With the opening of SAM's Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle at last gets a major downtown public space to match its ambitions as a city. One can quibble with...

With the opening of SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle at last gets a major downtown public space to match its ambitions as a city. One can quibble with Weiss and Manfredi’s architecture — which aggressively recalls the fractured planes and the mock-Modern glass pavilions of the 1990s — but their instincts as urbanists are impeccable, and the New Yorkers have correctly identified the kind of visual decompression chamber and zone for reflection so needed by Seattleites. Five gold rings for this Olympian bit of city-building.


The last quadrant of this continent to be developed, the cities of the Pacific Northwest were slow to build the kinds of major squares and downtown parks that grace Eastern cities and even California (Los Angeles has Pershing Square and San Francisco has Union Square, both designed in the 19th century). In the 1970s, Vancouver built Arthur Erickson’s Robson Square, which is shrub-ringed and hard-surfaced with late Modernism — not a real square at all. In the 1980s, Portland shaped the equally hard-edged but very postmodern Pioneer Square.


Now it is Seattle’s turn. The Olympic Sculpture Park has everything this city holds dear: ecological common sense; green spaces galore; gritty industrial edges; a synthesis of public and private; all-but-guaranteed views of the Olympics or Rainier; and a Rolodex full of famous sculptors’ names. Only a Kurt Cobain memorial draped in Gore-Tex could possibly make it all more Emerald City.



Rough edges and all



In the past decade, this city has gone a long way toward re-branding itself with the last letter of the alphabet. Think about it: first there were the Z-shaped elevations of Rem Koolhaas’ Seattle Public Library, now there are the Z-shaped plans of SAM’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Let’s get on with it, and all agree to rename the town “Zeattle!”


Appropriate to a city that has created enormous wealth through its ingenuity, there is nothing quite like the Olympic Sculpture Park elsewhere. Europe has a number of sculpture parks, but they are often-ignored rural affairs, or adjuncts to aristocratic houses. Minneapolis’ Walker Art Museum has a fine collection of sculptures, but it is packed too tightly into the space allocated for it — you can’t see one piece for its neighbor.


What sets the Olympic Sculpture Park apart from its international counterparts is the crucial place architecture plays in its conception and everyday use. There is no corner or crevice of the entire park where Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi’s conception is not evident, even in-your-face. While curator Lisa Corrin, art donors and SAM have done a marvelous job of assembling a major sculptural collection from a standing start, it is this new kind of architectural park — not the sculptures themselves — that will be the public draw. Nowhere can you see a pathway and manufactured landscape like this one.


The Weiss-Manfredi design accrues power from the pulsing presence of rail and car/truck traffic across the site. The serrated edges of those transportation passages shape acoustic and visual boundaries around the park, making urban what could have been a falsely bucolic, some all-green lamination laid over these portside rough edges. Rough edges are central to Seattle’s identity, and never mind the hype that claims this city as the new Florence. Says Manfredi “This is a unique site and trains and roadway are part of the city, but with the vista of [the] Olympics, we wanted a superimposition of a new layer on to the city.”



“We love geometry”



How do the architectural forms chosen by Weiss and Manfredi fit into the larger world of contemporary architecture? As the jagged edges of the Elliott Bay embankments and the fractured planes of the pathways themselves became visible over the past year or so, local architects groused that there was a little too much Peter Eisenman in the park.


A New York theorist and teacher who became a big-time architect in his 50s, Eisenman has become associated with incomplete, aggressive or indeterminate forms, most famously in the angled planes of his Jewish Memorial in Berlin. Others saw in the SAM park a variation on Daniel Libeskind’s crystalline shapes, surfaced with seemingly random form-marking and arbitrary window locations.


Weiss and Manfredi strongly reject the comparisons. “Our design has nothing to do with Libeskind, who is doing the same building over and over,” says Manfredi. Indeed, Libeskind’s new Denver Art Museum addition seems interchangeable with his addition to Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, while some similarly opine that Frank Gehry’s career is now sputtering, even stuttering, with the same architectural sounds repeated over and over. One thing will be apparent to all Olympic Sculpture Park visitors: “We love geometry,” says Weiss.


Weiss and Manfredi are proud of the stylistic variability of their previous projects. There is an almost neoclassical solidity and symmetry to the site-works and buildings at their 1994 Olympia Fields Park in Illinois, or their 1997 Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. Their more recent Campus Center for Smith College boasts a rich combination of building geometries, but its complexity is a far cry from the brittle hybrid of borrowed theory and cloned Soviet avant-garde shapes that was called deconstructivism. (The one-liner passing around skeptical architects goes like this: “The Good Lord invented deconstructivism to make postmodernism look both profound and long-lived!”)


Weiss and Manfredi are not immune from the slick reductions of neomodernism, which has emerged as the prevailing look of recent art museums, from Yoshio Tanaguchi’s remodeling of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to the many museums now under way designed by Portland’s Allied Works, including SAM’s own downtown addition. Weiss and Manfredi’s Museum of the Earth in Ithaca and their fine-arts center for Barnard College show that this pair can compose serene pavilions that would sit comfortably with the best architecture of the 1950s, or for that matter, the 1920s.



Changing spots



Asking where Weiss and Manfredi locate themselves in an architectural culture obsessed with trademark images and branded celebrities is like asking a chameleon what its “real” skin looks like. Like that variable lizard, their architectural colors change according to the landscapes upon which they sit.


The architects apply this same metaphor to the shape of the park: “We designed a ‘chameleon section’ that tries to tie into every environment, from completely architectural to complete landscape, as it goes up the hill,” says Weiss.


For me, one of the most interesting places along the ‘chameleon section’ is what I like to think of as its tail — the long, triangular, cantilevered deck above the soon-to-be-installed Louise Bourgeois fountain. This dramatic perch offers the best view possible of Alaskan Way, all the way back to Pike Place Market. Because Seattleites will have this new view made available to them, they will quickly come to understand one of the latent beauties of their city.


May I offer this parting application of the “Law Of Un-Intended Effect”: One of Weiss and Manfredi’s contributions is that they may stop construction of an elevated road above Alaskan Way. Such is the power of their architecture.



Architecture critic and urbanist Trevor Boddy is a columnist with Seattle’s Arcade Magazine, and his “Dwelling” feature is posted Fridays at www.globeandmail.com. He can be reached at tboddy@globeandmail.com.