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Seattle Center shouldn't be a staging area for the rich and famous

Its mix of public and private, arts and sports, has produced a hodge-podge not a plan. A Chihuly museum would be another blow to the public interest.
Rendering of the Dale Chihuly "glass house" proposed for Seattle Center

Rendering of the Dale Chihuly "glass house" proposed for Seattle Center Seattle Center

The proposal to devote a chunk of the Seattle Center to a museum and shop for the works of glass artist Dale Chihuly has stirred quite a debate about the identity and future of Seattle Center — and a lot of political push and pull.

In some sense, “Seattle Center” has always seemed a misnomer for something that more closely resembles the “Seattle Hodgepodge.” There’s a little of this and some of that: arts and sports, open space alongside high-priced venues, bumper cars and basketball, concerts and crafts.

If this is Seattle’s Center it suggests that Seattle itself is less a coherent whole and more a collection of fragments, which may be true. If Seattle is about competing factions and protracted process, combined with periodic bouts of civic activism and incursions of big names and big bucks, then Seattle Center is, well, sort of, us. Parts, projects and process, but not a lot of coherence or direction. The eerie and depressing Center House seems to epitomize the Center’s internal void.

That’s not to say Seattle Center hasn’t had its attractions. Our family, for one, has taken graduation parties up the Space Needle and birthday parties to the Fun Forest. At Christmastime we’ve enjoyed ice skating at the Pavilion, and we've taken in the various festivals (Folklife and Bumbershoot) in season.

But every now and then someone with power or money comes up with their bright idea and you can almost hear the boardroom discussion. “Well, where should we put it?” “Gee, how about Seattle Center, there’s all that space there.”

So when Seattle was supposed to become “A Kids’ Place,” under Mayor Charles Royer, the Children’s Museum was thrust into the Center House basement. Somewhere along the line it looked like a smart idea to move all of Seattle’s high school football games to Memorial Stadium to save the cost of football venues at each school, and so the School District took over a part. When Paul Allen wanted to build a museum for his hobby of rock and roll, we ended up with the EMP. During the brief heady era of John Stanford as Seattle Schools Superintendent, the idea of a new kind of school seemed a good one and The Center School was born. When the notion of extending the Monorail was on our ballots (again and again) proposals ran it smack dab through the Center’s largest green spaces. Lately, the Gates Foundation has taken a piece of the Center. And now Chihuly wants a chunk too.

It has been noted that unlike some cities that draw you, centripetally, towards a center, say New York or Chicago, the setting and its natural force here is more centrifugal. The Olympics and the Cascades, the Puget Sound and Lake Washington, all draw the eye and heart outward, not inward. In Seattle, we incline away from a center and not towards one. And at the continent’s edge there is a tendency to look out and beyond, to the horizon, to the rim of Asia. So perhaps “center” never has been nor will be in Seattle’s nature or part of its genius.

Still, the idea that Seattle Center should take another step in the direction of being a staging area for projects of the rich and famous, for which the public may pay admission, seems, well, wrong.

But that’s one narrative for framing the Seattle Center recent history. In a time when the public sphere has everywhere eroded in favor of the private one, the Center seems to be succumbing to a similar fate. There’s a resemblance to what happened to Seattle’s downtown in the '80s and '90s, when local stores disappeared and downtown became a province of national and international brands like Old Navy, Nike, and Banana Republic. “Chihuly” is another international brand, as is “Gates” in its way. The public, along with the local and particular, seem to be the casualties.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 7:30 a.m. Inappropriate

This isn't a national brand, it's a regional treasure. This is nonsense. When someone comes to Seattle, what are the odds they go all the way down to Tacoma to see most of the stuff at the museum? Not as good as going to the Needle. What backwater thinking...

drumcat

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 8:05 a.m. Inappropriate

If I recall, the center used to feature a glass blowing studio free of charge, car museum, house of oddities and a trip to mars. We have replaced those with a guitar museum, center house filled with food oddities, science fiction museum and now plans for a glass studio.

I agree that Chihuly and his glass is are regional treasure much the same as Starbucks, Amazon, microsoft and so on but do we really need Chihuly stuff everywhere? I am not kidding, check his website, www.chihuly.com/installations, he is EVERYWHERE. It is near impossible not to find one of his pieces enclosed in plastic or out of reach on display somewhere in seattle. If fact, contractually, no hotel or large public place is allowed to be constructed without one of his pieces gracing us with its presence.

If it's so important to the Wright family, why not use some (if not all) of the space at the base of their space needle to house his untouchable items. I am sure it would make more money than selling space needle inspired keychains and the like.
Or better yet - use the key arena. I believe it is empty for the most part. Think how beautiful a Chihuly lump of glass on top and another grouping of glass balls hanging from the ceiling would look.

