Zorro-like Audacity

Weiss/Manfredi’s Olympic Sculpture Park boldly reconnects Seattle to its long-neglected waterfront.

One evening in 2001, after hundreds of hours of struggling to design a sculpture park on three disconnected sloping brownfield parcels on the Seattle waterfront, the architects Michael Manfredi and Marion Weiss left their Manhattan studio for drinks at Tribeca’s Odeon. Away from the office and liberated by a few margaritas, something elemental clicked in Weiss’s mind. She made two tears in a business card and folded it to produce a three-dimensional zigzag. “It’s really this, isn’t it?” she asked her partner.

It was. With Zorro-like audacity, this simple form vaulted over mainline railroad tracks and a busy urban highway, tamed a 40-foot slope, and linked the separated blocks with a 2,200-foot spine for art. It provided viewpoints and a path for patrons, using expressionistic angular geometries in the spirit of Peter Eisenman, Zaha Hadid, and Daniel Libeskind.

The Z plan was powerful at conception, and remains so. I lived in Seattle when it won out over four other entries in an invitational design competition, promising a major breakthrough for the city. It struck me as the most accomplished design in a flood of large new public projects—a concert hall, a rebuilt opera house, a city hall, Frank Gehry’s rock-and-roll museum, two airport-terminal expansions, a 14-mile monorail, downtown football and baseball stadiums, and Rem Koolhaas’s Central Library. (Interestingly, Koolhaas also landed his job by transforming paper, cutting a letter-size page to depict his proposed book spiral, a clever idea that caused problems in practice.)

When I visited Seattle for this assignment after moving to California last year, the basic bones of the Weiss/Manfredi scheme still looked convincing at full size. But the total experience of this recently opened $30.8 million undertaking is not as successful as its geometric under­pinnings. The park is owned and run by the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), but its contents are uneven. They run a wide gamut from A-list works—Richard Serra’s Wake, Alexander Calder’s Eagle, and Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X—to questionably sited pieces—Anthony Caro’s Riviera and Mark Di Suvero’s Bunyon’s Chess—and many debatable choices. Some of the older pieces are unexceptional, and the commissioned ones tend to be lightweight. The collection seems as much donor-driven as curated. Most of the permanent works have been pledged, donated, or lent by just two families. The park’s Wikipedia entry notes that “some of the donated pieces have been referred to as the equivalent of an unwanted birthday present left on the curb for charity.’” The two signature works, the Serra and the Calder, are flanked by several obtrusive, brightly colored sandwich boards exhorting patrons not to touch the art. Alas, the local seagulls have paid no heed. But SAM says the signs are temporary.

While flawed as an art experience, the park succeeds as a public place. At nine acres, about half of them level, it’s the largest open space on the central waterfront. Admission and Wi-Fi connectivity are free, and the landscape plan is rich, complex, and aptly metaphorical. The spirit of the design has persisted through construction so that the built project is a tour de force of sloping terrain, tilted concrete slabs, footbridges, and angular paths—but its essence, for now, is more that of a spectacular vantage point than a thing unto itself. Weather permitting, the immediate surroundings of the Bell­town district’s banal speculative buildings recede, and we become part of the larger and more uplifting domain of Puget Sound and its promontories and islands, fresh salt air, ferries and freighters, occasional blue skies, and the 50-mile-distant Olympic Mountains, which give the park its name. On the clearest of days the majestic 14,000-foot cone of Mount Rainier aligns with the axis formed by the middle leg of the Z.

This visual connection to Seattle’s surroundings is crucial since it helps offset the lack of genius loci in the permanent artworks. Too many of them are plop art, conceived without thought of or connection to their current resting place. Seattle Cloud Cover, a commissioned 200-foot-long glass piece shaped like a bus shelter, displays an intensely chromatic image of a Miami sunset. For most works the sculpture park is a second, third, or fourth address. None refers to or takes inspiration from local history or the site’s previous industrial life. (Fortuitously, the Serra evokes waves and ships’ hulls, even though it was designed and fabricated before anyone thought of bringing it to Seattle.)

As its 626 trees and 85,000 other plants grow, the park’s belvedere function will become less dominant and thus its character as a landmark landscape will deepen. The wildflowers’ bloom this summer will be a good start. The park was designed in concert with the Seattle landscape architect Charles Ander­son, who devised a “forest-to-shore” concept of four zones representing larger regional environments, much as a bonsai portrays a fully grown tree. The Valley, in the northeast near the high point, epitomizes a coastal lowland ecosystem dominated by several species of evergreen. West of it three meadows are planted with regenerative grasses and wildflowers. Continuing westward, the Grove is an aspen forest that makes a symbolic transition from city to coast. The Shore includes a naturalistic beach of sand, rocks, and driftwood logs, and underwater recontouring conducive to the growth of intertidal-zone plants and friendly to crabs and salmon.

Not all of the park is landscape. A greenhouse/vivarium shelters a giant decomposing log; an entrance pavilion houses temporary works, a café, and a gift shop; and immense retaining walls punctuate the green spaces. The pavilion’s profile recalls the Z of the site plan, and its magically shimmering semimirrored window wall fronts the street; but its capacious interior lacks the structural elegance and expressive detailing expected in the project’s principal in-door space. Given Weiss/Manfredi’s talent, this suggests the heavy hand of value engineering.

Outside there are two prominent architectural interventions. Massive concrete retaining walls mark the passage of the railroad and highway through the site. Meant to dramatize the contrast of green­ery and infrastructure, these overlapping concrete slabs look too stark, too much like highway engineers’ sound walls; vines would work very nicely here. Their tops also block the view of the bottom of the park’s centerpiece, Calder’s Eagle, from some prime viewpoints. The other intervention is light and colorful where the walls are heavy and gray: dozens of free-range red wire chairs are scattered throughout the walkways and the pavilion, and more are on order. Comfortable and unpretentiously stylish, they celebrate the color of the Calder and enliven the surroundings like a permanent but shifting dusting of fall leaves.

Open since January, the sculpture park is still a newborn. It will inevitably change in predictable and unpredictable ways, and what it grows up to be is still in the hands of SAM’s decision makers. Its trees and horticultural understory will expand and gain prominence, and one hopes that over the years its art will both multiply and benefit from rearrangement and judicious pruning. Presently its forte is as a built and landscaped public environment, and this has already been validated through an exhibition at New York’s MoMA and its recent receipt of the Veronica Rudge Green Prize in Urban Design, a 21-year-old Harvard-bestowed biennial honor that had never before been given to any work in the United States.

Weiss/Manfredi’s design is a sculptural art form of a monumental genre not otherwise represented in the collection. Occupying an area larger than six football fields and reclaiming more than five million cubic feet of brownfield, it is an immense earthwork in its own right. Given the will, one day its contents may match or even surpass the power of their container.

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