James Corner's waterfront plans: get the editing pencil

The success of some New York public spaces such as the High Line and Bryant Park may be leading the architect for Seattle's proposed Waterfront Park to crowd and over-program a space that cries out for serenity and introspection.

Crosscut archive image.

The original grand scheme, with conceptual "folds" at the Ferry terminal and south.

The success of some New York public spaces such as the High Line and Bryant Park may be leading the architect for Seattle's proposed Waterfront Park to crowd and over-program a space that cries out for serenity and introspection.

A couple of weeks ago, landscape architect James Corner returned to Seattle to give us another look at what his team of designers and artists were contemplating for our central waterfront. Essentially, he zeroed in on a handful of places with more refined ideas of what they might be. As always, Corner was articulate, affable, erudite, and easy to listen to. Considerably less so was the subsequent presentation by artist Mark Dion, which was essentially extolling the qualifications of the “all-star” arts team and using the word, “right” a lot at the end of sentences. But we did learn a bit more.

A confession is in order here. I viewed to the presentations online, as I was not in town during the presentation. More precisely, I was in New York, in part taking in some of the public spaces that have served as inspiration for the proposals being advanced here in Seattle.

While I listened to the presentation, which is viewable on line at waterfrontseattle.org, I reflected upon my fresh experiences in the city which serves as Corner’s base. His High Line project, which has received well-deserved accolades, is an elegant and fascinating retrofit and repurposing of what I recall from many years ago as an ugly, elevated railway superstructure winding through a little visited part of the city.

Today, the High Line is a stunning attraction that symbolizes and reflects the remarkable infusion of new energy in the surrounding neighborhoods. In the Seattle proposals, one can clearly see a similar flair for theatricality and layered urbanity. Attention to details on the High Line is clearly evident  — paving, planting, and seating are all deftly designed and crafted. No wonder the place is crowded with couples and families all the time.

One thing that struck me immediately and stayed with me was the element of street theatre firmly displayed throughout. People watch people who are watching people. At times, it is hard to tell if something has been staged, is random, or is merely people behaving as they always do. Indeed, a group of performers recently enacted short bits of human drama and comedy — only marginally more unusual than one might regularly see on any street in New York. When I was there, a couple of immaculately dressed runners were repeating short bursts of rapid sprinting as a film crew stood off to one side. Or was it a crew? Maybe just curious bystanders?

The High Line is literally an elevated stage, and a rather crowed one at that. Whether by intent or happy accident, the place is packed with strollers, people pushing strollers, lovers, tourists, people of all ages, folks sitting and sunning, schmoozing, sipping lattes or chomping on pastries sold from a couple of food vendors. The presence of people everywhere — moving, standing, sitting, sprawling — is part of the allure. And so with Corner’s design for our Seattle downtown waterfront, as seen in the many renderings packed with people.

Over the past five years, New York has been in the process of re-allocating space along many of its major thoroughfares. Although the creation of bicycle lanes has received the most attention (both positive and negative) it is the conversion of travel lanes to pedestrian uses that is absolutely stunning. This is particularly noticeable in locations where different streets intersect at acute angles. What used to be broad swaths of unused asphalt are now small but exquisite park-like spaces that extend the sidewalk. Most are planted generously and contain seating and lighting. Many are locations for street vendors or artwork.

The most spectacular of these is Broadway in Times Square. Broadway generally meanders about, crossing other streets at sharp angles. This created complex intersections with turning and twisting cars, wild honking, scurrying taxis, trucks lurching about, all with pedestrians attempting to cross. The resulting congestion and cacophony were virtually the signature experience of the place; in other words, unrelenting chaos.

Now, much of Broadway is narrowed or closed to traffic altogether. People stroll about, sit at folding tables and chairs, dance, talk in clumps, eat, act up, play instruments, and display all manner of human activities in a broad promenade that encompasses many blocks. Many of the visual depictions for the new Alaskan Way suggest a similar ambience. People everywhere, sitting, standing, walking, running, shopping, eating. Lots of people.

Another public space that seems to have served as inspiration is the renovation of Bryant Park. For many years, this was a park that was over-run by drug addicts and dealers and all manner of unsavory people. Few people felt safe enough to venture into the interior during the day, much less in the evening.  In the late 1980s the operations and management were turned over to a non-profit organization, the Bryant Park Corporation . They conducted a thorough renovation and restored the great lawn, filling it with moveable metal chairs. They also added some well-designed vending kiosks and restaurants at the corner entrance points and installed a public restroom, the latter quite gracious and elegant by any measure.

Since then, the park is as fine as any in Paris. With the Beaux-Arts style main public library as a backdrop, the ambiance has been not unlike the Luxembourg Gardens on Paris' Left Bank. It's a combination of sweeping, classic formality and symmetry with a randomness created by people making arrangements — sociable or solitary — with simple, moveable chairs.

But on this recent visit, Bryant park was packed with glass and steel vending stalls — so many that its was barely possible to see into the space from the street. For the winter season, the lawn has been converted to a skating rink, which has become de rigueur in many downtowns. For the next two months, the holiday shopping season, the park is a shopping center, jammed with people buying goods and food. There is virtually no place to escape the swirling crush of people as they careen about in this over-commercialized space.

Here is a city that offers perhaps the highest concentration of one-of-kind shops and cafes located in all sorts of unique neighborhoods. Yet, an otherwise splendid park somehow thinks it has to offer even more shopping experiences. It's relentlessly about providing things for people to do…and buy. I suspect the cost of maintenance and security has demanded a degree of commercialization in order to pay for it all.

One of the current themes in city planning is ensure that public spaces are “programmed.” Indeed, Corner’s Seattle presentation gave that theme a particular emphasis. Programming is certainly not a bad thing, as many public spaces fall into disuse or misuse because of a lack of activity around the perimeter. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing as well.

Not all of life is about doing “active” things. Most people appreciate places where they can have a quiet re-connection with nature without proximity to crowds, performances, shopping, and eating.

That's why I was made uneasy by Corner's presentation. It seemed that whatever segment he described, there were always shops, always an amphitheatre, always events, always stuff to do. The effort to animate and activate public spaces can be overdone. Indeed, one of the great traditions of public spaces in this region is that one can be in a relatively verdant and serene setting. It's not all about festivals, shopping, and entertainment.

I found one image in the presentation particularly compelling. That was Pier 62 with two simple additions — a graphic painted on the surface and yellow chairs spotted about facing the bay. Simple, light, easy, low cost. No pools, no shops, no “pop up” street theatre. Yet people were clearly enjoying the splendid setting of water, sun and snow-capped mountains. Even in some recent waterfront esplanades elsewhere in the world, such as the spectacular one in Barcelona, there are quiet places to be alone.

One of the unique aspects of Seattle is that it has blended two cultures that thrive on the concept of elegant restraint — Asian and Scandinavian. This may be the only place on earth where two completely unconnected cultures have advanced ideas of craft, artistry, and introspective serenity, mixed with a deep regard for the past.

So here's some advice to all this New Yorkish frenzy: Corner's current ideas would benefit from some serious editing. Sometimes the best solution is nothing at all, or at least very little. Light touches. Soft touches. Small touches. Fortunately Corner and company have shown they are good at doing these.

Let’s tone the party down and gain a bit more simplicity. Less can be more.

This story has been updated since it first appeared to restore a word dropped from the description of James Corner's background.


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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).