After 10 years on the Seattle cityscape, billionaire Paul Allen's Experience Music Project still generates controversy. Everyone agrees that the rock museum's design is unique and its construction was a technical marvel, but there's little agreement about whether it's beautiful or ugly. World-famous architect Frank Gehry said the building was meant to celebrate the sometimes...
WORKERS HAD barely begun erecting the snaking steel beams that would hold up the woozy-looking Experience Music Project when much of Seattle pounced to pronounce: Paul Allen’s rock-music museum was ugly.
It was early 1999, still more than a year before the building’s grand opening, so I traveled to Santa Monica to ask avant-garde architect Frank Gehry about the risk he was taking and the unflattering early reviews. His singular work had always been radical and he had just finished what many consider one of the finest buildings designed in the past 50 years — the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain.
It miffed him a bit that a building celebrating creativity and a visceral, often messy art form like rock music would be so summarily panned before it was even born into the cityscape.
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“I look at a lot of buildings and consider them ugly. Most of them, in fact,” he said back then. “So I figure this one building isn’t going to wreck Seattle. If it turns out like the model, we have a chance to make something special.”
In other words, what did Seattle expect, another gray rectangle?
The EMP, which also includes a wing called the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, turns 10 years old this month. It hasn’t wrecked Seattle, but still gets routinely dinged by locals and critics, even making a few top-10 ugly lists.
It has incrementally attracted admirers, too. They tend to fall into various camps: those who appreciate audacity; those who have bothered to go inside and check out the interior — which some local architects like far better than the exterior — and those who feel Seattle needs to spread its wings once in a while.
Some just like having “a Gehry,” even if it’s not exactly the Gehry they wanted.
“We never set out to be controversial,” says Jody Allen, EMP co-founder and Allen’s sister. “We simply wanted a design that brought life to what EMP is all about: the creative process, the energy of self-expression through music and culture, and a visitor experience that starts before you walk into the building.”
The building’s enduring attribute, though, seems to be how inscrutable it has remained. It still stirs debate, curiosity and no small measure of snarkiness.
It also looks different from whichever angle you approach or attitude you bring. In that way, it’s been a three-dimensional Rorschach test from day one.
THE BUILDING is strange. We can agree on that. But is it provocative-in-a-good-way strange or just too strange?
I stopped tourists outside the building and asked them.
A young Canadian took photos of the baby-blue section on its south side and gushed about how the undulations seemed like womanly shapes. “I think someone needs a cold shower,” said his girlfriend.
A tattooed young guy in a muscle shirt didn’t have a clue what it was, but said it drew him from a distance because “we don’t have anything like this in Alabama.”
A design engineer from New York City, looking snappy in a white turtleneck and black blazer, took pictures of where the monorail pierces the part that looks like a golden fist and pontificated about the “interplay of light” and “deconstruction.”
A middle-aged attorney from Indiana stood outside the front door — the firetruck-red section — looking perplexed. His conclusion: “It’s horrendous.”
The red section of the museum, with those glass bacon strips on top that are meant to represent guitar frets, is the most challenging of the six sections to digest. It is also the side Seattleites most often see.
It originally was meant to be the back door. Gehry envisioned people entering through the square translucent purple section where lights from the now-departed Fun Forest rides would bounce off it.
The museum’s new CEO and director, Christina Orr-Cahall, who moved here from Florida less than a year ago, is working to get Seattle more involved with the building. She believes understanding will breed appreciation.
“I was at a dinner the other night and a woman said, ‘I have never understood that building.’ I asked, have you ever been in it? She said, ‘Well, no . . . ‘ “
I asked for opinions from the Seattle Architecture Foundation and got two opposing views from volunteers who lead tours.
It’s too much for Aaron Swain, who calls the design “problematic.”
“It ignores every lesson we’ve learned and strikes out for a new ‘style’ beyond function, beyond aesthetics and understanding, in the way that architecture can be understood,” he said.
Mindi Caulley loved it: “It adds excitement and controversy to Seattle. EMP’s bold design creates discussion and dialogue about art and architecture, and encourages us to discuss what we value in the built environment. Its presence demands discussion.”
IT WAS DESTINED to look freaky.
A smashed guitar, in honor of Seattle’s Jimi Hendrix and his rebellious style, was the inspiration and template. But the real collision was between one of the world’s most relentlessly anti-box architects, an unfathomable task of trying to freeze the rock ‘n’ roll process and a wealthy private client who embraced the costs and advances in computing and engineering that allowed a building like that to even stand.
Allen had a notion to display his extensive music collection in a 10,000-square-foot gallery, but his sister helped transform the idea into an interactive museum complete with classes, recording booths and performance areas. She wanted something that screamed creativity.
