Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle

Yesterday, I had a wonderful morning at the Olympic Sculpture Park on the shores of Elliott Bay in Seattle city centre. It is an impressive park, built on 9 acres of former industrial land close to rail lines, huge piers and diverse office buildings. More than that, it provides the only direct access point to the sea within Seattle city centre, and forms a continuation for the Myrtle Edwards Park North of it. The Olympic Sculpture Park was created with large donations from Seattle personalities, and is operated by the Seattle Art Museum. The aim was to return the site as much as possible to a functioning ecosystem, while providing a unique setting for outdoor sculpture and public recreation.

The park has a very strong form, consisting of what I experienced as "wedges" connected by a pathway leading to the seashore. As the SAM website states, the project’s lead designers, Weiss/Manfredi, developed an Z-shaped configuration connecting three parcels into a series of four distinct landscapes. According to it, this design "afforded a wide range of environmental restoration processes, including brownfield redevelopment, salmon habitat restoration, native plantings and sustainable design strategies". I did not quite catch all this while sauntering through the park; I only experienced three different areas, one up near the pavilion and the Serra sculpture, the second in the mid-level with the extensive lawn areas and the third at the seashore. I would never have understood that the waterfront (as seen above), so near a heavily trafficked city and a harbour, would be a salmon habitat restoration area. However, I think it's design reflects nicely the form of the piers south from it, built in an steep angle from the waterfront in order to hold better against the waves.

Like in so many contemporary parks, an important goal was to use native vegetation in the planting, not only because they are an integral part of the restoration effort, but also because the dense native vegetation is more sustainable and helps retain rainfall above the soil surface. As native plants often take years to establish and the park is still very young (it opened in January 2007), it still was very open and much of the vegetation seemed to the struggling in the exposed and quite harsh environment. The "bones", that is, the structure is there, but to get it to be more than that and become a real park, the Olympic Sculpture Park needs time, and maybe also some editing considering the planting palette. For example, the ferns used as undervegetation seemed to be longing for the trees to grow and shade them. Even snowberries, that usually are tough as anything, seemed to be struggling (picture below). Also, as it is late autumn, all the meadows were shorn very short and could not be experienced as they ought to, but it merely looked as the park consisted of huge areas of lawn.

And what about the sculptures? Check out the pictures. My favourite was probably the huge "Eagle" by Calder, looming like an ancient, red dinosaur between the city and the sea (picture above with the pavillion behind it; one other favorite place of mine, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, also has huge Calder sculptures in front of it). "Wake" by Richard Serra (further above) is made of huge sheets of curved steel welded together to a slight s-curve. It's monumental scale feels totally in proportion with it's site here, and in my mind, reflects the huge tankers anchored in the bay waiting to be unloaded. Dennis Oppenheim's huge "Cones" (below, in front of Teresita Fernandez's screen "Seattle Cloud Cover") give a playful note to the strictly contemporary park design - a nice touch of humour which all too often is forgotten in these high-profile landscape designs.


Tina said...

Oh I haven't dropped by for a while but love your Seattle Sculpture park entry. It will be interesting to see how it grows into its site. Glad to see they have included some humour - so often remiss in public spaces!

Tina said...

Oops should have proofed that before I posted I mean "amiss" not "remiss"!

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hi Tina, and thanks for your comments! Yes, I would very much like to fast forward this park 10 year or so, especially as I don't know if I will be living here then...

These contemporary parks give a totally different experience than the ones in the old landscape movement tradition (here in the Olmstedt style), but I love both, they really contrast with each other well.