Leave this space open please. In fact, celebrate the mural on the outdoor stage directly behind it, use the cinder block building as indoor space for unknown artists without HUGE media machines behind it and give us some space to still lay on our back, look up and take pictures of our out of town guests with the space needle behind them. Hey, how about a Chihuly exhibit on top of the space needle. It would be the perfect place for a plastic cased Chihuly abstract called "mine's bigger than yours".

uncletim

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 8:27 a.m. Inappropriate

If there ever was a non-starter, this Chihuly thing is it. I was around when architects Clay Young, Paul Thiry were trying to get Seattle to do it right for once. The ill-considered Regrade set the tone long ago. JG

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 9:52 a.m. Inappropriate

When it comes to density, comparing Seattle with New York is like comparing a match to the sun. The density of New York relative to the openness of Central Park is profoundly different from the density of Seattle relative to Seattle Center. About the only thing the two open areas have in common is that neither is at the center of their respective city. Of course Seattle needs some open spaces, and we shouldn't be too quick to give up some measure of openness in Seattle Center. But let's not pretend Seattle Center is needed as a pressure relief valve. I work in South Lake Union and regularly walk between my office there and Downtown. Walking in the vicinity of the Seattle Center on a sunny summer day, I find myself wishing for a few buildings to cut down on the sun! Density? North of Olive, the city is about as dense as the outskirts of Oklahoma City. So let's get Seattle Center right, starting by accepting that it's not at the city's center (not sure there is a center or needs to be one) and that it need not be -- indeed, cannot be -- the sole expansive oasis of openness in a vast sea of urbanity, as is Central Park.

Sea Wolf

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 11:32 a.m. Inappropriate

What a piece, I say from Elsewhere (far from Seattle). So concrete, specific, particularized, local, precisely mirroring the author's concept of what the Seattle Center could be. Not living in Seattle can't keep me from seeing that, whatever the view there at home, this article addresses, without abstraction, a major, if not the major, issue(s) of the day: center/periphery; centripetal/centrifugal; local/global; bottom-up/top-down; social/corporate; civil society/market or state; public space/private place; whole/fragments; community/autonomies bumping into each other; "what defines a 'center' anymore?"

How well the author speaks to those of us elsewhere. Seattle is a microcosm of broader reality these days for all its own particularity. (Instead of "microcosm..." more apt might be Virginia Woolf's "literal metaphor....")

If arguable, this short article is provocative, with multiple resonances--west, east, north, south. Thank you, "Crosscut" and...Anthony Robinson.

Billverde

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 12:53 p.m. Inappropriate

It's not the center of Seattle but it is one of the only places you can bring a kid and let them run loose, without worrying about cars (those beeping bobcat vehicles notwithstanding). Even as an adult it's nice to enter the premises and not have to deal with cars and crosswalks. I realize this is off the Chihuly topic, but I see this as part of Seattle Center's undervalued charm.

Julane

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 2:34 p.m. Inappropriate

"Somewhere along the line it looked like a smart idea to move all of Seattle’s high school football games to Memorial Stadium to save the cost of football venues at each school, and so the School District took over a part."

Historical note: Seattle Public Schools was using Memorial Stadium BEFORE Seattle Center even existed. They own the land Memorial Stadium and its parking lot sit on. You can look it up.

The smart idea was save money by not building a football stadium at every school. Memorial Stadium continues to be the home field for 4 Seattle comprehensive high schools for football and soccer. And so, whether it's rebuilding the stadium or making it an amphitheater, Seattle students will continue to use it for sports events. Otherwise, they have nowhere else to play.

As well, Memorial Wall, which is part of the stadium, needs to stay with it. It was built for all the Seattle high school students who died in WWII. The motto is meant to inspire the students who come to the stadium.

All that said, I hate the idea of a Chiluly museum. I don't think he's an artist for the ages and I don't think we need another expensive museum at Seattle Center. I agree with others who have said part of that space could be a tremendous "adventure" playground (similar to ones found throughout Europe and there's also one in Central Park). Tourists and natives alike could enjoy it.

westello

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 2:35 p.m. Inappropriate

All this anguished hand-wringing over Seattle Identity fails to take into account a fundamental overarching reality: Seattle is a second-class city that happened to land in a first-class location. Before the arrival of Rem's Kool Haus on 4th Avenue, it sported uniformly the ugliest, most pedestrian public architecture in the entire Free World. Consider the county courthouse and administration buildings, the old city hall, the old downtown library, the Kingdome, all of that. Only in Seattle can a drab, shapeless bureaucratic warren like the Federal Reserve building raise from the dead the historic preservationists.

