Best of 2011: Why does Seattle have so many bleak public spaces?

This city has enough gray in its sky. We don't need more on the ground.

This city has enough gray in its sky. We don't need more on the ground.

Editor's Note: In the run-up to the new year, Crosscut will be sharing ten days of its best stories from 2011, each with a different theme. Today's theme: Public Spaces.

Seattle is one of the prettiest big cities on the continent, but we didn’t get this way because of our architecture. We had beauty handed to us, as it were, in a blue, green, and snow-rimmed bowl, and all we had to do was not mess it up too much, which apart from certain malicious hits like the Viaduct, we’ve managed decently.

Our landscape-oriented mindset should have been good preparation for what we need in the densifying city now, which is more design intelligence given to the open spaces between buildings — plazas, parklets, and awkward leftovers like the places under freeway overpasses. The more the air space around us becomes stuffed with architecture, the more acutely we need the relief of thoughtfully landscaped open spaces on the ground. Arguably, these spaces are more important in the built environment than most buildings because they’re public — people use them.

Or if they’re emotionally cold, dreary, or austere, people don’t use them, which is the case with a number of Seattle’s precious open spaces. On one of our desperately rare sunny spring days this month, I visited about a dozen open spaces in the dense city and found — no surprise — the bleak ones practically unused and the beautiful ones full of life. What is surprising is that we’re not demanding more graceful, humane, imaginative design — and raising hell over trends such as Seattle Parks and Rec’s inexplicable new fascination with concrete and gravel.

The accompanying slide show illustrates nine unfortunate examples of bleakness in Seattle, with a few words about the specific failure of each. At the end, there are also two examples of excellent public spaces that work.

Before we get there, let’s run through a half-dozen basic principles of urban open-space design — subjective, of course, and fair game for debate and attack:

• It’s not impossible, but it is very tough, to design an attractive small plaza surrounded by big bad buildings. Big good buildings, yes; bad small buildings, possibly. But bigness and badness together present an overwhelming architectural force that’s extremely difficult to redeem.

• Multiple levels relieve tedium, just as a mountainous landscape is inherently more interesting than a prairie. A good plaza, even a small one, has an engaging topography as well as a variety of hardscape textures and botanical  colors.

• Lots of trees and flowers help, but they can’t do the job all by themselves.

• Likewise, sculpture and water features alone don’t bring a dull space alive. Classic example: “Hammering Man” works tirelessly but still fails to animate the lifeless corner outside the Seattle Art Museum; the sculpture is interesting but the outdoor room around it is not.

• Cantilevering or propping a big chunk of a building over a plaza, as at the Central Library’s Fourth Avenue entrance, is a way of shrinking a building’s footprint to create more open space. It is usually not a way that makes people feel good about using that space. No matter how reassuring the engineering is, we instinctively feel the oppression of all that weight overhead.

• People do not admire raw concrete — walls, floors, pavement, planters, benches, whatever — nearly as much as design professionals do.

These provocations in mind, let’s take a tour. Click on the slide show at the top of the page to get started.

  

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