Our experts1. Grant Jones: A vivid engagement with the Salish Sea. 2. Iain Robertson: Worries about how well the design will age. 3. Katherine Anderson: Aesthetic concerns amid encouraging signs of how people use the park. 4. Cary Moon: "Deftly creating a new poetry for what an art park means in our time." 5. Sheri Olson: "A modernist project in deconstructivist clothing." 6. More: Our critics reply to each other. Comments below
1. Grant Jones
A vivid engagement with the Salish Sea.Grant Jones is principal and founder of Jones &Jones Architects and Landscape Architects, a firm that does important work all over the world and whose local projects include the Woodland Park Zoo and the University of Washington Center for Urban Horticulture. Over the years all my design interventions as a landscape architect have sprung out of the poetic structure of the landscape where I was standing. I've always asked myself the same three questions: "Where am I?" "What can I do to heal this place and make a complementary marriage to it?" and "How can I connect the most people to it with the paths and places I design so they fall in love with it and take care of it forever?" So I will ask the same three questions when I review this new iconic designed landscape, the Olympic Sculpture Park.
- Where am I? Sound and sky, the city standing like a proud audience behind. The horizon is presented cleanly and the Olympic Mountains can stand boldly across the stage of Puget Sound. So far so good. Land and sky and trees and long views. The zig zags nicely obliterate the railroad tracks and the multi-lane arterial. They have covered over the negative energy. It would be wonderful if in the future more homage could be paid to the curving shore. Perhaps the trees can provide this curvature. The landscape has already been thoughtfully embroidered with native plant communities and one can hope this landscape will take precedence eventually over the present concrete mastery of the architect's walls. In any case, some future curves will really get the electrons flowing and can still be added. Overall, the power of the work should be highly commended, establishing across its tilting planes a vivid engagement with Elliott Bay and the expanse of the Sound, which it maintains from the drama of the Paccar Pavilion, bowing to the Olympics all the way across its promenading sequence, all the way to Myrtle Edwards Park.
- Have we brought health to the place and healed the land? The fractured site has been boldly stitched together and the land put back. The native plants are beautiful and regionally correct (with the exception of a couple of exotic gingkos and dawn redwoods which could be said to harken back far before glacial times to when these dysjunct sister plants were living on the North Cascades Sub-Continent west of Vantage). The stainless steel plaques identifying them are a bit cold – a small problem easily remedied. The shingle-like concrete upright slabs that retain the earth berms are warm and comfortable. And the walkways are real earth and gravel; very important! So overall the armature is very positive and will help restore a placeless gap in the city.
- Are people being reconnected to the view and the bay itself? Very successfully. Perhaps this is the greatest legacy. Of course the sculptures are grand; and in the future there will be more of them (hopefully a few Northwest Indian carvings among them) and their presence will make people think and feel and wonder. But the landscape will prevail as the great gift to the city, connecting people to the spirit of this civic place on the Salish Sea.
2. Iain Robertson
3. Katherine Anderson
Aesthetic concerns amid encouraging signs of how people use the park.Katherine Anderson is an architectural critic in Seattle and a landscape architect in private practice, formerly of Hargreaves Associates, an international landscape architecture firm based in Cambridge, Mass. Both Grant and Iain speak of care-taking and how this site will age. Grant asks whether it is a place people will "fall in love with" and "take care of forever," while Iain – concerned about the angularity of the design – wonders whether our use can "burnish" rather than "chip" its sharp corners. These are excellent questions, as the success of a landscape is not simply in how it looks on opening day, but, I believe, is largely determined by how the space grows and ages, both aesthetically and programmatically. I have some worries on the aesthetic front. The primary language that stitches the parcels of land together is that of concrete, grass, gravel, and tilted planes. This may be new in Seattle, but this combination of materials has been spreading tentacle-like through contemporary parks all over the country for at least the past 15 years. In some aspects, it makes an uncomfortable fit with Olympic Sculpture Park conditions. The Gates Amphitheater, housing the Richard Serra "Wake," is one awkward illustration of the problem. Of course the concrete and grass stair steps will work as seating for a performance, but their proportions lack elegance: the space feels too tall and narrow, as opposed to settled into the site. And what do its materials really have to do with this place, this context? I also wonder if enough thought went into siting the sculptures, some of which are undermined by their placements. For example, why are the legs of Calder's "Eagle" cut off in the view of it one catches upon arriving at the park? Why does Serra's "Wake" feel underwhelming? And wouldn't it have been more fun to discover the Vivarium in a clearing in a "forest," rather than having it crammed into a corner of the site? Don't get me wrong. The park is a fabulous gazillion-dollar gift I would never return. Some of the aesthetic disappointments may fade with time. In the amphitheater? No. Around the art? Maybe, as the plants mature. But perhaps along the edges of paths there will be the most improvement, as the meadows grow and overshadow the didactic nature of the zig-zag path. The colors already emerging in the meadows – broad swaths of green and red - give me hope. On the use front, I find the park much more promising. Already, the unanticipated ways in which people are occupying it are delightful. On a recent Sunday, I watched children and adults build sculptures out of rocks and driftwood at the new beach. They seemed to be inspired by the sculptures in the park and with materials on hand. People started making things - big three-dimensional things. Others sat next to these totems, taking in the view and reading the Sunday newspaper. Here was encouraging evidence that people can fall in love with this park, and might take good care of it forever.
