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Pacific Science Center’s architecture might change

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

So don’t expect a fight just yet — but if their having named the Science Center courtyard to Landslide 2008 is any indication, expect the CLF, Docomomo WEWA, and their allies to be out in full force when it comes time for public comment. And should they indeed pursue a landmark designation, I suspect they will have far more luck with the process in Lower Queen Anne than they did earlier this year in Ballard.

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