The central branch of the Minneapolis public library used to be ugly, dim and full of secrets. When it became evident that the building was intolerably outdated for the image of its city (after all, it is NOT St. Paul) it was demolished and gradually replaced with a building no longer dim, devoid of secrets, but still reassuringly ugly. When the last Ikea and the spirit of stark functionality go out of vogue, this library will remain as a monument to that spirit until it is no longer tolerable. Then it will be replaced with something ugly in a more fashionable way.
One has to wonder why architects enjoy making buildings so demeaning to the humans for which the buildings exist. It is as if they hated the thought of people polluting the incarnation of their pure and clean designs. I can sit on the third floor looking at the only set of escalators in the building and watch them running empty while people trudge up the stairs to the fourth floor since waiting for the one set of elevators isn’t usually worth it. There is something dysfunctional about functionality, sometimes.
I think it does something to the people who work here too: the inmates. I watch them pass pushing carts laden down with seven or eight magazines, trudging wearily toward the stacks between the unpainted concrete pillars and the bare white ceilings that remind me of nothing so much as of a prison.
There are advantages to functionality sometimes. The chairs are basic but good to sit in. The stacks are made of ugly shelving but the light and air reach them very well—no mysteries in this library. The useless escalators run without interruption, and the stairs must be particularly good to enjoy almost equally uninterrupted traffic. The doors behave the way they ought except that they stand open longer than most unenhanced doors do (it is as if every door were a handicapped door, which is very thoughtful, I suppose). You can do everything you need at the library absolutely without any human contact other than the guard who might shake you down or rummage through your bag.
When you go to the St. Paul central library you enter an old and elegant world (and you realize the building in Minneapolis can not have been whatever is responsible for how the employees are). Here, you think, I will find correspondingly elegant and graceful furnishings for the soul. When you go to the central library in Minneapolis there is some doubt. Will I find here furniture adequate in this Ikea for the soul? Surprisingly you still may.
There is another strange thing about the library: it is the human figure moving through it. There you see it: tousled, bundled, muffled, hooded, bearded, breasted, neat and sloven, shuffling, shambling, striding, dashing in and out and up and down, and of all things there to see it’s still the strangest thing. I saw this great and hooded black guy, powerful and massive, looking like he had just come out of the underworld and was heading across town to rip out somebody’s guts with a hook. And then I noticed that he carried under his arm a fat volume: Harry Potter and the who know’s what. Harry Potter and the Library, perhaps.