one-on-one with patrons. The 10th level contains a reading room, but instead of the usual somber, woody sanctuary evoking the quiet nobility of learning, it's a jazzy glass treehouse thrusting into the skyline ― a place to connect with Seattle's urban energy, not slip into monkish retreat.

The 4th level is just meeting rooms, but don't miss the red and pink free-form labyrinth connecting them. It's as if you're visiting the digestive tract of an extremely large sea mammal, or exploring a convention center on another planet.

If you would rather read your books in more intimate surroundings, head to Ancient Grounds (closed Sun, 1220 First Ave.; 206/749-0747), a coffeehouse and gallery with ethnographic art exhibits. Or, to continue your scholarly day, prowl a few of the neighborhood's 12-plus bookstores. Arundel Books (1113 First; 206/624-4442) is a tall, quiet space for peacefully browsing the new and used merchandise.

Left Bank Books (92 Pike St.; 206/622-0195) specializes in leftist literature. And Elliott Bay Book Company (101 S. Main St.; 206/624-6600), a warren of creaking wood floors and weathered brick walls, would be a fine place to spend time even if it didn't have 150,000 new and 20,000 used titles.