Robert Irwin's "Nine Spaces, Nine Trees" was first installed in 1983 at the Fourth Avenue entrance to the old Public Safety Building downtown...

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Robert Irwin’s “Nine Spaces, Nine Trees” was first installed in 1983 at the Fourth Avenue entrance to the old Public Safety Building downtown, where you could wander through the mazelike structure or sit within the geometric treescape on a sunny afternoon. Over the years, as security tightened around the building, the piece was fenced and locked up, and there were times the public could only peer in through the wire-mesh surround.

Now the Public Safety Building has been torn down and Irwin’s “Nine Spaces, Nine Trees” is being reinstalled at the University of Washington on a grassy site behind the Henry Art Gallery. It should be completed by the end of the month. The artwork was deaccessioned from the city’s collection and its usable components disassembled and placed in storage a few years ago.

Actually, what you will see at the university is a different artwork based on the original, says UW campus art administrator Kurt Kiefer. “It’s an unusual thing. We aren’t just moving a piece — there wasn’t that much to actually move. A lot of the components weren’t salvageable. It’s more the transfer of an idea, or a series of ideas.”

Irwin, who lives in San Diego, has been involved since City of Seattle arts administrators first learned that the building was slated for demolition. After the university expressed interest in the artwork, the artist helped select a new site, then he substantially altered the design, choosing a different variety of trees, new octagonal benches surrounding some of them and lavender mesh to replace the blue-colored material he had originally used.

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The nine trees in the first version of the installation were red flowering plums — a trendy landscape tree that’s been heavily planted around Seattle. The new ones are Winter King Hawthornes.

“Bob’s gotten a lot more sophisticated about plants and wanted to change some things that were less successful,” Kiefer said. “He’s created something perhaps more inviting. He likes the idea of [the benches] facing the plants instead of away from the plants. Facing inwards was important to him. They are more functional, more useful.”

When the piece was first commissioned in the early 1980s, Richard Andrews was running the public art program for Seattle. Now, as director of the Henry Art Gallery and chair of the university’s public art commission, he’s involved in seeing “Nine Spaces, Nine Trees” get a new life.

“When Bob started doing large public installations, he used the word ‘site-determined’ rather than ‘specific,’ Andrews said. “He would look at it as a blank slate and try to come up with a plan that would best suit [the place]. The Public Safety Building was not a happy building and had a problematic physical layout. The engineers said the plaza itself could support weight only in nine points — that was an exceedingly limited site determinant. So, [Irwin] came back with this plan that had the trees located directly above the columns in the parking garage below.”

Irwin opted for an interestingly similar location at the University of Washington. — also situated above a parking garage. Andrews says it was a fortuitous choice because the university needed to do renovations and landscaping there anyway, so the cost of readying the site was a university expense. The budget for moving and re-creating the piece was about $300,000, half of it raised privately and half from the state arts commission, Kiefer said. (Seattle’s Fabrication Specialties disassembled the piece and has worked with Irwin to re-create it.) Andrews doesn’t recall what the piece cost 25 years ago, but guesses it was about a third as much.

With public art programs around the country maturing and older buildings coming down, this may turn out to be a model for how to deal with large-scale artworks connected to those places.

“One of the things that interested me beyond this particular work is it’s the only instance I know of where a site-related work has been reinstalled with the artist’s blessing and involvement and [new] vision,” Andrews said. “I’m hoping that it will set a precedent, that it can’t be done without the artist’s full cooperation. It’s not the same as taking Henry Moore’s ‘Vertebrae’ and moving it from one plaza to the next. These works are so related to their sites that in order to be respectful to the artist’s original wishes you would have to destroy it, like you do the building.”

Sheila Farr: sfarr@seattletimes.com