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Pacific Science Center's architecture might change

Dramatically lit at night, the Science Center is an icon in the Seattle skyline. A national group is sounding alarms about potential alterations of the campus, though the arches seem sacrosanct.
The Pacific Science Center arches

The Pacific Science Center arches Flickr contributor Great Beyond

The U.S. Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center) during the Seattle World's Fair in 1962.

The U.S. Science Pavilion (now the Pacific Science Center) during the Seattle World's Fair in 1962. National Archives

As anyone with a passing interest in local architecture knows, Minoru Yamasaki — best known for designing the twin towers of the World Trade Center — was a Seattle native who graduated from what is now the University of Washington College of Built Environments in 1934. Though his reputation as one of the foremost exponents of architectural modernism rests on his work done elsewhere, Yamasaki did leave his mark on Seattle's landscape in the form of the IBM Building, the Rainier Tower, and the Pacific Science Center.

Now, however, the latter — built for the 1962 World's Fair as the United States Science Pavilion — has landed on the Cultural Landscape Foundation's Landslide 2008 list of 12 endangered modernist landscapes. No, the arches aren't about to fall down, and the Center insists they are untouchable. But, according to the CLF, the city's Century 21 Master Plan "calls for the removal of the original campus axis/walkway that connects the Pacific Science Center courtyard with the rest of the campus... chang[ing] the historic relation of the pavilion to the entire campus," and contemplates the demolition of "several of the original Yamasaki-designed structures to increase the open space on the site and to update the facilities." They further note that these plans "are not subject to the same review process as the City-owned Seattle Center campus because the pavilion site is under private ownership."

Surprisingly enough, though most of Seattle Center belongs to the city, three of its biggest attractions — the Space Needle, the EMP, and the Pacific Science Center — are in private hands. Originally owned by the federal government, the Science Center and its grounds have long belonged to the eponymous nonprofit foundation. According to their Web site, the CLF would not only like the current layout preserved, but contemplates a nomination to the National Register of Historic Places. (I am surprised to find the Pacific Science Center is on neither the national nor local registers, but perhaps that is a legacy of having been government property.) So will those who recently lost their fight to preserve one local modernist icon soon have another on their hands?

Not necessarily. According to Crystal Clarity, the Pacific Science Center's acting director of marketing (no, that's not a psuedonym), "while there are plans to create a more 'porous' perimeter of Seattle Center to draw people into the center of the campus... the Science Center is unaware of any intention to remove the original campus axis/walkway." They have brought in The Seneca Group to manage their own master-planning process, "which will involve discussions about... space allocation, existing and new structures on the Science Center campus, and the future of the Science Center site in light of the City of Seattle's Century 21 Master Plan. The Yamasaki-designed structures and their architectural significance will be central to these discussions." She emphasizes that this process is in the earliest stages.

Indeed, though the Century 21 Master Plan is short on specifics when it comes to paths and walkways, the Science Center's main axis (originally 3rd Avenue N.) appears to remain much in its current configuration. A redevelopment is envisioned for the adjacent Mural Amphitheatre, whose stage would now face the Space Needle and turn its back on the Seattle Children's Theatre. It's possible this could cause the axis to be perceptually narrowed. In addition, the graphic entitled "Seattle Center Pulling In and Through" posits an "informal connection diagonal" running between the Science Center and Space Needle northwest from Broad Street to a glass-roofed Center House. This could conceivably cause the axis to be further de-emphasized. However, nothing in the plan calls for its removal. Nor does anything specifically call for demolition or new construction on the Science Center grounds.

However, potentially more worrisome for preservationists is the above-mentioned graphic's call for "open[ing] up [the back of the] Science Center" at 3rd Avenue and Denny Way, and the Science Center's talk of "existing and new structures... and the future of the Science Center site." Does "discussion of existing structures" mean demolition or radical modification, as is being discussed for Center House and Memorial Stadium? Will "new structures" fit in with Yamasaki's original design? Does "the future of the Science Center site" mean just what it says, or will we one day see a Seattle Center with a United States Science Pavilion, but without a Pacific Science Center to occupy it? None of this is yet clear — as noted, the planning has yet to begin in earnest.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Dec 17, 9:35 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for this heads up. The preservation community will surely get behind this matter. What with the Space Needle, the Mural of the Mural Amphitheatre, the Science Center and its arches are among few distinctive buildings from the period in the city. For architectural and historic reasons, these buildings must be saved. Nixon's executive order 11593 must have happened after the transfer to the foundation or the buildings would have probably been protected by easements when it was donated by the feds. I am sure management wanted to protect its ability to alter the historic and distinctive building and that is what impeded National and local historic register designation.

MJH

Posted Wed, Dec 17, 5:44 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for all your info, Ben. I worked at the Pacific Science Center back in the 70s, under a number of directors -- Dixy Lee Ray, Jim Backstrom and Ewen Dingwall. The arches are iconic, of course, but the fountains and walkway areas are just as important. The interior of the buildings seemed to be falling apart even back then, and the office spaces always felt somewhat temporary to me. But don't mess with the arches or the fountain area! That's where they hold their annual Festival of the Fountains summer fundraiser. Back then, the staff also cleaned the fountains and collected the coins once a year -- hopefully that's still in place. Yamasaki's ode to the 1962 Seattle World's Fair should be preserved and remain its own little campus, and not be swallowed up by the surrounding Seattle Center.

