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Why don't architects speak English?

Grand plans for Seattle Center evoke hovering "Jelly Beans," "dematerialized urbanism," and "catalyzing atmospheres." That's just what Seattle needs: more gobbledygook.

The floating jelly bean concept for the Memorial Stadium area of Seattle Center

The floating jelly bean concept for the Memorial Stadium area of Seattle Center

Seattle Children's Festival at Seattle Center (2002).

Seattle Children's Festival at Seattle Center (2002). Joe Mabel/via Wikimedia Commons

Rick Santorum recently declared that as a condition of statehood, English must be the primary language in Puerto Rico. I know how he feels. If I were president, I might dictate that English be the primary language of architects and urban planners.

Seattle is undergoing planning and "visioning" wherever you look, a way of keeping busy during the Great Recession, but also of preparing to meet the light at the end of the deep-bore tunnel. The waterfront is in the middle of re-conceptualization, sprawling South Lake Union is taking shape, the adjacent Denny Triangle is ripe for sprouting a new Amazon forest of towers amid what have been parking lots for half a century, and Seattle Center, looking at the Next50 on the anniversary of the fair, and has undertaken a competition for designers to re-imagine how the Memorial Stadium site and immediate surroundings could be remade as a modern civic space. 

Yes, there's a whole lot of visioning, revisioning, and re-revisioning going on.

It's tough to get a handle on some of the ideas. One problem is concepts that look good from 30,000 or even 1,000 feet, but seem undefined at street level. Architects are now fond of using computer images that often turn schemes into abstractions that fail to give any feel for what's going to be on the ground. There are often too many cubes, domes, blocks, trapezoids, and lozenges: it's architecture as geometry class. Some architects have a brilliance for being able to see any two-dimensional rendering or blueprint as a fully formed 3-D space, but most of us don't. And creative shapes often get lost in translation. The Gates Foundation, for example, looks like two, cool boomerangs from the Space Needle, but down on the sidewalk, it just seems like another big office complex. Was it built to impress folks commuting by gyrocopter?

One yearns for the days of Victor Steinbruck's sketchbook (Seattle Cityscape, Market Sketchbook). Or old-fashioned dioramas, like the one Vulcan has used so effectively at South Lake Union. Architects and planners should turn the city into a doll house to give us a better feel for what they're thinking of at the people level. I've always loved that scale model of New York at the Queens Museum of Art in which every building in the city up into the 1990s has been replicated. I wish more architects still used models and paintings to capture their ideas.

I've looked at the plans for the downtown waterfront, and I still don't have an overall sense of how it would come together after its post-Viaduct transformation. I still can't quite envision the traffic volumes, or how waterfront ecosystem restoration will square with continued commercial and industrial uses.

And then there's that enormous proposed "fold" below the Pike Place Market which, despite its picturesque, pastoral name looks a whole lot like a concrete lid over a highway. Yes, you see happy images of computer-generated Seattleites frolicking in new waterfront public spaces, but even these carry an air of unreality: the sky is too blue, the vegetation isn't right (Ponderosa pines?), and what are people doing when it rains, or during the work day? The pictures make every day in Seattle seem like a sunny Bumbershoot. Come. On.

Like all big projects, the waterfront re-do suffers from goals that are far too general to mean much, and details that are far too small or undetermined to give us lay people specifics. So, after muddling through  jargon and timelines, you're told that "the project will create an exciting destination with vibrant public and cultural spaces, access to the water and a new urban street that will accommodate all modes of travel...." It's English, but such goals leave a lot of latitude in their execution. It's English that doesn't say much. 

At least it's not gobbledygook. There a problem when architects try to say too much in academia-infested code, like alchemists trying to convey their arcane processes and keep them secret at the same time.


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Comments:

Posted Thu, Mar 22, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

I love the floating jelly bean. Its renderings show that it can morph from a Plain Jane white bean into a paramecium, and even a limp flying saucer that perfectly complements the Space Needle. If the Bean is selected, it should definitely be equipped to slowly pulsate various colors to negate the astonishing dullness of almost all of Seattle's newer buildings and public spaces.

At all costs, this Seattle Center redo must avoid converting our only significant downtown park into another South Lake Union, Seattle's ground zero of drab, uninteresting, blockish buildings and micro-parks. Let's not bulldoze Seattle Center's existing shabby, 60's retro look just to create another SPRD Soviet style park like the one at the south end of Lake Union. That poor little park with its rock hard shoreline and concrete trails to nowhere is so sterile it cries out for some Soviet statues--or anything--in its desperation to jazz itself up. Please people--we need to do MUCH better than this at Seattle Center.

Here's a cheat sheet on the look we need to avoid:

http://bagshaw.seattle.gov/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Lake-Union-Park.gif

http://mynorthwest.com/emedia/seattle/4/458/45817.jpg

http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&q;=soviet+park&bav;=on.2,or.r_gc.r_pw.r_qf.,cf.osb&biw;=1599&bih;=789&um;=1&ie;=UTF-8&tbm;=isch&source;=og&sa;=N&tab;=wi&ei;=rkRrT6SkK6OdiQKH45SOBQ

Mud Baby

Posted Thu, Mar 22, 8:58 a.m. Inappropriate

Celebrity architects have given us spaces that are difficult to maintain and use and that have limited capability to be adapted to other uses in the future. The downtown library and EMP are both interesting as academic exercises, but as functional spaces to be used by actual human beings they are severely lacking.