So she approached Gehry while the Guggenheim was being built.
Allen wasn’t as involved as much as Gehry wanted, but while touring the menagerie of the architect’s model-making rooms, Allen mentioned how much he liked a radically curved building, nicknamed “Horse’s Head,” Gehry had installed in Berlin. And the guiding concept of “swoopy” was born.
Gehry and staff played with chopped up Fender Stratocasters, arranging the pieces and matching colors while searching for inspiration.
The first model was a complex of bulbous, slickly lacquered mounds with what looked like broken strings springing toward space. Gehry said Paul Allen thought the wires looked like linguine.
The second major version melded components and bled colors, making the design more unified and sleeker. Gehry said Paul Allen thought it was too sleek.
The third, what the building is today, combined elements of the first two. It was more flowing and less guitar-literal than the first, but more broken and rougher-looking than the second.
Stainless-steel and aluminum cladding were chosen to give the 140,000-square-foot building a more industrial look. The shell’s steel ribs and concrete are exposed inside to give visitors a feel that they aren’t in some art gallery where people keep it to a whisper.
“I know that people either love the building or hate it,” Jody Allen says. “And like all forms of art, it’s meant to be thought-provoking. It never made sense to put a museum dedicated to creativity in a square box.”
When he toured the building just before it opened in the summer of 2000, Gehry told reporters, “It’s supposed to be unusual. Nobody has seen this before or will see it again. Nobody will build another one.”
CRITICS SIGH with relief that it’s one of a kind.
Although it’s geared toward the arts crowd, the technically inclined tend to appreciate it the most, seeing beauty in the effort.
Jon Magnusson is a principal with the Seattle engineering firm Magnusson Klemencic, which helped figure out how to make it stand, and the answer required radical thinking.
“I’ve worked with architects across the world, and they tend to be either more on the arts side or the technical side,” Magnusson says. “Frank is on the most extreme end of both.”
The EMP project helped advance the building industry through its sophisticated use of computer modeling. That modeling, used by the aerospace industry, translated three-dimensional shape into a geometric language that engineers, builders and fabricators could understand and share.
The coordinates gave precise three-dimensional instructions. That was critical because the project had no straight, ruled surfaces. The digital information told contractors where to place everything from pipes to ducts.
Data from the computer files also directed robotic fabrication of the snaking steel beams and the 4,000 curved panels that make up the outer shell. Contractors were stunned at how perfectly everything fit.
The unified process was an early example of what the industry calls BIM — Building Information Modeling. BIM is still more of a goal than widespread practice, Magnusson says, but the EMP used it from start to finish.
“People are amazed that the process used on EMP was done so long ago,” Magnusson says. “Paul Allen gave such a gift to the architecture-engineering-construction world by funding the technique as a demonstration for the future.”
Alan Maskin, a partner at Olson Kundig Architects, says his firm was struck when working on the Chapel of Saint Ignatius at Seattle University by how New York (and Bremerton-born) architect Steven Holl manipulated structural steel into compound curves.
Maskin, who has been designing the visitor experience for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Visitor Center across from EMP/SFM on Fifth Avenue, said Gehry’s design took that structural approach much further.
EMP construction workers, knowing they may never work with pretzel-shaped beams again, signed their names to one for posterity.
In fact, Maskin says, the Holl and Gehry projects paved the way for other Seattle projects by internationally recognized architects — from the downtown public library to the Olympic Sculpture Park.
DOES THE EMP fit the Seattle cityscape?
It’s not even in the same area code.
But an eclectic urban park that, when the EMP was built, housed everything from basketball to ballet to bumper cars and where tourists now pile onto the amphibious tour buses called the “Ducks” seems like the reasonable place for it.
Is it Seattle style?
Uh, no. So-called signature buildings still are few and far between here.
David Miller is founding partner with the architecture firm Miller Hull Partnership. His company’s work is known for advancing modernism, but within the Northwest sensibility.
About 400 yards from the EMP, his firm produced Seattle Center’s Fisher Pavilion, a subtle piece of work that blends with the site. In other words, the opposite of Gehry’s look-at-me creation.
Miller, also chairman of the University of Washington’s Department of Architecture, wishes the EMP was a better example of what Gehry does, and believes it could have been a little less aggressive and a little more inviting “gateway” into the Center.
Still, he says, Seattle is better off having it and includes it on his top five list of must-see architectural projects in the city.
“It’s a sculpture, one of the most successful public-arts pieces in Seattle,” he says. “It’s a bit irresponsible and irreverent in the same way the music it represents was. It’s gutsy. Seattle needs a few buildings like that — just not too many.”
Richard Seven is a Seattle Times staff writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine photographer.