Posted Wed, Dec 17, 5:52 p.m. Inappropriate

Unfortunately this article misleads the reader by breathlessly suggesting that there are plans afoot to remove or destroy parts of Pacific Science Center with its well known Yamasaki architecture.
To set the record straight, as opposed to Seattle Center’s Century 21 proposal, discussions about any kind of change to the Pacific Science Center campus are premature. Pacific Science Center is a privately owned, not-for-profit organization and has not initiated any formal site planning. The Science Center has no interest in or plans to change, remove or alter our iconic arches in any way. Nor are we aware of any plans by anyone to remove the original campus axis/walkway as suggested in this article.
As a good neighbor to Seattle Center, and an active participant of the Century 21 planning committee Pacific Science Center endorses the Seattle Center plans to create a more park-like atmosphere with a porous perimeter. In 2007, the Science Center conducted a strategic planning process to better understand and serve our members and visitors and to ensure our long term future relevance to the community. As part of this phase, we recently hired The Seneca Group to help manage our Master Planning work. The Master Planning phase will involve discussions about programming, exhibitory, space allocation, an evaluation of existing facilities and their maintenance needs, ADA accessibility and possible new structures on the Science Center campus.
If and when Pacific Science Center needs suggest changes to this facility the architecture will play a central role in any discussion. However, since there are no current plans such discussions are premature.

Posted Fri, Dec 19, 5:04 p.m. Inappropriate

It's bad enough that the US Science Pavilion or defaced by a bunch of junk cast about the fountain area. At least that can be ripped out by more enlightened administrators. But the mere suggestion that the actual buildings themselves could be desecrated is truly horrendous. The future used to be a bright, hopeful, energetic, wonderful place. Let's not forget that vision. Post-modernism has its place, but only ironically. The Science Pavilion was once one of the most beautiful buildings in the world. Look at any of the post card views taken of it for the World's Fair. It should be restored, not altered.

dbreneman

Posted Sun, Dec 21, 5:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for your replies, all. Crystal: I believe your phrase "breathlessly suggesting that there are plans afoot to remove or destroy parts of Pacific Science Center with its well known Yamasaki architecture" refers to my quoting the Cultural Landscape Foundation's reading of the Century 21 Master Plan. I tried to make it clear that that is their reading, with which the Pacific Science Center emphatically disagrees. I did, however, read the master plan myself to see if there was anything in their that could conceivably raise preservationists' hackles, and in the next-to-last paragraph outlined some possibilities. I took pains to note that nothing calls specifically for demolition or new construction, and that planning has yet to begin in earnest, so none of this is yet clear.

That having been said, I don't believe these discussions are premature, precisely because of the CLF's putting the Pacific Science Center on their Landslide 2008 list. If that were all that was out there, people might very well think the entire complex was coming down, arches and all. Hopefully this article helped to dispel that idea (something I'm not sure The Stranger's Slog piece [http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2008/12/17/threatening_the_land_of_the_ar] does, incidentally, with its proclamation that "the campus at the Pacific Science Center—the one including the neo-gothic white arches—is officially in jeopardy.")

MJH: Thanks for mentioning Nixon's executive order. For those interested, the text of "Protection and enhancement of the cultural environment" is available at http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/index.php?pid=59095.

I should add that I have cherished memories of the Pacific Science Center from childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I first remember going there in 1979 at the age of 4, have a 20th-anniversary button from 1982 somewhere, attended the Russian and Chinese exhibits in the 1980s, and most recently was there for the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit. Throw in a couple of IMAX films, the butterfly exhibit, and numerous trips through the pavilions themselves... it is a place I hold dear. That having been said, nothing can stay exactly the same forever. So I wouldn't want the campus to be frozen in 1962, 1982, or 2008. Most of what I love about the place is the experiences I've had there. I know no one is suggesting this, but I would rather see the Science Center move off-campus if that's what it took to ensure its long-term viability. Architecture is secondary.

However, landscape does play a major part in one's memories and feelings. (In much the same way, MOHAI won't be the same once it leaves Montlake, but perhaps it can be even better in South Lake Union.) Whatever happens, I hope the essential nature of the campus can be preserved — not necessarily each element.

Posted Tue, Dec 23, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

It's not just the arches, however. The whole set of buildings, with the arches, courtyard and fountains form a very beautiful setting. That's why the current bunch of junky exhibits strewn around the courtyard look so awful. Take a look at a couple of these pictures:

http://www.alamedainfo.com/1962_Seattle_Worlds_Fair_US_Science_Pavilion_nigh_04.jpg
http://www.alamedainfo.com/1962_Seattle_Worlds_Fair_US_Science_Pavilion_night.jpg
http://www.alamedainfo.com/Seattle_World's_Fair_Seattle_Center_001.jpg

It's a shame that so much of it has been lost already. ...And why can't they bring back the falling-ball bell curve machine?

dbreneman

Posted Tue, Dec 23, 11:32 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh dear, it has been too long since I've been, because I didn't know the bell-curve machine was gone. That was seriously one of my favorites. Are the echo dishes still there? I seem to remember them being moved outside, along Denny Way, sometime last decade.

Posted Tue, Jan 27, 7:36 p.m. Inappropriate

The Stranger posted a rumor over the weekend about the Science Center going bankrupt next month: http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2009/01/25/always_be_closing ; it was retracted yesterday: http://slog.thestranger.com/slog/archives/2009/01/26/re_always_be_closing_the_rum . Brendan Kiley writes "Bryce Seidl, chief executive of the Pacific Science Center, says they're not planning to file bankruptcy and that I should've waited to hear that from him before writing a post that begins with a rumor and ends with a call for public autopsies in his museum. He's probably right. I am a bad, bad blogger." Looks like they also neglected to give proper credit for the photo they ran with the original piece.

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