Waterfront designers need a reality check

A good design requires consciousness of the city's realities, the real spatial, temporal, social, and ecological contexts. Speaking of temporal, has anyone noticed it's November, with everything that means for being outdoors along the water in Seattle?

Crosscut archive image.

Aerial view of Seattle looking east over downtown.

A good design requires consciousness of the city's realities, the real spatial, temporal, social, and ecological contexts. Speaking of temporal, has anyone noticed it's November, with everything that means for being outdoors along the water in Seattle?

For some reason, one of the recent storms, reminiscent of Yeats' "haystack- and roof-levelling wind," brought to mind the identical, perfectly formed, immaculately coifed trees in James Corner's recent Waterfront Seattle presentation. Throughout this presentation we saw images of trees that had never known a bad leaf day, far less experienced a chilly, wind-and-rain storm sweeping up Puget Sound. "Ah, happy, happy boughs! that cannot shed/Your leaves, nor ever bid the Spring adieu," I thought to myself, which further brought to mind Corner's beguiling images of multitudes enjoying the waterfront's proposed new features.

These "open spaces" were packed with people similarly immune to any weather conditions other than bright sun. In my mind Keats piped on: "More happy love! more happy, happy love!/For ever warm and still to be enjoy'd" and yet, as we know, it was all a far cry from Seattle's November weather, itself a harbinger of conditions on Seattle's waterfront for much of the year. Merely to criticize the images in the Seattle Waterfront presentation is but to scratch the tip of the iceberg. The problem itch goes much deeper, to the heart of the design process.

What does it mean to do a master plan for a real waterfront, in a real city, with real spatial, temporal, social, and ecological contexts? What does Seattle hope to accomplish through this master planning process? How can we get beyond the trite and clichéd photomontages that seem to garnish every contemporary design presentation? How can we, like the Velveteen Rabbit, get real? First and foremost, a plan begins with a detailed and thoughtful study of place. Location is an abstraction, place is reality.

Thus, design begins with site analysis, a rather staid and antiseptic term for the invigorating process of immersing oneself in the reality, in all its grit and glory, of a place. In the case of Seattle's waterfront, we must immerse ourselves — tidally as well as tidily —where city meets salt. We need to know all about the city behind and the water in front as context for the in-between waterfront. Specifically, we need to know precisely how much space is available for open space and how much will be devoted to vehicular circulation, the largest user by far of Seattle's current and future waterfront though mentioned only once, en passant, in Corner's hour-long presentation. We need to know boundaries, not to be constrained by them into small, narrow-minded thinking, but to provide ourselves with a yardstick with which to measure what's possible — to establish limits and constraints, against which we can push as necessary. No constraints, no reality. Know constraints, know reality.

Of the waterfront's land we need to remember that it is almost all, if not entirely, fill; land borrowed from the sea, which locally has huge tidal fluctuations, and globally, is rising. What do these realities portend?

As I hinted earlier, we need to know the climate of this place, to remember that sitting out on vast, uniform lawns suspended, pieriodically, over Elliott Bay will be a lonely and frigid activity for much of Seattle's year, while those perfectly symmetrical trees will be tested, in ways Photoshop cannot imagine, both above and below ground level.

We also need to consider that, although perhaps lonely, visitors on a waterfront pier, or on a bluff overlook, may be rewarded with sunsets whose glories will warm the cockles of their hearts even as the wind sends a chill down their spines. We need to remember sunsets and those ragged mountains, whose name remained mute in the presentation perhaps because they reside beyond the constraining ring around Elliott Bay? Did I say mountains? There's a reason it's called the "Olympic Sculpture Park," not the "Bay Sculpture Park."

And then the city, this crazy, multi-faceted gem that we citizens know and savor in all its familiar, irritating-but-forgiven-if-not-loved idiosyncrasies as it tumbles, rather inelegantly, down to the central portion of the waterfront; hovers uneasily over it on the bluff at Pike Place Market; or squelches forth to meet it in the former Duwamish flats. The presentation did provide some serious and useful analysis of shoreline conditions, but all of this was the product of the Seawall team and their concerns about shading the shoreline seemed to have been forgotten by the time we began filling between piers to render the ends of slipways rectilinear with the view. When it came to ecological connections to uplands, the consultants seemed to have forgotten that there's a city located there and a wide, traffic-filled Alaskan Way bisecting connecting corridors. Equally pertinent, how does the master plan propose to work with the opportunities arising from the phoenix-like reconstruction of buildings along the new waterfront? Silence.

In a well-developed master plan, site and program analyses lead to an understanding of what's possible. Their synthesis generates an understanding of the unique and distinctive constraints, and opportunities, of place. One of design's (many) paradoxes is that constraints can be a designer's best friend, hawsers that successfully moor proposals to reality. Out of site understanding, and empathizing, come ideas that are rooted in, and appropriate to, place. Corner's presentation seemed either to be oblivious of, or chose to ignore, the constraints of the site, and thus the distinctions of actual place. As a result, his proposals became generic.

A master plan must, of course, be visionary not merely plodding and pedestrian shackled by constraints. Its aspirations must be inspirations. But visions must stand on solid ground, must acknowledge reality. Visions must be possible. Too many of Corner's proposals, which were described as "possibilities," are, in truth, impossibilities. In this respect, the presentation went beyond disappointment to disservice.

Here's the rub: visionary ideas appropriate to a place arise out of an appreciation of the genius loci, the genius of the place. They are, of necessity, place-specific. Only when place is fully comprehended, in its constraints and potentials, can we generate ideas whose mettle has been tested against and strengthened, rather than rusted, by site reality. Conclusion? Not so much "time to go back to the drawing board" as time to get outside and get real.


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