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Icons we could do without

There are a number of Seattle landmarks I'd be happy to see disappear. Why not take a hammer to Hammering Man, or deport Lenin back to Russia?

The Fremont Troll

The Fremont Troll jcolman via Flickr

'Hammering Man' is a cheerless drudge.

'Hammering Man' is a cheerless drudge. Chuck Taylor

There has been much debate in recent months about the proposal to allow giant, illuminated corporate signs atop some of Seattle’s skyscrapers. Proponents have argued that it’s no big deal. Seattle is a commercial center, so why hide it? Opponents have said the skyline is a precious resource, why tart it up with glowing logos against the backdrop of Mount Rainier?

You would think something as iconic as the city skyline would be, well, iconic, meaning it has transcended debate to become a thing unto itself, something we take for granted, as natural as rain. But people see it differently. Some see a forest of highrises set prettily against a backdrop of snowy mountains. Others see an urban cityscape where change is the restless norm.

The argument that a giant sign on the former WaMu Building touting Russell Investments, the new tenant, will allow the company free advertising on every postcard sold in the future has been a compelling one against highrise signage — until you remember how irrelevant that is in the era of Photoshop. Go down to any tourist trap on the waterfront and you’ll find postcards that show orcas jumping over the Space Needle and sunsets digitally enhanced to spectacular effect. Unpleasant images can be easily altered.

In other words, just because something exists doesn’t mean it will become iconic. And just because something is iconic doesn’t mean it will persist, or should. We are always editing the landscape.

I’d like to do a little editing myself, because my love of landmarks is not pure. There are a number of Seattle icons that bug me. I’m not arguing for their removal, but if I were in charge of the City Photoshop Department, I might be tempted to remove them from the picture.

Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man” is a good example, a flat, cheerless drudge who is not even doing anything constructive, like chipping away at the facade of the ugly Robert Venturi entrance to the Seattle Art Museum downtown. “Hammering Man” looks like something out of an old 1960s headache commercial, and watching him makes me reach for an Anacin.

Fremont is a trove of questionable local icons. The Fremont Troll is ugly and charmless. I say this as someone who grew up on Scandinavian folk stories and learned that trolls are not cuddly forest denizens but creepy serial killers who lie in wait. The Fremont Troll is a bearded Ted Bundy. And I’d put Fremont’s Lenin statue in the same category. We’re supposed to be amused by this relic of the old Soviet Union being adopted by the People’s Republic of Fremont, known for hippie whimsy. Perhaps the Lenin statue is in town to champion Hammering Man’s worker’s rights, but I can’t help but think of the murderous repressions Lenin inspired.

To some degree, the Lenin statue is the opposite of what it appears. It could also be viewed as a trophy of Western triumphalism. It would not be here save for the fall of another icon, the Berlin Wall.

Seattle has other monuments like this. Totem poles, for instance. The Pioneer Square pole is a good example. Puget Sound Indians did not make totem poles; local businessmen snitched the original pole from a Tlingit village up north in 1899 and erected it in the square (the current version is a replica). It is a work of art, but not our art; it is a souvenir of empire that sits in an urban park built by men who took as much as they could from the Indians and the land. It has become an icon, but if you know the story, a complicated one.

My least favorite icon on the skyline is Columbia Center. If the retro Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame was supposed to live in the Space Needle, the Columbia tower is the skyscraper Darth Vader built. Sleek and tall, yes, and not the ugliest tower ever raised. But to me, it will always seem like an alien landing, an invasive species, the antithesis of sustainable, sensible Seattle. It looks best when it’s least conspicuous, seen from across Puget Sound, cut down to size against the Cascades. Or buried in clouds, Photoshopped by nature.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 7:36 a.m. Inappropriate

Wow! Almost all of the icons you mentioned as hating are the ones I love! The only thing better than the Hammering Man is the Blue Moon Tavern's Drinking Man. The Troll, Lenin and the Hammering Man are always on our must see list when we have tourists in tow.

Rhonwyn

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 7:47 a.m. Inappropriate

Those fiberglas pigs that have come to represent the Pike Place Market:HORRID!

chapala21

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 8:32 a.m. Inappropriate

What a crumudeon, Mr. Berger! If you had any real sense of Scandinavian spirit, you'd see the brooding, existential angst in the Troll's face. A serial killer? Of goats, maybe. I live two blocks from the Troll and see him as a protector of our neighborhood. His appetite for VW's is his way of reducing global warming. He doesn't view them as troll oysters. I often wish the Troll a hearty "god dag!" when I pass by, and sometimes stop to chat in Swedish with him. He is a good fellow, a little taciturn, perhaps. My only concern is that he may be a Norwegian troll, and may be a little irritated that all I can speak is Swedish.

As far as Hammering Man goes, maybe he should go now that the Lusty Lady is no longer there to make fun of him. But Hammering Man gave me one of my finest moments as a grandfather. We told my grandson, then about 5, that we were going to the Art Museum. He had an "I don't want to go" tantrum. I said fine, in that case we'll drop him off at the Home for Wayward Brats. I described it as a large stone building where the children went in and never came out. They ate gruel three times a day. And for the very worst brats, there was a huge iron robot that smashed them in to bratwurst. We were driving north on 1st, so just as I said "Bratwurst", Hammering Man hove into view. He said, "Granpa, can't we just look at the home for brats but not go in?" I told him sound out the words over the door, he slowly articulated "art museum", we went in and he had a great time.

