Friday, February 12, 2010

Freeway Park in Seattle

The rectilinear forms follow through all parts of the Freeway Park in Seattle; the pathways, water features, planter boxes are all made of concrete.
Seattle is a city full of contrasts. Situated on steep hills, Seattle overlooks the crystal waves of the Puget Sound, and wherever you look, stunning snowcapped mountains fill the horizon. Several lakes weave into the scenery, creating a rich tapestry with the lush, majestic forests of this evergreen, rainy part of the world. In this magnificent setting, the city centre is something of a visual shock: a high rise jungle of asphalt and concrete, with a train track and two major freeways, I-5 and the Alaskan Viaduct, cutting through it. There is very little greenery, only minor plantings dwarfed by the high buildings, and a few street trees struggling to keep alive in the harsh environment. With few exceptions, the best way to catch a glimpse of the city, the residential areas, the mountains and the sea is to drive through Seattle on one of the freeways. It feels like the early Seattleites, eager to tap into the natural riches of the area, forgot everything about the principles of good town planning when they started carving their mark into the landscape a bit over hundred years ago.
Above: Part of the path around the park. Below: The park seen from the University Street ramp leading to the I-5 freeway.
Freeway Park, situated in the heart of Seattle city centre, was designed in the early 70s to reduce the impact of the the I-5 freeway and to reconnect the city centre with First Hill, an older area on the east side of it. Landscape architect Laurence Halprin, who designed the park with Angela Danadjieva, wanted to integrate the I-5 freeway into the park and to emphasize the highly urban nature of the site. A result of their creative work, Freeway Park is a rectilinear board-formed concrete maze that sits like a monumental lock over the freeway. The passing cars below make a constant, obtrusive element of the park. To mute the sounds of the traffic, Halprin and Danadjieva included several fountains, many of which are now defunct. The largest one, the American League Fountain, is a huge, concrete canyon on several levels that was inspired by the waterfalls of the Cascade and Olympic mountains that surround Seattle. The vegetation is planted in large, concrete containers and consist mainly of native evergreens and shrubs, chosen because of their ability to survive high levels of pollution. Only a few flowering cherries and Magnolias add a seasonal, softer note to the otherwise quite static greenery.

The American League Fountain was designed like a huge canyon and Halprin wanted the immediate sense of danger to make people cautious; therefore, no fences were used. At least two people have died by falling from the concrete platforms and steps of the park, so the renovation project will address the need for increased safety.
The Freeway Park opened in 1976 as part of Seattle's celebrations of the U.S. bicentennial and was an immediate success that attracted large crowds. Later on, its maze-like design turned out to be a magnet for the criminal elements of the city: all the turns and nooks, designed to inspire intimate meetings between law-abiding citizens, showed to be a perfect place for robbers and murderers to hide and attack their offers without being noticed. The zigzagging design made it difficult for the victims to escape and the cascading fountains together with the neverending roar of traffic drowned effectively their cries for help.
Emergency call buttons can be found in several places. They remind vividly of the many murders and robberies that have taken place in the park, adding a disconcerting feel to a visit there.

The Freeway Park, celebrated as a breakthrough in urban design in the 1970s, fell fast into disrepair. Later on, it was often referred to as one of the most unused or even hated parks in Seattle. First in 2006, The Cultural Landscape Foundation profiled the Freeway Park in its Landslide program for endangered cultural landscapes. This prompted Seattle Parks and Recreation Department to start a project for making it safer and more usable together with the people living nearby the park. When I visited the park yesterday, no results were visible, only several yellow signs and a large project presentation plan announced that repair works were on the way. Walking through the concrete paths in the rain, with the defeaning noise filling my ears, I had a slightly creepy feeling thinking of all the unlucky incidents that had taken place there. The Freeway Park felt like a place that was born out of idealism, but fallen deep into the raw reality of life. Still, with all the work that is going into reviving this people's meeting place, I hope that the Freeway Park will again be the urban oasis to "encourage meditative thought, excite senses and celebrate life" that Lawrence Halprin and Angela Danadjieva envisioned it to be.
Later update (Feb 22, 2010): The Cultural Landscape Foundation just published an interview with Lawrence Halprin on their Oral History Project part of their website.


James Golden said...

A basic principle in urban transportation safety is preservation of clear sight lines. Perhaps this is just the wrong design for this site.

Tankar från Trädgårdsmästarn; Hillevi said...

Interesting an very beautiful design, thank you:-)

Have a nice weekend,
it's snowing in Stockholm today:-))


nilla|utanpunkt said...

It's kind of sad, this story about the park. ALl the thought that went into it, and all the violence that came out of it.

On a visual note, I do like the idea, the planting and the squareness of the design. But, I just can't stand that kind of concrete. Today, they've worked out ways to make even concrete into interesting contrasting surfaces. And I absolutely love the way some modern architects use the material. But here, it's that 1970's depressive concrete which age so horifically, sickened by damp streaks, its bunkerish, monotenous "pattern" from the vertical moulds, and is it algea on top of that? So ugly. But the planting is lovely.

Lavender and Vanilla Friends of the Gardens said...

I hope this park will be revived. I am a traditionalist but I still like contemporary designs. I like concrete. The downside with concrete when it is not looked after it gets very dirty and looks ugly and uncared for. There should be plenty of greenery as well. I am sure there are many plants which cope well. Annuals in brilliant colours would bring much needed cheer to the bunker like style. To Annuals it does not matter about pollution as they have anyway a termed life. Parks should be cheerful, and restful places. This park looks depressing. I hope it will be rescued from its sad look.

Dirty Girl Gardening said...

Very cool pics... great post.

Antigonum Cajan said...

I thought I WAS the
blogguer with readers
in everyone of them.

But I see I was mistaken.
What the heck...Nice blog.

Megan Seagren said...

If, as you said in class last night, gardens tend to reflect prevailing social attitudes, this park may be emblematic of our Seattle culture, in which idealism wants to overlook the more unpleasant realities of human nature, such as criminality and lack of caution (getting too close to a dangerous edge).

Karen said...

I completely agree with your assessment. The whole thing feels like a Soviet nightmare when I have visited, and I could not even bring myself to brave the innards of the park, only skirted the edges. Did you see the cool Tsutakawa (sp?) fountain on the Western edge? Of course, it is not concrete, so maybe that's why it's more likable than the rest of the design! It will be interesting to see what can be done in terms of improved looks and safety. Count me among the haters until then!!

andy said...

i think that everything people have said about this park is true and false. i think the concrete forms left to age and collect dirt and moss can be ominous and scary looking and gorgeous. and the park's reputation makes a visit intimidating and pulse-quickening. the smell of stale pee mixed with the fragrant blossoms and the epic story of idealistic designer's dreams getting crushed under the harsh realities of urban social ills... it all makes for one hell of an exciting park. Like the perfect setting for a haunting contemporary crime novel. i think so much of life is like that park. things don't work out the way we intend. but if we can manage to look our "mistakes" squarely in the face, we'll see that they're not all that bad, and maybe appreciate an inspiring bit of tragic beauty.

Unknown said...

Thanks for your useful information. That was really cool!
I wanna ask if I can use 2 of your photos in my presentation about the park?
By the way, so far, I have not heard any news about the death of people there. Could you please tell me from which resource you heard about it?

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Hello Atefeh, you can use the photos in your presentation, please just mention my blog / name as sources. The murder information comes from an article in a Seattle newspaper at the time when I posted this, it most probably was the Seattle Times (search on the net, I'm sure it comes up). Good luck! Best regards, Liisa.