Seattle's 1962 world's fair was supposed to show us the way to the 21st century. How're we doin'?
The 21st century we live in isn't all modernist grace and the Space Age. Obama is pulling the plug on NASA and back on earth, fair designer Paul Thiry's architecture is being threatened and bulldozed. At Seattle Center, the legacy seems to be that one generation of schlock is supplanting another.
Yes, the fair improved our fine arts and sciences. But it also featured Gracie Hansen's girlie show, Heinz pickle pins, and Elvis. It was sold by the classic civic leader of a bygone era, a car dealer. One of the great fair wonders for me: the world's biggest layer cake. Instead of a married couple on top, it featured Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Step right up, people, that is 21st century entertainment. Under the sophisticated gloss of the fair's science promotion beat the heart of what one visitor from Eastern Washington decried to the folks back home as nothing more than a "carnival."
The Center has soldiered on as an amusement park with oddball shops and attractions, from the privately owned Space Needle, the privately run antique German Monorail, and now-lost curio cabinets like the privately owned Jones' Fantastic Museum that once featured a supposedly petrified man named Olaf the Giant along with banks of nickelodeons and TV messages from space aliens. Fairs are noted for their Ye Olde Curiostiy Shoppe aspects (in fact, the stuff from the real Ye Olde Curiosity Shoppe was displayed at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition). Tacky tourist wonders are still with us, but have gone upscale.
Billionaire Paul Allen stepped up in P.T. Barnum mode by cleaning out his adolescent bedroom and record collection and giving us the musical EMP, to which he later added his adolescent sci-fi collection. We can no longer see Olaf the Giant on display, but we can see Captain Kirk's chair in a phantasmal Frank Gehry building designed to look like a smashed electric guitar. Allen, who attended the fair as a kid, has built one of the fair's best pavilions, only 40 years late. I heartily approve.
Seattle Center schlock is trying to move up another notch in class with the newly proposed Dale Chihuly glass house museum, not by a long shot the first art gallery or shop at the Center, but as proposed it's emblematic of changes. Old-fashioned fun (the Fun Forest) is being replaced by colorful $15 million pretension that charges pricey admissions ($14?). Instead of carnies pitching the ring-toss, you've got Chihuly's high-class art hustle.
My first reaction to the Chihuly proposal, the vision of the Howard Wright family (owners of the Needle), was to feel even sorrier for cursed Tacoma, home of Chihuly's glass museum. They must be pissed. Late last year, we stole their largest downtown employer, the Frank Russell Company, so that it could inhabit the gaping hole left by the debauched Washington Mutual. Now we're diluting the draw of their Chihuly glass museum by building one of our own in the middle of one of the most-touristed spots in Seattle. What's Seattle's gift to Tacoma? The Kalakala, the decaying Dutchman of local maritime heritage.
Then, it occurred to me that I really have no artistic or aesthetic objection with the Chihuly concept. It's all perfectly in keeping with the spirit of the fair and the reality of Century 21, which is to overcharge for the mass-produced product that is "branded." Chihuly is to art what Starbucks is to coffee. So a Chihuly museum to replace an arcade or the bumpercars? Fine.
Seattle likes schlock that pretends to be better than it is, like the smooth jazz of Kenny G. The Chihuly museum is exactly in the tradition of the fair, and targeted at nouveau Seattle's aspirations. It's even appropriate for seeming just a little out of date. I mean, part of schlock is being slightly temporally misaligned. The Chihuly museum is very Seattle, but it's Frasier Crane's Seattle.
On the downside, the plan for the museum comes with all the classic civic bumbling, which is why we all should fear for what happens to the waterfront after the Alaskan Way Viaduct. The hodgepodge at the Center, the fiasco of Westlake, the dreadful freeway-spanning State Convention Center, the Green Line debacle, the Kingdome, South Lake Union: Seattle makes grand plans, then undercuts them when they prove tough to execute and a short-cut is offered by a local millionaire. The Seattle Center Master Plan identified the Chihuly spot as "open space."
Now we know what the master plan is worth: rich paying tenants will trump any plan, public process be damned. Personally, I'm not persuaded that turning Seattle Center into a Central Park is a good idea, but I can understand why open space advocates are angry.
Of course, Seattle Center has never had clean hands. The fair was built where an old neighborhood was bullied and bulldozed as blight so Seattle could make a great picture postcard as the vanguard of a new century, and sell a few Boeing planes. The Center is a hustler's kind of place, as surely as the streets of Belltown after dark or the Ginzu knife alleys at the Puyallup Fair. The museum will fit right in.