Si

Silenus

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 11:14 a.m. Inappropriate

A better context for Hammering Man is in GasWorks Park. It's more associated with industry there and totally unrelated to downtown's avante garde modernity. The whilygig arm swing is more fitting a playground. And the visability for miles around creates depth and adds substance. In its current setting, it's a blatant insult to the working class. "Death in a White Ford" nearby is similarly absurd.

Wells

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 12:11 p.m. Inappropriate

OK now that we know what you do not like let us take a look at the short list and save some ether ink. Please list what you DO like.

leitmotif

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 12:31 p.m. Inappropriate

I disagree on most of these points, but you're absolutely right about the Pioneer Square Totem Pole. Let's get rid of it.

cascadian

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 12:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Lenin decorated with Santa beards and caps during the holiday season (and why not bunny ears this time of year) is the kind of revenge that artists extract from their tormenters. He's there as a modern Ozymandias, look upon his works ye mighty, and despair.
The Troll is first rate Seattle art. It's mildly surprising that Waiting for the Interurban and Broken Obelisk are missing from this list of Cascadian eccentric. Seconding leitmotif, what strikes Mossback as worthy landmarks to judge these examples as found wanting? Can we bring back the Twin Teepees? Is it true that the Hat and Boots are saved somewhere?

NickBob

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 1:42 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with some of the above comments, Knute, please make the effort to point out Seattle icons that you think are good / attractive / special / well, iconic.

I would also challenge you to name icons in other cities for comparison. It's probably not fair to look east of the Mississippi, they've got decades of history that we don't. So how about the two cities we're sandwiched in-between--Vancouver and Portland, what icons do they have that you think are positive examples?

FYI, I agree with you on the troll, and I think Hammering Man should be moved elsewhere for a while to let another piece take its place. I also think the best local icons are all natural--the Cascades, Olympics, and Rainier. Who needs a Space Needle?

Lindy

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 1:57 p.m. Inappropriate

I like many things. Here's a short, off-the-top list:

Sculpture Park--Roxy Paine's steel tree and the Neukom Vivarium are intensely provocative.
Mt. Rainier: an icon and goddess that must be respected, if not worshipped.
A Needle-that-shall-not-be-named
Pacific Science Center: Yamasaki's secular temple; the gothic "space arches" are stunning still.
Horiuchi Mural, Seattle Center
Kubota Gardens: like a living Horiuchi
Black Sun at Volunteer Park Isamu Naguchi--very 2001: A Space Odyssey
Chief Seattle, William Henry Seward statues, and the James J. Hill bust at UW.
Koolhaas library--great as sculpture
Waterfall Garden Park, Pioneer Square
Ramps to Nowhere in Arboretum
Walrus heads on the Arctic Bldg.

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 2 p.m. Inappropriate

How many Seattlites know (or even care) that "our" Hammering Man isn't even original? The first HM, now 20 years old, is in Frankfurt, Germany, bravely stationed in front of the fairgrounds.

The best idea was on Labor Day a few years back, when pranksters put HM in leg irons. Now, that made sense!

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 2:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Ooops: Forgot the Leif Erikson statue at Shilshole. And you can add Bergen Place sculptures to the "no" list.

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 2:02 p.m. Inappropriate

One more thing: for me, the iconic Seattle sculpture would be this one, Dudley Carter's "Celestial Adventure" at Shilshole. Crosscut story here: http://crosscut.com/blog/crosscut/19674/An-artist-s-last-work-has-resting-place-at-Shilshole/.

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 2:12 p.m. Inappropriate

I really dislike those Bergen Place sculptures. Good call, Knute. And yes, I'd love to see those Ramps to Nowhere stay just where they are.

@NickBob, the Hat 'n' Boots were moved to Oxbow Park in 2003. 6430 Corson Ave. S. in Georgetown.

http://www.cityofseattle.net/parks/proparks/projects/oxbow.htm
http://www.seattle.gov/parks/park_detail.asp?id=4416

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 2:34 p.m. Inappropriate

Thanks, Knute, excellent list, even if I'd trade Koolhaus for the Troll in a heartbeat. And Leif counts as a meh on my list. Isamu Noguchi's Landscape of Time in front of the Jackson Federal Building is another one worthy of addition to any list of exemplary Seattle landmarks.
Thanks for the link and word Benjamin, that deserves a day trip.

NickBob

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 7:04 p.m. Inappropriate

Well! Up on the wrong side of bed this morning, were we? Will, when looking well won't do it, looking ill prevail? Prithee, why the rail?

This sounds suspiciously like a program of "cultural cleansing," and that could be dicey for one who has admitted that his love of landmarks is not "pure."

Perhaps this is a hint of an announcement to come soon from Hizzoner's Office, and Mossback has been tapped as Czar of Culture?

