From Seattle 'Space Gothic' to global health

The new Gates Foundation campus is a renewal of the promise of Century 21, helping to make Seattle the center of global transformation through science.

Crosscut archive image.

A rendering of the new Gates Foundation headquarters on Fifth Avenue North across from Seattle Center.

The new Gates Foundation campus is a renewal of the promise of Century 21, helping to make Seattle the center of global transformation through science.

The Seattle Times had a recent story previewing the opening of the new Gates Foundation headquarters near Seattle Center. I was quoted observing the contrast that the new building represents sitting kitty-corner from Paul Allen's EMP. One structure looks very corporate and serious; the other is wild and, from above, resembles cans crushed for recycling more than the smashed guitar architect Frank Gehry intended. If you believe Allen's contention in his recent memoir, Idea Man, that he was the creative one while Gates has the business smarts, these two structures capture that divide.

I have not been inside the new Gates complex, which from on high appears to be like two pieces of a broken paper clip (Clippy?) or a couple of squared-off boomerangs juxtaposed to create an interesting open space between. Peering down from the Space Needle (the Needle's owners have hired me to write its history and have given me a desk on the Observation Deck where I sometimes work), I can see the spacious courtyard is already in use as Gates employees work in slacks and shirt sleeves when the sun is (occasionally) out.

On a recent day, the folks sitting outside seemed like they were having outdoor meetings, not kicking back and relaxing; no frisbee or hacky sack like you might see on a Microsoft campus. They look like they're thinking about saving the world even during breaks.

The Gates Building is quite striking seen from above. And its location between the Seattle Center and South Lake Union is fascinating. For one thing, it stands out in an area, between the Center and Aurora Avenue North, that has been an architectural dead zone for decades, the most notable things being the Elephant Car Wash sign or the old Pepsi sign on Highway 99. The rest is a sea of mostly low-rise rooftops for motels and such. From above, the Gates HQ is the kind of large, dramatic, structure tourists ask about.

It also marks an interesting connector to South Lake Union. It's very close by Allen's transformation of South Lake Union into an urban tech hub. The new South Lake Union park spread out with its so-far-barren geometry tantalizes us with the might-have-been of The Commons. The low-rise neighborhood is slowly becoming a high-rise one. But the idea of it as a hive of health research and technology is the embodiment of what the Seattle World's Fair preached 50 years ago, even if it's being actualized not with sleek monorails but streetcars.

The fair itself was designed for one major purpose: to create a Civic Center, one not based on government offices, but on culture, science, and the arts. But the fair never would have happened without the "Sputnik" push to popularize science. The future, we were told, lay in technological and scientific advances, and science was touted as a kind of secular religion.

Minoru Yamasaki's "Space Gothic" arches of the U.S. federal pavilion, now the Pacific Science Center, spoke to this, and the government science exhibits at the fair were vastly more popular than any of the contrasting and competing religious pavilions, like the Christian Witness Pavilion. Billy Graham drew a crowd at the fair, but surveys revealed that 60 percent of fair visitors never stepped inside a religious exhibit, while the U.S. science pavilion was the most popular pavilion of all.

Seattle had Boeing and the defense contractors. It had a growing medical and research complex at the University of Washington (immediately following the fair, more than $20 million in new capital projects were announced for the UW), and a new UW nuclear facility to train the next generation of atomic engineers. But the world of science promoted at the fair also included library science, public health, biological and human behavioral research, the coming of the computer age, as well as the applied sciences that proposed to "improve" daily life with video phones, mass transit, and the cordless iron. It was designed to promote a scientific way of thinking, a rationality applied to all aspects of life. Seattle's future lay in this direction. As Robert F. Kennedy noted during his visit to the fair, it was a delight to visit a region "peering boldly and joyfully ahead."

In his memoir, Paul Allen writes about how big an impact the Seattle World's fair had on him, particularly the science exhibits. "[F]or me, a nine-year-old who'd just discovered science fiction, the Century 21 Exposition…revolved around my favorite thing: the future. It was like waking up to find the most outlandish ideas made real, just four miles from my house." Allen has since added to that legacy buy building Experience Music Project (EMP) and making it a museum of both sound and science fiction. But more substantially, the evolution of South Lake Union into a research nexus fulfills the more practical elements of the Century 21 promise, where the UW, the Hutch, Amazon, the Gates Foundation, and others are clustering to make some pretty "outlandish ideas" real on a global scale.

Both Gates and Allen visited Century 21 as boys. The area seems as if it's become a kind of magnet for attracting both of them to continue some of that legacy — not on the Center's campus so much as extending the influences of the original fair into the fabric of the adjacent city. There are obviously larger technological, economic and political influences at work, too, but you cannot shake the sense that Allen's redevelopment of South Lake Union and Gates' location of the foundation next door are part of the evolution of grand aspirations that were set in motion more than half a century ago. The New Frontier is now an old idea, our Sputnik moment sputtering, but it's not entirely dead. And ought not to be.

The Gates Foundation is also something of a marker for Seattle reaching the next level. In 1962, a goal of the fair was to "put Seattle on the map." In fact, fair organizers literally had to make maps of the region, which they used in Europe to show delegates of the Paris-based Bureau of International Expositions where Seattle was (some had never heard of it). In that context, it was quite cheeky to assert that Seattle was ground zero for the future and the conquest of space. How could that happen in a city that had to be explained to you?

But 50 years out, Seattle's global aspirations are a bit more earthbound (though Allen himself hasn't given up on space ships). Putting us on the map is no longer an issue. Adding "world class" amenities is so pre-dot-com-bust. Yet the global initiatives funded by the Gates and Allen fortunes are expressions of the power and commitment to making the whole world better through science and its application to human problems, a commitment that emanates strongly from here. It is the philanthropic muscle of the global tech empire birthed at Microsoft. The new Gates Foundation campus makes a statement about the values of Century 21, and the global impact of a city using science as a basis for social transformation.

Editor's note: Crosscut has received grant funding from The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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.