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Space Needle: Tower of power

It's easy to underestimate the importance of our landmark icon, but the Needle has meaning for the city, and transmits the Seattle 'brand' to the world.

The Space Needle: In some ways, as impressive as the Eiffel Tower.

The Space Needle: In some ways, as impressive as the Eiffel Tower. Chethan Shankar

The Space Needle is featured at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, China, in a display of reproductions of world's fair legacy structures.

The Space Needle is featured at the 2010 Expo in Shanghai, China, in a display of reproductions of world's fair legacy structures. Urso Chappell/Expomuseum.com

The Statue of Liberty's crowned head was displayed at the 1878 Paris Expo.

The Statue of Liberty's crowned head was displayed at the 1878 Paris Expo.

Writing about an icon is tough because you risk either taking it too seriously, or not seriously enough. The Space Needle usually suffers from the latter. It's kitschy, a "Frasier"-set icon that sets the scene as being in Seattle, a Googie leftover from a "Jetsons" future that never arrived. It was once the marker pointing skyward to the New Frontier. Today, it's a platform for fireworks and inflatable ad gimmicks like giant crabs.

Worse, it's for tourists. During the summer months, over 90 percent of the visitors to the Needle's observation deck are from out of the area. Seattle might love the Space Needle for its history, retro charm, and basic familiarity, but we don't actually go there.

But let me make the case for thinking about the Space Needle a little more seriously, perhaps contemplating it from the observation deck as I did recently. While it's easy to dismiss it as a tourist tchotchke, it has had a transformative effect on Seattle, how we are seen and see ourselves. And it continues to. Its appeal to outsiders shouldn't be used against it. More than 1 million people visit the Needle's top each year, and Space Needle brand manager Mary Bacarella tells me they expect to hit the 50 million mark shortly before the Needle's 50th anniversary in 2012.

In a real sense, the Space Needle is our permanent Seattle-only exposition, having hosted nearly five times the number of visitors who came to see the actual world's fair in 1962. And those people, most of whom are from elsewhere, visit an all-Seattle pavilion that shows them what we're about.

When I was in Shanghai, China, in June for Expo 2010, there were two separate exhibits about world's fairs, one put on by the Shanghai Museum, the other sponsored by the Bureau of International Expositions, the global governing body for expos. I was surprised at the number of pictures and models of the Space Needle in the exhibits, including one (shown here) in a display of reproductions of world's fair legacy structures.

Clustered in a kind of mini-landmark park, the Needle stood alongside familiar icons like the Eiffel Tower (built for Paris' Exposition Universelle in 1889) and even the Statue of Liberty, whose arms and torch were exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and whose crowned head was featured at the Paris Expo of 1878. When you tell the history of world's fairs, the Seattle fair is a key chapter in that narrative, and the Needle is shorthand for what expos represent. (See a great Needle slide show and hear a podcast by fellow Crosscut contributor Feliks Banel at the Seattlepi.com.)

The Needle, in fact, is second only to the Eiffel Tower for its status as a still-standing fair and city icon, and in many ways it's just as impressive as its French counterpart. The Needle's job is simply to be itself, a symbol and a vantage point. For people around the world, the Needle represents Seattle, and it also represents how things like world's fairs can put a city, even a small provincial city, on the map. People might hear of Seattle because of Boeing or Microsoft or Starbucks, but the Space Needle is how they visualize Seattle.

One striking thing about the Needle is how difficult it is to replicate. LEGO has a model of it, and you can buy lots of souvenirs with its image, from "Warhol" keychains to jewelry and snow globes. But almost every attempt to reproduce the Space Needle in three dimensions, as toy, model, pendant, or sculpture, fails to capture its true shape and proportions: They're too squat, too thick, the top is never quite right. The Needle can be powerfully photographed, but it can't often be captured by copycats.

Other "needles" built for world's fairs just don't have the Space Needle's design elegance or cachet. San Antonio's Tower of the Americas with its revolving restaurant ('68), Knoxville's Sunsphere ('82), Brisbane's needle-shaped Skyneedle ('88) — they just don't have "it." And none have become international icons for their cities.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 6:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Without the Needle, Seattle is just another P*rtscum.

drumcat

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 7:25 a.m. Inappropriate

mossback certainly pulls out all the stops... to me it looks the same as the first time i beheld it fifteen years ago: an over-sized ridiculously proportioned silly Chinese umbrella... an Eiffel Tower it will never be, or an Empire State Building...Mossback even uses the Needle to defend Seattle Process... nothing against process as such, but these processors in Seattle in this instance came up with an ill-proportioned abortion... it's like one of these beanpole guys with a too small head... Seattle lacks an eye as I noticed initially, or rather it lost it as I then discovered on seeing Pioneer Square and what the Craftsmen had initially wrought.