With the exception of the new library, the most that can be said for the recent second-generation wave of civic construction is that perhaps it is less egregiously homely than its predecessor. Consider SAM's no longer quite new quarters: a self-conscious, insecure derivative attempt at avant-garde. Or Benaroya Hall: quite ordinary and (by the way) already chihulied to the max. To the extent that Seattle's downtown skyline commands any interest, it is, alas, due to its reviled commercial towers.

So what these anguished discussions lack is a sense of history, of the pervasive mediocrity that has characterized official Seattle aesthetic decision-making since the Olmsted boys left town. A nice new monument to chihulyism is entirely consistent with the well-established tastes of the self-appointed Seattle elites. For pointy-headed recent arrivals to decry the further logical extension of this hallowed tradition as the unexpected betrayal of civic responsibility wildly distorts the historical record.

The long-entrenched dominance of the Boeing culture finds its purest expression in Seafair and its orgiastic culmination in the Blue Angels aerial performance and the Lake Washington hydroplane races. This is native Seattle in all its aboriginal exuberance. And Seattle Center, the Space Needle and the 1962 World's Fair represent the glorious apex of the Seafair culture. Paul Allen's funky squashed guitar fits this traditional ambiance perfectly, and so would the proposed Chihulydome, if executed in an appropriately tasteless fashion.

woofer

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 10:35 p.m. Inappropriate

My earlier points about the Fun House structure containing basic geometric drawbacks that are "extremely uncomplementary" with amphitheater visability on both north/south sides to east. Whatever is built must have a signicantly reduced footprint to reduce Divide between east and west sides. Capiche?
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Build a smaller footprint 3-story in Post Modern. 1-story basement. Put Chiluly Gallery on Top Floor. Take advantage of view for gallery goers and general public at elevator. Put computer games/horse carousel/an old ride or two with tables on plaza eatery on the 2nd Floor. 1st Floor: Grand Throughway to Amphitheater in wet weather, rows of art studio, office, boutique souvenier and salon. Bubbleator. Bubbleator. Bubble. Bubble... Bubble.. Bubble. Ator.
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The old parking lot is not worth saving. No loss there. Here, a Chiluly sculptural creation, as a standing work of art, in Post Modern, like EMP, Space Needle and Monorail Station would indeed look great. The old building has got to go though don't you know joe whatchaknow.
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Mayor McGinn is right to look into it and you know that now, don't you, you readers of my crap? Good for McGinn. He's right to oppose the deep-bore dammit because of traffic impact on Alaskan Way and Mercer. Good grief.
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I'm doing a waterfront estuary study. I find coves possible at Broad, Seattle Aquarium, Waterfront Park, Spring, Yesler. All convex seawalls there reduce at their apex between 5' and 15' of sidewalk. They create 'zones' of public interest between piers; more sidewalk seating arrangements.
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Here's my argument for moving Child's Play ground (brand that). Keep the playground area to one side. It may be the ticket the best sort of playground preservation there. An old small ride or two could be built under 'double-duty' shelters. Any playground amusement aparatus, swing, etc will suffice for big rides. Making this playground area parklike need not cost a fortune.
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Kids can't run and jump on asphalt. Do NOT get asphalt in open cuts.
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Circulator Monorail Guy some say I'm weird. I'm a damn good engineer-type in case you haven't figured that out yet. Thanks Mike! Stop the Deep-bore! It's Koo Koo!

Wells

Posted Fri, Mar 19, 10:50 p.m. Inappropriate

OK OK. Install a Big Ride in Seattle Center's new child playground, built into a structure or something. Landscape it. Install some Small Ride in trees and border landscaping. Again, no asphalt there.

Wells

Posted Sat, Mar 20, 1:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh gee whiz...why bother talking or voting-the Seattle mucky-mucks are gonna do whatever they are gonna do. Doesn't matter what any of us grouse about or vote for!

I live in Greenwood. Sadly (or not-depending on the perspective) I consider it a seperate town from Seattle....that is downtown and I rarely go there-every couple years I am dragged downtown for some reason.

I like where I live.

Build whatever you want on the Seattle Center. How about 10,000 more condos!?!

I originally moved here because Seattle was interesting-it stopped being that about twelve years ago. I have a life and a job in North Seattle now-that keeps me here, but the rest of it........it is a small hick town with an attitude. Only the rain keeps it from smelling too bad.

I suspect in a few years that it will become nearly impossible to maintain a single-family dwelling here. Then I'll move away.

Build a condo where my house used to be and the residents can all go suffer through whatever they think up for Seattle Center.

Maybe they can make it the worlds largest dog park. Smoke and gluten free!

