Writing about an icon is tough because you risk either taking it too seriously, or not seriously enough. The Space Needle usually suffers from the latter. It's kitschy, a "Frasier"-set icon that sets the scene as being in Seattle, a Googie leftover from a "Jetsons" future that never arrived. It was once the marker pointing skyward to the New Frontier. Today, it's a platform for fireworks and inflatable ad gimmicks like giant crabs.
Worse, it's for tourists. During the summer months, over 90 percent of the visitors to the Needle's observation deck are from out of the area. Seattle might love the Space Needle for its history, retro charm, and basic familiarity, but we don't actually go there.
But let me make the case for thinking about the Space Needle a little more seriously, perhaps contemplating it from the observation deck as I did recently. While it's easy to dismiss it as a tourist tchotchke, it has had a transformative effect on Seattle, how we are seen and see ourselves. And it continues to. Its appeal to outsiders shouldn't be used against it. More than 1 million people visit the Needle's top each year, and Space Needle brand manager Mary Bacarella tells me they expect to hit the 50 million mark shortly before the Needle's 50th anniversary in 2012.
In a real sense, the Space Needle is our permanent Seattle-only exposition, having hosted nearly five times the number of visitors who came to see the actual world's fair in 1962. And those people, most of whom are from elsewhere, visit an all-Seattle pavilion that shows them what we're about.
When I was in Shanghai, China, in June for Expo 2010, there were two separate exhibits about world's fairs, one put on by the Shanghai Museum, the other sponsored by the Bureau of International Expositions, the global governing body for expos. I was surprised at the number of pictures and models of the Space Needle in the exhibits, including one (shown here) in a display of reproductions of world's fair legacy structures.
Clustered in a kind of mini-landmark park, the Needle stood alongside familiar icons like the Eiffel Tower (built for Paris' Exposition Universelle in 1889) and even the Statue of Liberty, whose arms and torch were exhibited at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 and whose crowned head was featured at the Paris Expo of 1878. When you tell the history of world's fairs, the Seattle fair is a key chapter in that narrative, and the Needle is shorthand for what expos represent. (See a great Needle slide show and hear a podcast by fellow Crosscut contributor Feliks Banel at the Seattlepi.com.)
The Needle, in fact, is second only to the Eiffel Tower for its status as a still-standing fair and city icon, and in many ways it's just as impressive as its French counterpart. The Needle's job is simply to be itself, a symbol and a vantage point. For people around the world, the Needle represents Seattle, and it also represents how things like world's fairs can put a city, even a small provincial city, on the map. People might hear of Seattle because of Boeing or Microsoft or Starbucks, but the Space Needle is how they visualize Seattle.
One striking thing about the Needle is how difficult it is to replicate. LEGO has a model of it, and you can buy lots of souvenirs with its image, from "Warhol" keychains to jewelry and snow globes. But almost every attempt to reproduce the Space Needle in three dimensions, as toy, model, pendant, or sculpture, fails to capture its true shape and proportions: They're too squat, too thick, the top is never quite right. The Needle can be powerfully photographed, but it can't often be captured by copycats.
Other "needles" built for world's fairs just don't have the Space Needle's design elegance or cachet. San Antonio's Tower of the Americas with its revolving restaurant ('68), Knoxville's Sunsphere ('82), Brisbane's needle-shaped Skyneedle ('88) — they just don't have "it." And none have become international icons for their cities.
That tells me that the designers of the Space Needle nailed it: There is something kind of silly and ephemeral about a metal tower, let alone one consciously designed to become a civic symbol. For all practical purposes the Space Needle was only made for one purpose: to hold up a rotating restaurant.
And did I mention it was designed by committee? Seattle civic leader and fair chair Eddie Carlson sketched the idea on a place mat after he visited a restaurant on a broadcast tower in Stuttgart, Germany. A bunch of architects took it from there, including John Graham Jr., Victor Steinbrueck, Art Edwards, and John Ridley.
Everyone contributed something. Steinbrueck, for example, was credited with the hourglass tripod of the Needle's stand, Graham with pushing the flying saucer concept, and Ridley with shaping the final top. You can get a quick look through some of the design iterations at Vintage Seattle, and the thing that's striking is that the final Needle is better than any of the preliminary designs. Graham's architectural team worked the problem until they got it right. The Needle has grace and beauty, and more so as time goes on. It's aging well, especially against a downtown packed with so many generic high-rises. As it approaches its 50th birthday, the Needle, like a top model, still photographs extremely well. It's amazing that it all worked out: In this day and age, such a process would likely doom it to mediocrity, probably failure.