mikerol

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 8:17 a.m. Inappropriate

The Space Needle is something rare in the world: a truly beautiful monumental tower. How many of them are there? The Eiffel Tower certainly, the Washington Monument, maybe. And the Space Needle. Every tower that has come since looks like either a microphone or a marshmallow on a stick. The Space Needle still looks futuristic, optimistic and exciting. German friends of mine were truly impressed to learn that it was inspired by the Stuttgarter Fernsehturm; they didn't think the Stuttgart tower was that important! The only people I've talked to who have expressed disappointment with it are other Americans, usually those from back east, like my former in-laws. What struck them, after seeing pictures of Seattle's skyline for decades, was how small it was. "I thought it towered over all the skyscrapers; it's not even downtown!" The dangers of creative photo composition.

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 10:29 a.m. Inappropriate

Wonderful piece, Knute. It's good of you to mention Ridley and Graham as part of the design team. I happened to be working at Graham's store planning department during the summer of '61 and, as I recall, some of the early designs were posted in a corridor or lobby as studies. I don't think the Space Needle is a good design but you identify things about the Needle that are more important (or, more accurately, have become more important).

kieth

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 10:49 a.m. Inappropriate

I agree, wonderful piece, Knute. While I share much of your skepticism of the "Seattle as world class city" chamber booster crowd,I think the Space Needle is their crowning achievement.

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 11 a.m. Inappropriate

When I first came to Seattle, I, like many ignorant out-of-towners, was disappointed to learn that the Space Needle was not the tallest structure in the city. But not, it somehow seems an appropriate metaphor for the vision of the future that the Space Needle was intended to represent.

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 12:33 p.m. Inappropriate

Nice piece Knute.

I'm one of those locals who goes up the Space Needle a lot, generally around 4 to 6 times a year. One of the striking things about it is the number and variety of foreign languages being spoken. I'd peg the crowd as typically 25-30% off-continent, though obviously some of that is people who currently live in nearby cities or even in Seattle.

I think the Space Needle is gorgeous. And I agree that the "ball on stick" replicants are missing something -- partially because they don't look impressive, and partially because there are so many that look like each other.

mhays

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 12:52 p.m. Inappropriate

The space needle is one of those rare structures that is privileged to be on every cheesy montage of landmarks ever made, right up there with the Golden Gate Bridge and the Eiffel Tower. I feel privileged when I walk down Capitol Hill to work to be able to see such a beautiful icon every morning.

Jon Sayer

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 9:55 p.m. Inappropriate

When I return for some far away place I know I am home when I see the Space Needle.

On the "Seattle Beat" Sea Fair record the Needle wasn't even on the cover. It was inside in historical context, another symbol.
http://preview.tinyurl.com/SeattleBeatCover
http://tinyurl.com/SeattleBeatInside

Mr Baker

Posted Mon, Aug 16, 11:02 p.m. Inappropriate

With regard to the Chihuly controversy, thanks for demonstrating how the powerful try to make a bad deal look good. Shall we give another sweet deal to the same interests that were given preferential treatment for developing the Space Needle? According to your version of history one is led to imagine that the Space Needle investors really didn't want to build the needle and only did so from a sense of noblesse oblige. They just happened to do well by doing good would be the Seattle way of putting things. My guess is that things turned out exactly as planned, that powerful interests received every possible financial benefit at the expense of the City. It just turned out way better than expected. more at http://lightandair.wordpress.com/2010/05/05/boycott-the-space-needle/

Posted Tue, Aug 17, 6:09 p.m. Inappropriate

The Space Needle fit's Seattle perfectly, and would not fit any other city. To me it says that in the early 60's, Seattle knew it was destined and driven to be a high tech leader. Who is to say that it did not in someway inspire the people responsible for the success of Boeing, Amazon, and Microsoft the same way the Olympic & Cascade Mountains inspired the people responsible for REI, or the cool, cloudy mornings inspired and generated the idea and success of Starbucks?

Posted Wed, Aug 18, 2:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Great article! When he first visited Seattle, my young nephew noticed the Space Needle immediately and called it the "sky pointer." I appreciate your coverage of evolution of the Space Needle's Jetsons modern design. Since the Space Needle is a Seattle landmark, I trust it will be standing for many years to come.

-cct

cct

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