Friday, December 12, 2008

Gas Works Park in Seattle

An update: On January 2, 2013, Seattle’s Gas Works Park, a significant example of Richard Haag’s innovative landscape architecture, was listed in the National Register of Historic Places. For more information, see The Cultural Landscape Foundation.

A tiny note in my favourite garden magazine, Gardens Illustrated, inspired me to seek out Gas Works Park in the North side of Lake Union, near Seattle city centre. I had heard about this park earlier, as it is a very popular place for 4th of July celebrations, kite flying and other summer activities, but I had somehow never got to this side of town.
Gas Works Park has a hundred year old history connected to the industrial evolution of Seattle. Dating from the first decade of the 20th century, this plant manufactured illuminating gas made from coal, and later also city-gas used for cooking, refrigeration, and heating homes and water. It also had equipment for producing “Gasco charcoal briquettes”, toluene, solvent naphtha, sulphur, xylene and resin tar; products that now are strongly associated with soil and land contamination everywhere in the world. Production of city gas at The Seattle Gas Company’s production plant ended in 1956 when Seattle converted to natural gas.

The former exhauster-compressor building, now a children's play barn, features a maze of brightly painted machinery. Unfortunately, no children were around, just some homeless people, sleeping by a fire on the pick-nick area.

The site of Gas Works Park, a 20 acre point on Lake Union, was acquired by the city of Seattle in 1962. The park was designed by Richard Haag, a prominent Seattle landscape architect also known for his work at the Bloedel Reserve. A massive soil cleaning effort was needed to create the park, and it was opened to the public in 1975. This act finally fulfilled the vision of the Olmsted Brothers, who already in 1903 recommended that “…the point of land between the northeast and northwest arms of Lake Union and the railroad should be secured as a local park, because of its advantages for commanding views over the lake and for boating, and for a playground.” What the Olmsted Brothers could not have imagined is the long road of development that lead to the final result.

The sundial at the top of the mound was created by two local artists, Chuck Greening and Kim Lazare. The viewer’s shadow tells the time of day and the season - an optimistic feature for a park in Seattle...
The Gas Works Park with its structures tell a lot about our attitudes towards the nature and its resources during the last century; how we went from seeing them as something to exploit and abuse, to appreciating the nature as the basis of sustainable life. Also, it is an important part of the history of how we build our parks; a development that has gone from beautifying the nature through control and planning, to seeing the nature as valuable in itself; and now to considering even the man-made and industrial (an opposite to the traditional meaning of parks) as worth of our attention and preservation.
The remaining Gas Works buildings are on the National Register of Historic Places, and the park is also a Seattle City Landmark.
A later update: I just read in the Seattle Times that the Gas Works Park is one of the most popular parks for weddings in Seattle, and that already now in January, many weekends are already fully booked. Sculptural, monumental, impressive - all words that I would connect with this park, but romantic? Not in my eyes... Avant-garde? Yes, and I would love to see a wedding here. Another small detail; I just found Katie Campbell's book "Icons of Twentieth Century Landscape Design" (2006), where she takes up the Gas Works Park as one of the 29 landscapes that have dramatically changed the way we look at designed outdoor spaces. Very interesting, I really need to visit this park again when the weather warms up.

1 comment:

Munki said...

Great Article! The Stone walk-throughs, what are those?