What Seattle's skyline says about us

Whether to allow lighted signs on skyscrapers is a choice of image, yes, but also of the kind of influences that should prevail in Seattle.

Crosscut archive image.

The view of Seattle's skyline from Bellevue College.

Whether to allow lighted signs on skyscrapers is a choice of image, yes, but also of the kind of influences that should prevail in Seattle.

There is a robust debate taking place over allowing big, lighted signs on some downtown high-rises. Like most design decisions, it amounts to values, aesthetics, and of course money.

Mayor Mike McGinn has said that he doesn't mind the world being reminded that Seattle is a place of commerce, and City Council President Richard Conlin has said it's no big deal really, since it will mean only a few signs maybe. Others, like University of Washington architecture professor Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, argue that it's a betrayal of the city's Comprehensive Plan and ignores the "cultural resource" that is the skyline. Many architects agree with him, including 27 of his fellow UW architecture professors. The council has been getting an earful from the public.

As to McGinn's point about commerce, let no one be mistaken. Seattle is for sale. People kvetch about our inability to make up our minds about anything or stick with a plan (like the Comp Plan?), and the whole notion is that the Seattle public are like a herd of cats. But worse are the ways in which agreements are frequently thrown out, circumvented, or gutted when some powerful interest in town waves money — from Paul Allen to Nordstrom to Boeing to Chihuly.

This possible sign change has come about as part of luring Russell Investments to Seattle from Tacoma: Relocate and we'll see what we can do about the silly sign rules. In this light, plastering the whole city with commercial neon would probably give us what we deserve.

But one of the points of planning and shaping a city is to consider other, non-commercial, considerations, like the cultural resource of a city skyline. And a skyline says a lot about a city.

I was recently in Shanghai, and my hotel room in Pudong had an amazing view of the skyline, which is thick with oddball skyscrapers, many plastered with enormous lighted signs you can see for miles. Bridges featured shooting-rainbow lights, and other buildings were outlined in lights, as if it were Christmas. China, the culture that gave us fireworks, seems to love to light it up at night, though how sustainable that is I have my doubts. The lights were all on until the wee hours of the morning. The only time you really had a sense of truly natural light was just before dawn. Shanghai is a city of big statements (tall towers, fast trains, vast population), and in terms of architecture and illumination it seems to be saying: We're big, we're bright, we're a 24/7 world's fair.

The contrast with Seattle is incredible. Seattle's skyline is more compact, but also designed with breathtaking natural backdrops in mind. It's humble, and it doesn't try to compete with the setting. We see our skyscrapers against the Cascades, Rainier, the Olympics, Puget Sound. The point has been to craft an urban skyline that is less showy, more architectural, and responsive to the environs.

Ochsner says, "The downtown skyline is a tremendous asset forming a memorable image within our natural setting." If you don't think so, ride the Bainbridge ferry back and forth for a year and see how much the skyline says about Seattle's unique qualities, ones beyond its purely commercial ones. It really is magical, mostly due to its lack of glitz and the way clouds and natural light play on the glass towers.

Seattle, of course, has lots of bright signs, beloved ones too, from the Pike Place Market sign to the P-I Globe (both true landmarks) to the Elephant Car Wash. The Wonder Bread sign has been preserved though the bakery is no more; and I miss the old Grandma's Cookies sign looking out over Lake Union.

But one of the things that works about those is they're low, more part of street life than skyline. They are visible from neighborhoods or certain vistas inside the city itself. And they are comparatively few. Vegas we're not. Conlin says this isn't much different than the bright signs on the Safeco (now UW) tower in the U District. Bad choice. The building is an eyesore.

Many people would argue that even these signs are more appropriate for the Museum of History and Industry collection, a repository of many, like the Rainier Brewery "R." Indeed, some cities are trying to reduce the clutter and "light pollution" of illuminated signs. At the Shanghai Expo, in the Urban Best Practices Area the city of Sao Paulo, Brazil, showed before-and-after pictures of a major campaign to eliminate ugly signs. Theirs were much smaller than what's proposed in Seattle, but it was amazing to see how much better the streetscape looked after the signs were removed. Also, the point was making Sao Paulo more sustainable: A lot of energy was saved without every shopkeeper attempting to outdo others for attention.

People are sensitive about these issues. In 2002, when the Space Needle repainted its top the original tangerine color for the 40th anniversary of the Seattle World's Fair, some people called in and complained it was too bright, too brash, and they wished to return to the pale palette of today.

Forget that it was more historically accurate. The aspirations of 1962 had changed: People love the Needle, but want it to be an icon for its shape, not a torch (oh yes, and the Needle did have a flaming torch on top, since dismantled). They love to look at it, but don't want it to get in the way of the view, thus the elegance of its design, thanks in part to Victor Steinbrueck, our hero public architect who understood the skyline better than anyone.

Seattle has gone to war over building heights, view corridors, the privatizing of air space, the blockage of skybridges, the importance of public and open space, billboards. It's no argument to say other cities have skyscraper signs, or that they don't. The question is: What do we want our city to be like? What do we want it to say on TV, postcards, or against our sunrises and sunsets? What do we want people to think when they see Seattle from afar?

We made a decision to keep the city from looking like a sellout kind of place, a city of braggarts and salesman. We may, in fact, be that kind of place, but we've tried to keep some dignity about us.

The fact that we might permit these signs to please one group of corporate fat cats is exactly the way the agenda is set here in Seattle. The fact that some citizens are standing up for non-commerical values and aesthetics, well that's very Seattle too.

The question is, which city do we want to live in?


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.