One aspect the Needle embodies is action. The Needle is two rides in one. You take its elevators (small capsules) up and down; if you dine at the SkyCity restaurant near the Needle's top, you take a slow 360-degree trip in a circle. The restaurant rotation used to take 60 minutes; the Space Needle staff now say one circuit of the revolving restaurant is 47 minutes. Too bad: I always liked the fact that it was like a clock. Somewhere along the line, things sped up.The Space Needle was built because powerful men decided to do it when the public sector wouldn't.
Architecturally speaking, such structures are meant to convey movement, according to architect Rem Koolhaas, much-lauded designer of the downtown Seattle library. He described another project (on Coney island) as "an architectural device that provokes self-consciousness, offering that bird's-eye inspection of a common domain that can trigger a sudden spurt of collective energy and ambition."
That is literally what the Seattle world's fair was supposed to do: boost us into the new century. To continue in that vein, the structural engineer for the Needle, John Minasian, built launch towers for Saturn and Atlas rockets at Cape Canaveral. One of the major civic programs inspired by the fair's "collective spurt" was Jim Ellis' Forward Thrust, the improvement movement launched in the mid-1960s to clean up Lake Washington, build new amenities, finance mass transit, and regionalize problem-solving.
The Needle poked into the sky and gave Seattle a commanding view of the region, not simply of its natural beauty, but of so-called "Greater Seattle," the domain we were destined to lead. That gave rise to the popular saying that you could see all the votes you'd need to get elected to statewide office "from the top of the Space Needle." The Space Needle is literally a platform of power.
And it was born from civic pride and drive. The Wright family, which owns the Needle, was part of a powerful private group that originally funded the project when government failed to back it and because the fair, and city, needed it. These included civic powerhouses Howard S. Wright, architect Graham, Bagley Wright, Norton Clapp, and Ned Skinner.
The private local ownership of the Needle has become an issue with the recent proposal by the Wrights to fund a private Chihuly "Glass House" museum on the Seattle Center grounds near the base of the Needle. It was perceived as a project that tried to circumvent the public process concerning the future of the Center, and at least one blogger has called for a boycott of the Needle, criticizing the legacy of private ownership.
But here are a couple of things to think about. First, the Space Needle designers originally sought to make it a public project financed by King County. The county declined, so private backing was found. In other words, the Space Needle was proposed as a public project, but no one would take it on. It was a high-risk proposition (as was the Eiffel Tower). The Century 21 Exposition, which needed an icon, was in effect bailed out by a civic-minded private sector. Given history, can you imagine if King County had wound up owning and running the Space Needle? Remember how poorly the on-the-cheap Kingdome was run? In retrospect, if the county owned the Needle, not only would the paint be peeling, it probably would have been imploded by now.
Second, the process that ruled in Seattle half a century ago no longer exists. The Space Needle was built because powerful men decided to do it when the public sector wouldn't. The city did pitch in by giving the Needle visionaries a sweet deal on the land. Rather than being an example of civic failure because it is not publicly owned, it is a tribute to private initiative: one of Seattle biggest attractions, the city's "logo," as University of Washington professor John Findlay has called it, a going concern, not a public pauper looking for a bailout or demanding a tax increase. It is interesting, however, that Seattle's world-famous civic symbol is a private, for-profit enterprise whose owners are very conscious of its "brand," not simply as a tourist attraction, but as a city symbol.
As symbol and structure, the Space Needle also reinforces the Seattle brand we have come to accept: We're a modern city in the middle of a gorgeous setting. The Needle displaced Mt. Rainier as the ultimate Seattle icon. We substituted a manmade symbol for the snowy, volcanic emblem of "God's Country." The Space Needle suggests that Seattle's future is an urban one, albeit one cradled in exceptional natural beauty. (If that cradle rocks, by the way, one of the safest places to be is the Needle which is built to withstand a 9.1-magnitude earthquake.) The setting is one of Seattle's exceptional qualities, as a trip to the top reinforces on a clear day. Seattle looks like an urban island in the wilderness.
In that way, the Needle reinforces an older sense that Seattle is on its own. The observation deck hovers with a mountain-top view seen from an artificial high floating above a basin between two mountain ranges. It stands apart from downtown's skyscrapers still (let's hope it continues to), so it is singular and alone against its backdrops. The Cascades to the east block our view of the old world. The Olympic mountains to the west act as a kind of fence between us and the Pacific, a barrier we must go around or over.
Both ranges can be transcended by air or technology: Boeing jets, spacecraft, blinking satellites, the Internet — the types of technologies touted by the Space Age fair and embodied in the Needle. But the Needle also reinforces the idea that Seattle is on its own, a regional leader that stands tall but is a global player still remote from the rest of the world. Like the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle is a symbol of our worldliness, ambition, and provincialism.