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Architecture done with mirrors

The downtown Sheraton has finally done something about its forbidding blank walls, using big mirrors to "borrow" the attractive architecture of ACT across the street. Plus one great big flower pot. It doesn't really add up.

The Ginny Ruffner flower pot in the Urban Garden

The Ginny Ruffner flower pot in the Urban Garden Spike Mafford

The mirrored effect on Seventh Ave.

The mirrored effect on Seventh Ave. GGN

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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Comments:

Posted Tue, Jul 12, 2:46 p.m. Inappropriate

Very good piece. Thank you. The theory that shop windows are essential for lively streets has always struck me as superficially convincing but thin intellectually. For example you have the handsome Eagles Hall but what do you see through the windows? lobbies, a stairwell and, during most days, no people. I admit the theory has its supporting examples but it's hard to see just why it has become so generally espoused. Could it be that shopping has become an involuntary mental state? were we always like this? how can all those street-enhancing shops exist when Amazon and the Big Box stores sell most of the stuff?

kieth

Posted Tue, Jul 12, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

Wow Kieth, you made me stop and think. I'm female and from w-a-a-y old school. I've never been one to shop as a form of entertainment, but I did like to "window shop" while passing by a store. For one thing, it told you something about the character of the store... cheaper bargain stores would cram all the goods they could into a display, often with prominent prices. "Tasteful" high-end stores would present only a few items. You could tell whether the goods were traditional or the latest thing. This gave you a clue as to whether you would like to go inside and see more, or not bother. And too, it was a distraction. We didn't have phones or whatever plugged into our ears as an excuse for ignoring the world around us, so instead we'd focus on shop windows as we moved along.

s_calvert

Posted Wed, Jul 13, 10:14 a.m. Inappropriate

Thank you Keith and s_calvert for your insights. keith's comment about.. "Could it be that shopping has become an involuntary mental state? were we always like this?".. made me ponder the nature of marketing and "lively streets'. I would venture to say that this kind of activity is and has been part of mankinds' nature for a very long time; at least as long as there were people traipsing about on pathways and farmers with some extra produce to sell or craftsman plying a craft. It evolved over centuries into what we see today as small shops paralleling sidewalks and roadways. The recent advent of cars, freeways and shopping malls has had a huge impact on that small shop scene and passing foot traffic, so much so we see modern cities decaying at their traditional core and retail activities moving to the periphery. The corollary question would be, what would be at street level of buildings if there wasn't shops and services occupying storefronts? Hulking concrete fortress walls?

jstrob

Posted Wed, Jul 13, 12:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Shopping as an involuntary mental state has become an important, perhaps essential, form of entertainment. One needs to look no further than the Pike Place Market. "Saved" to retain a direct link from food producer to customer, there remains almost no remnant of this populist ideal. The meaning of "authentic" becomes debased when what we get is impossible parking, flying salmon, bemused cruise shippers, flower vendors where farmers once sold vegetables,all accompanied by the musical score of questionably talented buskers blowing in the wind. Whether on Seventh Avenue or Post Alley, it's all done with mirrors.

gabowker

Posted Wed, Jul 13, 1:48 p.m. Inappropriate

gabowker's bitter rant brings to mind the Yogi Berra adage, "it's so popular nobody goes there anymore!" I think the Market's continuing popularity is testament to our desire to shop, or more accurately to wander through an environment with a wide variety of constantly changing stimuli.

I haven't seen the new Sheraton treatment yet, but this piece will get me to check it out. I must admit I'm rather skeptical, but intrigued by GGN's description. I hope it is better than another prominent glass wall they did, the orange tinted monstrosity they (or at least Kathryn Gustafson) inflicted on City Hall. Interesting concept, but in practice a barrier instead of the kind of permiable edge that would make both the interior and exterior sides much better spaces.

gumba

Posted Wed, Jul 13, 4:06 p.m. Inappropriate

@kieth

"The theory that shop windows are essential for lively streets has always struck me as superficially convincing but thin intellectually."

Which means exactly what? Your sentence has a nice rhetorical balance but collapses upon reading it carefully.

Forget about "thin intellectually" and tell us -- empirically -- where you can suggest lively streets which are not predominantly shopping streets.

As to the attempt to redeem a "nationally-acclaimed" mistake -- see Time Magazine in 1983 -- I urge all readers to judge for themselves.

Posted Sat, Jul 16, 11:31 a.m. Inappropriate

David, I think the historic basis for the "lively street" goal is the souk. You know better than I do that the street markets of lower Manhattan were to some urban theorists the model for a public space that included face-to-face negotiations, haggling, theater, purchase of daily necessities all done within a few blocks of home. Good stuff, yes? we should not forget that when their fortunes improved people who lived in these urban models fled in all directions for less intense neighborhoods. What I'm thinking is that the top down impetus for street level shops is a dubious enterprise but probably not so much because of the distant and non-applicable model of the late nineteenth/early twentieth century but more because of my comment about Amazon and the Big Box stores. I think in-city retail stores have a big disadvantage and encouraging a lot of space in new construction may tend to subsidize retail rents and thus help out a little but my guess is that the model needs changing. What I mean by "thin" is that the economic model does not correspond to the urbanists model and I also suspect that other streetscapes that do not include a lot or even any retail can work pretty well. The sidewalks around the Federal Office Building come to mind. People on Queen Anne seem to like to walk around the "Boulevard" some of which does not even have sidewalks. Yes, Queen Anne Ave. also has foot traffic but only during a rather limited time window. I actually think the mirror idea is clever (I haven't seen it) and corresponds to another suspicion of mine that what people on the street really like to look at is the other people.

kieth

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