Recently, The Stranger's perceptive art critic Jen Graves, wrote an interesting essay, "This Land is False Land," about how Seattle's landscape and history are constructions, and she makes an excellent point. I have tried to remind people over the years that far from being "Metronatural," Seattle's landscape has been massively terra-formed what with logging old growth, rerouting rivers, building canals, and washing away hillsides.
A much-quoted figure is that the "re-grading" of our original hillsides and dumping the fill into Elliott Bay (which created a lot of new developable land in Belltown, the Waterfront, Pioneer Square, SoDo, the industrial area, and elsewhere) moved an amount of earth equal to the diggings of the Panama Canal. If nothing else, that stat, correct or not, gives a sense of the massive scale that our city-builders intended, and what it took to create a place where a modern city could sprout. But apart from the engineering involved, as Graves points out, a key ingredient in making it work is glossing over the details of landscape reformation and to sculpt what came after with a sense of mythology about its inevitability and livability. She writes, "Seattle's history is the history of making the artificial seem authentic, turning what's become merely normal into something 'natural.' "
So aside from one of the greenest cities in America being shaped by human forces that devastated the natural environment in ways we would not even consider (and indeed are trying to reverse) today, we have also worked hard to create a history that tells a happier story.
One problem that faced 19th century landscape architects (like the Olmsteds) was that many newer American cities did not have the advantage of centuries of Western art and history to make urban environments as respectable and pleasing as ones in European cities. And, they were faced with a city-building style that treated nature and its beauties as the enemy. Industrialization, boom towns, and sprawl took their toll: they neither pleased Old World sensibilities rooted in classical art and architecture, and they were devastating to nature.
As one critic lamented in 1876 while critiquing the grounds of Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition (now Fairmount Park), "(I)t is a real cause of regret in this country — where ancient and abiding forms of beauty are lacking, where ugliness grows spontaneously under the footsteps of man, like those evil weeds unknown to the virgin prairie which spring up after cultivation..." One way to make it right was to fabricate classicism, and pull the weeds. This helped give Seattle its pretty Olmsted parks and boulevards, and some of its Beaux Arts architecture.
Repairing the landscape meant engaging in a kind of visual storytelling, evoking a past that never existed here. This is the kind of thing most easily seen on college campuses, like the University of Washington, where college Gothic architecture evokes a medieval European world that is now, a century on, part of our local history.
In addition to faking the past, Seattle has also avidly faked the future, most notably at Seattle Center, which is a collection of historic landmarks that memorialize a fantasy of a future that has never come to pass; Bubbleators, atomic cars, and "Space Gothic" arches are hardly common. Seattle has been working both ends of the fabrication equation, which is one reason we're a city still fighting Utopian battles between an idealized past and a magical dream of the world of tomorrow.
It is hard for the present ever to live up to such active, embedded fantasies. The Space Needle is actual history (it was built nearly 50 years ago), yet it is also part of a future history that expressed our former dreams of what would come to be right about now. It mediates our past, present, and future, even if it has no bearing on reality: we never grew up to live in Space Needles like the Jetsons and no one is taking PanAm to the Moon, yet the Needle is utterly emblematic for us. It is our main tourist attraction, the platform from which we can best see what we've created, yet it is also compelling because it embodies a charming kind of unreality. Yes, it is possible to be nostalgic for the future.
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