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Monday, May 17, 2004 - Page updated at 01:22 A.M.

Seattle's LMN architects part of library team

By Susan Gilmore
Seattle Times staff reporter

DEAN RUTZ / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Founding partner John Nesholm, foreground, said the firm was privileged to work with architect Rem Koolhaas on the new Seattle Central Library. Members of LMN's leadership team for the project — photographed at the library site — middle row, from left: Tim Pfeiffer, Steve DelFraino, Sam Miller, Pragnesh Parikh. Back row, from left: Vern Cooley, Jane Hendricks, Dave Matthews, Mary Anne Smith.
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When the Seattle Public Library went shopping for an architect to build its new flagship library downtown, LMN Architects, a Seattle firm, didn't make the short list of companies competing for the contract.

But when OMA Architects, led by noted Dutch designer Rem Koolhaas, was chosen to build the $165.5 million library, Koolhaas asked LMN to join his team as the local architect.

He was impressed by LMN's work on the Experience Music Project, meshing architecture with exhibit designs.

"They sought us out and asked us to be part of the team," said John Nesholm, a founding partner and the N in LMN. "We made a careful decision, but we were intrigued by the library project, and Rem is an amazing architect."

For three months, LMN architects toured libraries in the U.S. and Europe, planted two architects in Koolhaas' Rotterdam office and had weekly video conferences.

"Working with him has been a rare privilege and has offered me and our LMN team the opportunity to observe his thinking, to be inspired by his total commitment and focus on architectural concepts," Nesholm said.

That LMN was chosen to shepherd the library project, which opens to the public on Sunday, comes as no surprise to other local architects, who say that the firm is skilled in designing public projects with many masters.

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"They have a reputation for taking on important civic projects and bringing important design rigor," said Viktor Prakash, chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington. "They're helping to mold the public image on architecture and are one of the premier firms in the city."

McCaw 'an amazing jigsaw'

Founded in 1979 by Nesholm, George Loschky and Judsen Marquardt, LMN has grown to one of the top architectural firms in the city. The company's name was changed to LMN on the firm's 20th anniversary.

LMN has completed more than 130 projects in 29 states and six countries with a total value exceeding $2 billion.

In Seattle, it designed Benaroya Hall, home for the Seattle Symphony; McCaw Hall, housing Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Opera at Seattle Center; the expansion of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center; and the Paul G. Allen Center for Computer Science at the University of Washington — one of 60 projects LMN has built on 20 campuses.

"They blew our socks off," Virginia Anderson, Seattle Center director, said of LMN's designs for McCaw. "Not only did they know the building, they did their homework and gave really creative thought how to use the elements of the existing structure with elements of the new building."

She said the Center, ballet and opera officials reviewed plans from about eight firms before choosing LMN. What was striking, she said, was LMN's ability to create intimacy in the auditorium while maintaining capacity by narrowing the hallways, adding boxes and creating galleries.

"It was really an amazing jigsaw to put together," she said. "When we started, people said it wasn't going to work, but LMN kept persevering. That's their unsung song."

Nesholm said he is most proud of McCaw Hall. "That was a real thrill," he said. "And from an acoustical perspective, it's the best opera house in the country."

Nesholm is president of the Seattle Opera board. Anderson said that issue was raised during discussions of which architecture firm should design McCaw Hall. She said she asked for advice from the City Attorney's Office and the Seattle Ethics and Elections Commission, which both said a firewall should be established between Nesholm and the McCaw work.

Nesholm stepped away from the project and as opera-board president had no involvement in the decision to hire LMN. Mark Reddington, another LMN architect, was named the partner in charge of the theater.

Firm has both fans, critics

As for the library, Nesholm said he likes the reading room on Level 10 above the book spiral because of the space and lighting. He's also impressed by the library entrance off Fifth Avenue. He also points to the anti-glare wire mesh encased in the windows, the first time it's ever been used.

Local architect Lee Copeland, an architectural adviser to the UW, said LMN architects are good listeners and that's why they're recommended for projects. He said the firm often has diverse clients, as in the McCaw Hall project when it had to deal with two arts organizations as well as Seattle Center.

LMN has some critics, including those who live on Capitol Hill who don't like the new sky bridge at the convention center because it blocks views.

Copeland said from a distance the sky bridge is successful and is seen as a gateway to downtown Seattle, "but when you walk under it, it's not very successful. As a pedestrian it's an uninteresting experience."

Copeland said he also doesn't like the exhibition center across from the sports stadiums — another LMN project — because it looks like a big warehouse.

Jeffrey Ochsner, a UW architecture professor, said LMN is most noted for its concert halls and won a top award for Benaroya Hall.

"They're good doing projects with a large number of stakeholders," he said. "They've certainly mastered the ability to put together these kinds of complex projects and make them happen. That's something not a lot of firms are able to do."

A bright, bold landmark

And the company isn't afraid to take risks.

Inside the library are swaths of bright colors, apple-red hallways, staircases the color of lemons.

City Librarian Deborah Jacobs was skeptical. "If we hate it, we can always sand it over and repaint it," she said.

LMN convinced her that the vivid colors fit the unique building.

"There couldn't be a calm color scheme in the building," Reddington said.

Nesholm can't wait to show off the library he helped design.

"Inside and out, the building is full of surprises and delights while conveying a sense of serious purpose," he said. "The building will be an architectural landmark and a Mecca for lovers of architecture and learning."

Susan Gilmore: 206-464-2054 or sgilmore@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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