The Seattle Times had a recent story previewing the opening of the new Gates Foundation headquarters near Seattle Center. I was quoted observing the contrast that the new building represents sitting kitty-corner from Paul Allen's EMP. One structure looks very corporate and serious; the other is wild and, from above, resembles cans crushed for recycling more than the smashed guitar architect Frank Gehry intended. If you believe Allen's contention in his recent memoir, Idea Man, that he was the creative one while Gates has the business smarts, these two structures capture that divide.
I have not been inside the new Gates complex, which from on high appears to be like two pieces of a broken paper clip (Clippy?) or a couple of squared-off boomerangs juxtaposed to create an interesting open space between. Peering down from the Space Needle (the Needle's owners have hired me to write its history and have given me a desk on the Observation Deck where I sometimes work), I can see the spacious courtyard is already in use as Gates employees work in slacks and shirt sleeves when the sun is (occasionally) out.
On a recent day, the folks sitting outside seemed like they were having outdoor meetings, not kicking back and relaxing; no frisbee or hacky sack like you might see on a Microsoft campus. They look like they're thinking about saving the world even during breaks.
The Gates Building is quite striking seen from above. And its location between the Seattle Center and South Lake Union is fascinating. For one thing, it stands out in an area, between the Center and Aurora Avenue North, that has been an architectural dead zone for decades, the most notable things being the Elephant Car Wash sign or the old Pepsi sign on Highway 99. The rest is a sea of mostly low-rise rooftops for motels and such. From above, the Gates HQ is the kind of large, dramatic, structure tourists ask about.
It also marks an interesting connector to South Lake Union. It's very close by Allen's transformation of South Lake Union into an urban tech hub. The new South Lake Union park spread out with its so-far-barren geometry tantalizes us with the might-have-been of The Commons. The low-rise neighborhood is slowly becoming a high-rise one. But the idea of it as a hive of health research and technology is the embodiment of what the Seattle World's Fair preached 50 years ago, even if it's being actualized not with sleek monorails but streetcars.
The fair itself was designed for one major purpose: to create a Civic Center, one not based on government offices, but on culture, science, and the arts. But the fair never would have happened without the "Sputnik" push to popularize science. The future, we were told, lay in technological and scientific advances, and science was touted as a kind of secular religion.
Minoru Yamasaki's "Space Gothic" arches of the U.S. federal pavilion, now the Pacific Science Center, spoke to this, and the government science exhibits at the fair were vastly more popular than any of the contrasting and competing religious pavilions, like the Christian Witness Pavilion. Billy Graham drew a crowd at the fair, but surveys revealed that 60 percent of fair visitors never stepped inside a religious exhibit, while the U.S. science pavilion was the most popular pavilion of all.
Seattle had Boeing and the defense contractors. It had a growing medical and research complex at the University of Washington (immediately following the fair, more than $20 million in new capital projects were announced for the UW), and a new UW nuclear facility to train the next generation of atomic engineers. But the world of science promoted at the fair also included library science, public health, biological and human behavioral research, the coming of the computer age, as well as the applied sciences that proposed to "improve" daily life with video phones, mass transit, and the cordless iron. It was designed to promote a scientific way of thinking, a rationality applied to all aspects of life. Seattle's future lay in this direction. As Robert F. Kennedy noted during his visit to the fair, it was a delight to visit a region "peering boldly and joyfully ahead."
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!