The city of Seattle has narrowed its search for designers of the central waterfront to four teams — each interesting in distinctive ways. All teams have substantial local involvement by architecture and landscape architecture firms with a body of significant civic works. Each is headed by a firm or person with international recognition. Each includes an artist who would help infuse the district with élan and potential surprises. How could we possibly miss?
In theory we shouldn’t. Each team would likely deliver a commendable project that we would all be delighted to use, especially given the current condition with that insanely noisy, visually hulking viaduct. Most of us have to employ our finest powers of cognitive dissonance just to walk to the ferry or to the aquarium. We know it’s a dreadful place but we ignore the painful evidence.
The Olympic Sculpture Park has given us hope that, in the right hands, the entire waterfront could be not just pleasant but immensely enchanting. In the words of one local architect, “This may be the greatest waterfront design project the world has yet seen.”
Indeed, I am hard pressed to think of a comparable opportunity. Barcelona comes to mind, as does Sydney, for their sweeping, remarkable transformations full of breathtaking drama. But neither of those cities has a sloping terrain adjacent to it. San Diego has some great waterfront spots, but it never feels like a whole ensemble. There is San Francisco, of course, but that city has many widely differing waterfronts, not a singular focused one.
There are many great, thrilling waterfront cities, but few have as intimate a relationship with the cityscape next to them. In some ways our entire downtown is the waterfront.
So now we have four teams to choose from. The winning team will devise the overall framework for the central waterfront park, but not necessarily be the final design team. Another design firm might win that award, or parts of the project could be divvied up among several architects and designers. The four finalists were picked by a selection panel made up of people from Seattle's Department of Transportation, Planning and Development, and Parks. The finalist teams are:
Gustafson Guthrie Nichol is our own, home-grown international star. GGN, led by Kathryn Gustafson, has done work all over the world and some ways is more well-known in Europe than here. (Local works include the landscape portions of McCaw Hall and the Seattle City Hall.) The GGN team, as elsewhere, has affiliated itself with the London-based architects Foster and Partners, led by Norman Foster. And it has packed itself with a panoply of local firms (Jones & Jones, Weinstein A/U among them) and artists. GGN brings with it an emphasis on the art of landscape as much as the architecture of it, having created sculptural assemblies than speak to ecology, geology, hydrology, and detritus from the industrial past. GGN has worked on complex civic projects for some years now, notably the greatly admired garden spaces at Chicago's Millennium Park, and has developed a reputation that is definitely impassioned, if a bit prickly.
Michael Van Valkenburgh has been developing a body of work that addresses urban construction — taking abandoned, post-industrial landscapes and transforming them into energetic districts of living, work, and culture. The works of this Brooklyn- and Cambridge, Massachusetts-based firm seems to thrive on often eccentric fusions of urbanity and nature as he infuses his compositions with a deep respect for the underlying natural systems. His association with urban designer Ken Greenberg of Toronto on that city’s Lower Don River promises to create a whole new neighborhood. Artist James Carpenter adds to the team his keen eye for making use of light. The inclusion of architect/former city councilman Peter Steinbrueck on this team adds a healthy dose of social conscience.
James Corner’s Field Operations team is possibly the dark horse in this competition. Although well-known for the immensely sophisticated High Line Park in Manhattan, which adapts a former elevated rail track to a linear park, this academically-lead team may be too theoretical for the more practical Pacific Northwest. The lead firm’s design for Fresh Kills Park in Staten Island offers some interesting lessons in shoreline restoration, but relatively little work by this team has been built. The risks would be greater, but so could the rewards. One downside might be the absence of a local firm of major standing that could provide a wise regional perspective.
Wallace Roberts Todd is, in some ways, the most tried-and-true team. It is headed by Wallace Roberts Todd, a Philadelphia firm with decades of experience throughout the country and the world. Once considered innovative planners, they maintain a solid reputation, but have perhaps lost a little luster in recent years. In very smart move, WRT includes Atelier Dreiseitl, a firm based in Germany (and now with a Portland office) that is 10 on the hotness scale in landscape architecture circles and is particularly known for imaginative treatments of water. This team’s size seems a bit unwieldy, but it may well surprise us all with a completely stunning approach. SRG Partnership is one Seattle partner, a firm that has worked on the Seattle Center Century 21 Master Plan.
The city received submittals from 30 teams scattered all over the world. Unfortunately, my favorite firm, West 8, based in the Netherlands, did not submit. Reportedly, they felt it would be “too difficult.” But perhaps something was lost in translation. Or maybe they know something the other teams do not.
The public will have a chance to listen to all four teams present their case at Benaroya Hall on September 15. I still recall the breathtaking moment several years ago during the Central Library design presentation when Rem Koolhaas and Stephen Holl captivated the entire auditorium audience with deft performances. We can expect at least one similar experience.