We can all no doubt agree that the Columbia Tower should be undermined and toppled by placer-mining waterjets...and perhaps that a note of provenance should be attached to the Pioneer Square totem--but many of what you call "icons" show our wry northwest sense of humor or simply fall into the honorable tradition of "giving the people what they want."

However, we'll suspend further judgment for the time being and await your ascendancy to the post of Cultural Czar; surely we can then expect a consistent, unified set of policies for the emergence of public art, whether professional or produced by der volk. May we expect an initial plan of, say, five years?

Seneca

Posted Wed, Apr 20, 8:29 p.m. Inappropriate

To this day I fail to understand the animosity to the Columbia Tower. I happen to think it a fine building, a true statement of Seattle's world class status. Its incongruity in the skyline, noticeable but not unreasonable, is in fact a virtue. Then again, I also support the SR 99 tunnel, so this is probably the internal Darth Vader speaking.

But no good discussion of Seattle icons, especially unfortunate ones, can omit the EMP. Nothing needs to be said about the artistic virtue of this structure. The only positive comment I have is that it will, for many years to come, serve as an unmistakable warning to future generations of architects and planners to avoid architecture as novelty. Whether that warning will be heeded is another question.

As I recall, the first time I ever visited downtown Seattle (as opposed to just passing through) was in the summer of 2001, when I visited my girlfriend. She has an intense pride in the city which has rubbed off on me. Pike Place Market was her favorite, and that included the pigs. And Ichiro, of course, the city's de facto human icon. The fact that she dumped me on that trip turned out to have less impact on my own opinions than might be expected.

Posted Thu, Apr 21, 10:48 a.m. Inappropriate

Interesting list. I'll say that the Koolhaas library takes my prize as the most disgusting, worst excuse for architecture I've seen in a while. Seattle is obsessed with inorganic boxes, squares, and rectangles. Meanwhile, the rest of the world is creating stunning rounded, flowing monuments. See the new cricket/football/rugby stadium in Melbourne as an example.

Perhaps my preferred Seattle location is obvious: I love the EMP.

getgrip

Posted Thu, Apr 21, 2:29 p.m. Inappropriate

Pepper2000;

I think the Columbia Tower is ugly, and does not fit our city. From my perspective it is superficial that we need buildings to declare ourselves a world-class city, and that annoys me. Who care if we are a world-class city or not? As long as we take care of our citizens and environment who cares what others think of us? Deciding that buildings or artwork make us a world-class city is crazy. Declaring Donald Trump a civic leader is similarly asinine. Yes, I do equate Columbia Tower with Donald Trump; over-hyped junk.

Drumheller Fountain and it’s view is timeless. Smith Tower is another timeless building. I vote for timeless rather than that which comes and goes with current excitement.

Posted Thu, Apr 21, 10:18 p.m. Inappropriate

I'm not quite sure why a Tlingit totem pole is not "our," but a Horiuchi sculpture, or a Koolhaas, or a Scandinavian whatever, should be embraced as "our." Who are "we," Mr. Berger? Are there no Tlingit in Seattle?

bkochis

Posted Mon, Apr 25, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

What I don't like about the Hammering Man is that it's more product than art work. There is nothing unique about it--there are at least 6 more of these scattered around the US (including such places as Dallas, Texas, and Gainsville, Florida) as well as in various places around the world. (The first one was made for Frankfurt am Main in Germany, and the largest is in Seoul, South Korea.) Mounumental in scale, it's primarily a monument to Seattle's need to imitate other cities rather than develop an identity of its own. It's the anti-Space Needle; and if Portland had been foolish enough to buy one, it would be the anti-Portlandia. With such dubious claims to our affection hovering about it, no wonder that nobody bothers to keep this piece of 'kinetic sculpture' in working order. The only time it looked good was with the ball and chain.

Posted Tue, Apr 26, 10:20 a.m. Inappropriate

I helped supervise the stuffing of the ballot boxes at the Fremont Street Fair back in, what, 1991, to get the troll design selected for an art project under the Aurora Bridge. Even then it was kind of an ugly graceless design but with broad popular support, including local artists themselves. An 'arts community' seems to always trend towards the cartoonish, that's life. It had life and a sense of humor and exuberance. If it isn't 'adult' enough for your tastes, perhaps it is time to consider your 'taste' and whether or not you have grown into an uptight judgmental jerk...i mean lighten up...a troll under a bridge what could be more appropriate, it is a marriage of form and content. Prior to the troll, the main local icon was Waiting for the InterUrban and it was getting stale stale stale.

Posted Fri, Apr 29, 9:51 a.m. Inappropriate

Keep in mind that the sculpture at The Blue Moon is also "hammering man." It's a joke. Get it? .....he's getting hammered!

It's true, Knute, the word curmudgeon comes to mind. I don't like that Needle, but it's here. And, Hammering Man recalls our blue collar, hard-working origins. And I like that they give him the day off on Labor Day. The Lenin statue?.....a whimsical, tongue-in-cheek slap in the face to pretentious people, and the Soviets too!

LawrenceD

Posted Fri, Apr 29, 11:20 p.m. Inappropriate

I truly love the viaduct. Views of the water and Olympics on one side, and the city on the other. Fantastic!

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