4. Cary Moon
"Deftly creating a new poetry for what an art park means in our time."A landscape and urban designer, Carey Moon is the driving force behind the Peoples' Waterfront Coalition, which advocates for a transit-and-surface solution and for a great park on the Seattle central waterfront. The most obvious thing has to be said first, and with real reverence, is that this park is a gorgeously generous gift to Seattle. It is open to the public, it is free, and its care and maintenance are funded in perpetuity. This uncommon act of civic generosity seems to have been as significant a design driver as anything, because its expression is everywhere. First, there is the prosaic modesty of the big design move; it's a building and a zigzag. Simple, everyone gets it, there's no insider knowledge to learn or narrative to interpret. And then there is the way the park has rethought how exterior sculpture is exhibited in public. These are not precious objects on flat planes in designated exterior rooms, where the art is already completed and you're just the consumer. The artworks are integrated into the designed landscape in a less didactic and more interactive way, where the site and the work play off each other. Designing this park must have felt more like writing an orchestra piece that will take a century to play through than like making a building. I think the simplicity of the zigzag diagram works well as an organizing structure for all the future actors and players who will be invited to contribute, whether artists or participants or events or changing ecology. The main path that follows this organizing structure is strong and unchanging. But diverse spaces and alternate routes hang from this structure, creating multiple possibilities. You engage the art and the site in your own sequence of discovery. And while we've only seen the introductory volley of art so far, as new works are commissioned artists will be offered the opportunity to mess with these spaces and vegetation and mix it up further. Since Grant shared his benchmarks, I'll add one of mine – does it revealexposeheightenamplify? Forgive this smashing of four verbs into one, but I've never found one word that captures the richness of what good landscape architecture does. The way this park leads you to experience this place, in all its multiple scales, nails this challenge. A visit to the park lets you engage the micro scale of a focused study of the nurselog, the surreal physicality of moving through "Wake," the quiet spatial intimacy of the valley enclosure, the local energy of shared public space in the city, the visual connection to our beloved geological icons Mount Rainier, the Olympic Mountains, and Elliott Bay, and finally the global connections you sense if you consider the ambition of the project or the Seattle wealth that allowed it. In this park you are situated right here right now. It doesn't resurrect familiar dreams from the past; it deftly creates its own poetry for what art park means in our time in this place. Once a new park opens, the design concepts from which it emerged recede and how well it works takes the foreground. As a place for shared city life, as a place to connect to art and place simultaneously, as a place to wander or start a tryst or throw rocks in the water, I predict this park will continue to satisfy and fascinate us. I, for one, am not going to stop saying thank you for a long time.
5. Sheri Olson
"A modernist project in deconstructivist clothing."Sheri Olson is a practicing architect and a widely published architectural critic. She recently completed a term on the Seattle Design Commission. The Olympic Sculpture Park is a radical concept, rather easily domesticated. The idea of treating the ground as an artificial plane holds the possibility of making visitors question – literally – the ground beneath their feet. It's the opening of this critical eye that is the goal of the avant-garde, and it's not easy to find architectural projects that allow this exploration. How well has it been carried out at the Sculpture Park? The New York architects Weiss/Manfredi raise expectations with the jagged architectural language they employ. Thanks to architects Daniel Libeskind and Zaha Hadid, the zigzag is iconic of the late 1980s deconstructive movement. This was an approach that sought to express the complexities, discrepancies, and indeterminacy of the world. It was a difficult endeavor but once undertaken this movement made it almost impossible to go back to the more reductive vision of modernism. The sculpture park is a blend of the two movements, a modernist project in deconstructivist clothing, one that promises complexities but is also fairly simplistic. Iain looks for a richer development of the concept in the details and materials, but I would have liked a richer development of the concept at the conceptual level. Maybe there's a lesson here, a kind of test for future public projects: If you can reduce the whole idea to a torn business card it might be too reductive. Rem Koolhaas beguiled Seattle with his origami skills during a presentation of the Central Library but it was one portion of the project – the spiral book ramp – not the whole project. As befitting a library, it resists the grand tour, and its complexity rewards repeated use with new surprises even three years after completion. In contrast, a visit to the sculpture park feels tightly controlled, at least in this early stage of its vegetation. The sharp angles and projecting lines of the design may suggest a dynamic and open-ended experience, but there is definitely a "correct" way to walk through the park. This is similar to buying a ticket to Blade Runner but getting trapped in a screening of The Wizard of Oz. Instead of a dusty farmhouse, Dorothy emerges from a glass-and-steel pavilion and then skips happily down the path of enlightenment toward Oz (played here by Elliott Bay), meeting loveable characters along the way like Pepper, di Suvero, and Calder. (Admit it: Roy McMakin is the perfect Cowardly Lion.) Only don't skip too fast or you won't make those acute angles at the bends in the road. The path so seamlessly ties the disjointed parcels of land together that transitions from terra firma to steel bridge don't register. Grant appreciates how the design heals the negative energy of the site, but for me it's a Band-Aid. There was power embedded in the fractured parcels that could have been mined and exploited better. Most of the art is lined up neatly along the path. The art that fares the best bucks the path and is tucked in the Grove or along the periphery of the East Meadow. It will doubtless improve as the plants mature and inject more life and variety into the spaces. At this point the ultimate success of the park lies in the hands of Seattle landscape architect Charles Anderson (who is conspicuously absent from SAM's monograph except for a tiny credit on the last page). We desperately need more green space downtown, and the park is full of grateful Seattleites. It's particularly fine to enjoy the waterfront, here restored in a stylized beach with driftwood and sand and flotsam. Let's hope that the park's rigid geometry doesn't inspire people to rearrange the logs on the beach at acute angles to the shore.
