In 1967, the well-known French film auteur Jacques Tati released his magnificent work entitled “Playtime.” It was a brilliant but subtle satire on modern architecture. Using almost no dialogue but rather crisp images, sharp sounds, and a wonderfully choreographed cast, he showed people passing through canyons of towering glass buildings, each as Spartan and sterile as the next. In a delightful tromp l’oeil effect, the viewer would see all the major monuments of Paris, from the Eiffel Tower to the Sacre Coeur, reflected in the smooth planes of polished glass. At no time would you actually see the real Paris.
That film came to mind while strolling on the new “garden walk” on Seventh Avenue in Seattle, between Union and Pine Streets. Along the previously fortress-like wall of the Sheraton Hotel, giant mirror glass panels have been installed, along with overhanging glass canopies and sidewalk-level plantings. The glass neatly reflects the whimsical terra cotta façade of ACT Theatre, which found a new home more than ten years ago inside the former Eagles Building.
The relentlessly featureless wall of the Sheraton has been a sore spot with the city ever since its first phase was built in the early 1980s. Back then, major chain hotels tended to be castle-keeps, protecting themselves and their upper-middle-class clients from real or perceived threats from surrounding public streets. After all, prior to the convention center going in next door, the corridor along Pike Street in that vicinity was almost a red light district, with saloons, fleabag hotels, strip joints, and street life that ranged from drug-dealing to panhandling to outright hooking.
But the designers of the hotel went over the top to encase themselves in a concrete bunker-like fortification. Windows were set high above the street, with a pinched entryway not unlike one sees in moderate security prisons. The loading dock for garbage dumpsters faced toward the street like a filthy open maw. The high flat walls and parapets along 7th were specifically pointed to by almost every major architecture critic in the country as a perfect example of urban design gone awry. That singular façade along 7th has influenced design standards adopted by the city planners over the many years since then.
So it is not a small accomplishment that some retrofit and mitigation have recently occurred. Not that the Sheraton did this $2.5 million project out of a sense of altruism or any atonement for past crimes. Rather, the recent addition of a new wing of rooms allowed the city to impose the improvements as a condition of getting an occupancy permit. It has just taken many months to see it actually happen, despite the new hotel wing's having opened some time back.
The Greg Nickels administration permitted the hotel to open the new rooms even though no retrofit had been approved, much less installed. Several attempts to include neighboring property owners in a comprehensive re-design of the street failed due to balking by the hotel ownership and other nearby property owners
Some of the previous schemes (including one that I worked on) removed the parking lane, which holds but a handful of cars, thereby narrowing the roadway and allowing for more generous sidewalks filled with plants and large trees.The intent was to extend a green finger from Freeway Park into the commercial core, thereby softening the impact of the big blank wall. A previous plan done by GGN proposed theatrical lighting befitting the presence of the ACT and the nearby movie theaters.
So now that it's done, what did we get? I admire both the design firm associated with the effort as well as the artist. Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (GGN) of Seattle designed the planting scheme, as well as the vertical and horizontal glass panels. The very talented artist Ginny Ruffner designed the outsized, animated flowers and pot at the corner of 7th and Union. The detailing of both is impeccable, despite the clumsy and clunky building they had to deal with.
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