The proposals for the waterfront and these exercises for Seattle Center continue in this tradition. There's no reason to spend the money to put up a giant testes over Seattle Center that will dribble on people.

talisker

Posted Thu, Mar 22, 9:34 a.m. Inappropriate

The Jelly Bean reminds me of the United States pavilion from Expo 74 (the one with the big pile of garbage in the middle - how 70s). Light and ephemeral and almost impossible to maintain. I'll bet if it's built it goes from grand vision to abandoned ruin in less than five years.

It seems that many of today's architects want to be celebrities more than craftsmen. They want to be able to make the kind of lofty pronouncements and bold predictions of a Frank Lloyd Wright, without demonstrating the creative genius to back them up. All that's left is double talk narcissism.

dbreneman

Posted Thu, Mar 22, 11:10 a.m. Inappropriate

OK, full disclosure here - my team submitted something called "Epicenter". I was surprised by the finalist selection and even the group that received special mention. I was surprised because very few had any inclination or real understanding of the place they were designing for or showed a concerted effort to design a living landscape that is home grown and sustainable.

Because this was an "ideas" competition, knowing too much about the place would actually "ground" the proposal and make it too sensible. Somehow seeing the Space Needle as from out of this world. There is a mistaken notion that the space needle was some immense leap in building technology. It wasn't, it was however an iconic tower versed in the theme at that time obsessed with all things "space." Boeing come to mind?

The Jelly bean will never be part of a serious dialogue about this very precious part of Seattle's culture and open space. The designers are professional 'visualists" that, like many architects, have discovered that they too can make landscapes because of the emergence of computer software that can wow anyone without an imagination. The demand for substance has been replaced with visual swindle and seduction. What is wrong with the physical world we live in that makes us have to separate us from it in fantastical ways? Just look at two projects that have received great acclaim, the Olympic Sculpture Park, here, and the Highline in NYC. Both are grounded in their place and context - this I call Emo Urbanism. Both feature meaningful native plant landscapes and people are gravitated to in all seasons. Seattle center needs to be about Seattle and that will be fantastic if it is.

chuck

Posted Thu, Mar 22, 8:43 p.m. Inappropriate

In construction, since the mid 90’s everybody needed to be drug tested. Our primary complaint after trying to build some of these monuments to over inflated egos went as follows: Why don’t the architects and engineers get drug tested? With the way they design the projects, it is obvious they are on some sort of drugs, perhaps hallucinogens. Now that I am retired, I can just smile and shake my head, they want people to pay for silly things like this???

Posted Thu, Mar 22, 9:58 p.m. Inappropriate

Chuck has raised an interesting point about the frequent gap between design and constructibility. My favorite architect is Zaha Hadid, who designed amazing things for many years and won lots of awards without her designs actually being built. During that phase of her career many people said her designs were unbuildable. This was untrue, as proven later by her firm's numerous built projects.

Here's a link to images of some of Hadid's work, both conceptual and actual projects.

http://www.google.com/search?q=zaha+hadid&oe;=utf-8&rls;=org.mozilla:en-US:official&client;=firefox-a&um;=1&ie;=UTF-8&hl;=en&tbm;=isch&source;=og&sa;=N&tab;=wi&ei;=i_xrT7L_K-OSiQfmhqiIBg&biw;=1135&bih;=704&sei;=kfxrT4etC6ediAeElMHeBQ

Hadid's buildings are amazingly creative and beautiful. She probably wouldn't be interested in a accepting a commission in a podunk town like Seattle, nor would her work likely be accepted here because of the cramped, wierd limitations we usually place on civic architecture and our frequent affinity for cheesy buildings. City Hall exemplifies what I'm talking about; in addition to being a design clunker, it also turned out to be an energy hog.

While the Central Library is a hulking monstrosity from the outside, it has many graceful interior spaces that are quite pleasing, as well as some that aren't (e.g., the urine-yellow elevators and escalator trim). The more time I spend there the better I like it, but I also very much like some of the new branch libraries. The Beacon Hill Library is small, but warmly gem-like inside and out.

Mud Baby

Posted Sat, Mar 24, 2:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Hey, Mud Baby. I just looked at some of her work. They look beautiful but am wondering if without the lighting and special perspective of the camera they look at beautiful. I'm especially thinking the odd building that looks folded to the center. Is it really beautiful when one sees the original? It looks out of proportion to me for the space and I wonder about the building itself? Close-up cool or picture cool?

Posted Sat, Mar 24, 2:21 p.m. Inappropriate

And that very cool - shall we say sterile - white bedroom. Does anyone live it in?

Posted Sat, Mar 24, 11:30 p.m. Inappropriate

a city with a favorite son resonating in a rippling, freely floating metal skin, the inspiration of which is reported to be a pile of trash from an electric guitar shop in Santa Monica, could certainly defy the practical with a levitating jelly bean that, um, moistens you

dmark

Posted Sun, Mar 25, 10:05 p.m. Inappropriate

@northender, Ms. Hadid's work is nowhere near as cartoonish as Frank Ghery's...

orino

Posted Tue, Mar 27, 11:22 a.m. Inappropriate

Judging by the responses, there is not a whole lot of interest in Seattle Center. Does the work boondoggle, quagmire or exhaustion come to mind when there is any interest in "improving" Seattle Center. This is not just about architecture either - it's about a useable recognizable urban open space for all sorts of people and activities. If nothing else this competition just gets ideas from a wide range of people for consideration if someone over there gets serious!

chuck

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