6. Our critics reply to each otherGrant Jones: Cities are living beings and they must contain sustainable living places. Avant-garde statements? Why? Modernist or deconstructivist – who cares? People are looking for rapture, not fracture. Healing is a mandate, not a style. Just why do we think we need style? Style is a product of the media; too many academic architects who need to be published get inebriated by media looking for some so-called style. This park wants to be an organic living place, not a style statement wedged out of criticism. It's already become so much more than that.
Katherine Anderson: If rapture is what people are after in their park, I would argue that one thing that brings it about is aesthetic beauty. This can be found in the beauty of the view of the Puget Sound and the Olympics beyond, but I also look for it in the park itself. The designers, along with some chance events, should allow for this beauty to emerge, such as in the way two materials come together, or in the play of shadows against a wall. At the Sculpture Park, I find that the green filtered light in the Vivarium has that quality; as do the emerging red and green swaths in the meadows. But I wish there were more of this there. So while yes, as Grant and Cary argue, how well it works is an essential question, I would argue that so too must we have high expectations of the designers to be rigorous and creative enough to produce sublime spaces.
Iain Robertson: The fact that the Olympic Sculpture Park is a successful design appears to be our consensus opinion. Of course we quibble with this and that – the siting of the vivarium; the inelegant proportions of the amphitheater seating; questionable materials; worn concepts – but these concerns are largely negated by the fact that the design works for its varied users and fits the site well. Good news on a major public project is welcome indeed. In Seattle, too many public projects seem to gravitate either to the ego-driven-excess end of the design spectrum or the abject banality end. So it is hard to build up a good head of indignant steam over a project that seems to have achieved a happy balance, reached a mutual accommodation among designer, program, and site. We breathe a collective sigh of relief: finally a project that seizes the opportunities of the site, negates its major liabilities, graciously accommodates the main program elements, and produces forms that, for the most part, achieve a comfortable fit. Yes, I agree with Katherine that the Vivarium building location is unfortunate, but it does buffer a heavily- trafficked corner, and, yes, I still object to a design that feels compelled to sharply elbow one in the ribs at each turn of the trail, but it is all too easy to put such concerns aside and chose to enjoy the sculpture or the setting, or anticipate the future park with mature plants. Never mind the concept, so to speak, feel the context. It's good design but is it great design? There I think the jury is still out. Many comments seem to delicately edge their way around this issue with quintessential Seattle politeness. Perhaps it is true that when one's site is a slice of paradise, as Cary and Grant suggest, then the question of greatness becomes if not irrelevant then at least something one can simply postpone thinking about to another day as one takes in the city and mountains and saunters down to the beach. For myself, I think it takes a rare kind of greatness to recognize that the designer's role is to set, not occupy, the stage. No doubt, in our times of post-modern excesses, this is an old-fashioned, out-of-step view. But one is simply grateful for design restraint in whatever form it is expressed; there are too many ugly ducklings slowly maturing into 800-pound gorillas. By contrast, the Sculpture Park seems destined to become a swan.
Sheri Olson: Judging from his bristling at my use of the words "modernist" and "deconstruction," Grant might want to read my piece again, since the point I made was not about style, but that the sculpture park exhibits more style than substance. His comments do point to a current problem in the thoughtful discussion of architecture: any word over one syllable is suspect. Language is key in the development of a critical design practice that doesn't accept the status quo but pushes the boundaries of architecture (the art world has no problem using the word "avant-garde" in discussing this concept). Sometimes you need to haul out the dictionary to get at what you're really trying to say or to understand what someone else is trying to tell you.
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