People say adulthood is defined by the capacity for delayed gratification. By that definition, Tacoma may be the portrait of mature cityhood in the Pacific Northwest.
It is an increasingly urban, even urbane center, with its waterfront esplanades and light rail, creatively re-used historic warehouse buildings, growing museum district and downtown university. Not that it’s all about the knowledge economy. A logging truck can still cut you off as you come in on I-705, especially if you’ve been focusing on the shimmering hangar of Tacoma’s latest icon, the year-old LeMay America’s Car Museum. But after more than 20 years of innovative planning and investment, public and private, the city seems poised to fulfill its 140-year-old self-definition as a the “City of Destiny.” And the 78-year-old Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) is at the heart of it all.
TAM has occupied a steel-clad, Antoine Predock-designed building at the corner of Pacific Avenue and 17th Street since 2003. Director Stephanie Stebich calls the museum’s current, 50,000 square foot space “glorious, variable, and light-filled.” The spiraling series of different-sized galleries ramps up to an education wing with a rewarding view of Mount Rainier.
But the museum wanted a stronger presence on the street. Indeed, one of the primary goals in TAM’s 2008 Strategic Plan was to turn the location into “a gathering space for people, performances, and art.” When museum officials put out a call for the redesign of their entrance plaza in 2009, they said it should “be seen as the heart of Tacoma.” They commissioned Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, the firm that had served as the executive architects for their 2003 building, to imagine a new plaza. (The firm reorganized as Olson Kundig in 2010.)
The museum was not alone in its ambition to create a new public space at this critical junction between the city’s commercial core and south downtown’s burgeoning cluster of new museums, university campus and housing.
In partnership with the city, and with help from a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant, TAM’s leaders grappled with how to better connect the museum’s plaza to Pacific Avenue and to the complex array of streets, rail lines, walkways and open spaces — like Tollefson Plaza at the northwest corner of the intersection — that converge at the corner of Pacific and 17th.
The museum anchors the northwest corner of a cultural precinct on the east side of Pacific Avenue, which includes the Washington State Museum and the Museum of Glass. Restored 19th and early 20th century buildings, now part of the University of Washington-Tacoma campus, line the west side of Pacific Avenue, wide and busy with a steady flow of cars, trucks and buses traveling in both directions. Light rail runs by on its way to the convention center. The Prairie Line Trail, an 80-foot right of way that was still running freight trains until 2004, cuts across the intersection. Plans for its transformation into North America’s newest linear park are underway.
The whole area cries out for a greater connection among the museum, the university campus and the waterfront just across the railroad tracks. But short of closing off Pacific Avenue, what kind of design can elegantly provide that cohesion? (Early ideas included temporary street closures and a canopy across the intersection.)
This puzzle was never going to be easy to solve, but it became more complicated in 2012 when the museum announced that, thanks to a generous gift of Western American art from Erivan and Helga Haub, its plaza was now part of a much larger, $15.5 million plan for a whole new wing, incorporating the plaza design and improvements to the existing museum.
The Haub Wing’s design team is led by the Seattle-based Olson Kundig firm — with Tom Kundig as design principal — and includes landscape architects Murase Associates. Kundig is celebrated for responding to landscape and place with an approach that is simultaneously abstract, material and mechanical. In Tacoma, he faces a formidable and compelling challenge.
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