Waterfront Park: Courted by Corner

The lead designer for Seattle's central waterfront park provides a seductive first look at his concepts. He proposes nothing less than to "re-center" the region around Elliott Bay.

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James Corner, lead designer for Seattle's central waterfront park

The lead designer for Seattle's central waterfront park provides a seductive first look at his concepts. He proposes nothing less than to "re-center" the region around Elliott Bay.

If we had a Spring this year, I must have missed it when I was out of town.  As we finally ended the long dreary winter just last week, we now find ourselves fully in the season of courtship and mating. And we are being wooed. Wooed by words. Wooed by luscious images and sweet promises of a better, more luxuriant future.

Last night (May 19) architect James Corner and his Field Operations team, the lead designers for Seattle's central waterfront park, presented us with a proposal filled with verve, variety, and vitality. As a somewhat hesitant bride we were seduced. In a nice way. To press the metaphor a bit more, in bridespeak we were given “some things old, some things new, some things borrowed, some things blue.”

Corner made the pitch by giving his bride not one ring but two. It's not just about the waterfront; it's about the whole city. Let’s use our legacy of parks and parkways, lakes and bays and streams and canals to create a great green ring, building upon all the glorious spaces and places that surround us. In this view, Elliott Bay becomes an inner ring, encompassing the beaches of Alki, the downtown, the bluffs of Magnolia, and the sound to the sea and the world beyond. In Corner’s words, he proposes to re-center us — around the bay.

Spokes radiating out from the inner ring touch back into the depth of the city. Using “29 streets and 8 districts” the urban waterfront is transformed from the idea of building an esplanade into an idea of building a community. Each district’s connection and relationship with the waterfront is expressed differently. (As it should be.) No big singular gestures, but rather — in the Seattle style — a host of quirky, fractured parts that add up to a whole. A whole, perhaps not coherent, but rich with idiosyncratic energy.

Corner is respectful of the old: our heritage as a city born out of mudflats and re-graded hills. But he also delights us with new thoughts about stair-stepped shorelines and carved-away piers. He prods our imaginations with two compelling themes: “Tidelines” and “Folds.”  Corner is the skillful dressmaker with sumptuous green fabrics, strategically-placed tucks, and peplums and pleats that drape down to the water’s edge.

The "borrowed" part is his clever use of what we already love: The Olympic Sculpture Park. His approach uses similar zig and zags, sloping planes, and jutting angles to create soaring rooftop meadows that are both edgy and pastoral. Cover the ferry terminal with green, slice piers 48 and 62/63 into angular parks. Provide kayak launches. Market canopies. Alaskan Way lined with trees. Two beaches at the south end. A “Belltown Balcony” at the north end.

As I was taking all this in, Corner suddenly tossed in the notion of building thermal pools (aka hot tubs) on a pier. And he was not joking. But then I am reminded that New York City recently created little relaxation tubs out of former dumpsters. New or just plain strange, this neo-natatorium might just work.     

As Corner claims, we do indeed have the opportunity to reshape our waterfront into a truly green place — in all the dimensions that “green” implies, working with water and energy, creating habitat, and nurturing our economy and our culture in the process. Bringing this stage of the wooing to a gentle close, he revealed his intention to “stoke our desire.”  And that he did.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw

Mark Hinshaw, FAIA, is an architect and urban planner. He was an architecture critic for The Seattle Times and is the author of many articles and books, including Citistate Seattle (1999).