Chiwholy is beside the point-no one but know-nothing Bellevue housewives care about him anyway. Give him a museum-tear down half of downtown to do it...make sure you take out safeco field in the process!

I'm cynical? ...you new around here?

mrmcoy

Posted Sat, Mar 20, 7:52 a.m. Inappropriate

Building another edifice to the man behind the curtain? How about just a nice room in the rocknroll museum dedicated to all the hard rocking gaffers who actually did the work.

tonyg

Posted Sat, Mar 20, 12:20 p.m. Inappropriate

It's not an edifice, tonyg, if new building is better than the old one, I say it has to have small footprint and up at least two stories with basement. The Bubbleator is ideal there and public. Put Chiluly on Top Floor with Public Atrium.

The men behind the curtain are indeed incompetent fools and worse, as they continue to demonstrate their failed and failing Highway Dept design notions. I've explained advantages Cut/cover has over Deep-bore frequently, but few Seattlers here care to use their frickin brain. Instead, they just accept the word of these 'higher-ups' who pretend to know what they're doing. I, who approach engineering projects from a nuanced approach, am mortally offended by the Deep-Bore Travesty-Fiasco.

DO NOT BUILD THIS DEEP-BORE TUNNEL. Think TUNNELITE again more thoroughly. The hillclimb to Steinbrueck Park is a gardened pathway above a lower SR99 that is almost totally hidden, With the Cut/cover. Also, Cut/cover leaves way fewer cars stalled like Deep-bore bad Boulevard design.

This is your outside engineer speaking. Tunnelite is far superior. The numbers of people who agree are growing, Lefty weaklings, Righty ass paraders, Lefty good one misguided, Righty good one deceived by the man behind the curtain. Hurraah! For Mike McGinn! Hurraah!

Wells

Posted Mon, Mar 22, 11:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Seems to me what's being described here as the ideal for Seattle Center is something called the Seattle Commons........sigh.

Let's just have Dale and the Pilchucks (weren't they a group in the 60's?) re-decorate the Center House. My only condition is that there be a new Chihuly designed Bubbleator right where the old one used to be.

Posted Tue, Mar 23, 5:28 p.m. Inappropriate

Amazing. When my great grandparents arrived here, we were considered a cultural dustbin. I guess we have now progressed to the point where if you are too successful, you are must be a sell out.

A few points to keep in perspective.

--Central Park is 843 acres, but every single tree in it was planted and placed by hand. Just like Disneyland's landscape. Hand placed. We have several parks with original old growth timber within two miles of downtown Seattle. If you add together the acres of Discovery , Seward and Greenlake you total 25 percent more park land than Central Park.

--Parks make up 11 percent of the total area of Seattle. Of 6,200 ACRES, 1,600 acres are NOT developed.

--Chihuly must be quite a con artist to have conviced all those art museums and gallerys to show his stuff. Kew Gardens is known for it's poor choices, right? And Venice is Vegas of Europe for tacky art -- must be why they put Chihuly installations over their canals.

--The Center has always been about attractions long before there was the fair. The Opera House and Ice Rink (AKA Mercer Arena) date back to the mid 1920's. Memorial Stadium to 1951. the Armory is older. Seattle Parks have long offered attractions and privatly financed vendors on a number of it sites. Leschi had a hotel and six story casino in 1892. There are privately owned and managed parks in NYC, too. Gramercy Park for example.

We have more more than 450 parks to choose from. 122 childrens playgrounds, 151 tennis courts, 185 athletic fields, 2 outdoor and 8 indoor pools, fishing piers, boat ramps, the Arboretum, Zoo and Aquarium. One museum with Glass Art that covers less than 50,000 square feet of a bustling 74 acre campus. Paid for by others. If you don't like Chihuly, don't go. I have never been to the Ring Cycle, but I am thrilled we have it here.

LASTLY, I am sad to hear that the Northern Life Tower, The Coluseum Theatre Building, The Exchange Building, and the IBM Building to name a few are considered unworthy of note. There is, and sadly was some great local architechure here before Rem arrived -- some of it dating back to the cultural dustbin days.

Lastly

Posted Sat, Mar 27, 6:53 p.m. Inappropriate

Staging area? You've got to be kidding. This looks like a great opportunity. What other city wouldn't think this would be a great thing? I would love to have more open space at Seattle Center, but this space is isolated from the other green space in Seattle Center and is well suited to this. The City doesn't have to pay for it, and makes some money at the same time. I walk through the Fun Forest every day on my way to work. This will be a huge improvement. If there are other better proposals, I assume they'll turn up through the City's request for proposals. But I'll be surprised if any are of this caliber.

sts

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