The making of green infrastructure

Olympic Sculpture Park, Seattle | Weiss/Manfredi

Introduction: Grey to Green Infrastructure

The Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park is a project conceived by the Seattle Art Museum in the late 1990s, as they seek for expansion venue to house the increasing sculpture collection. The 3.4ha project sits on the former Union Oil Company of California (Unocal) fuel storage depot at the Seattle waterfront, transformed by multi-disciplinary architecture firm Weiss/Manfredi into a piece of green urban infrastructure that reconnect the city and the waterfront. While the image of its zig-zag landscape is the most well-known and celebrated, the design alone is not enough to create such significant work. It is the collective effort of national and local institutions, corporate and individual advocates, who work together and enable the creation of a great public project. This paper will look at the process of how the project was made, and to reflect on the factors that contribute to the making of a successful urban public project.

During late 20th century, as the urban centres expand and the heavy industries are in decline, their production sites began to move away from downtown locations, resulting in prime location urban land being released, although many of these brownfields have serious contamination issue. This is also the time when public awareness towards green and sustainable city increase, especially apparent in west coast American cities such as Seattle, where the city begins to review the heavy infrastructure built in the last few decades for the automobile lifestyle. The paradigm shift in these two aspects offers an opportunity to rethink the meaning of an urban landscape, and the idea of “green infrastructure” began to emerge. It was under this context that The Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park was conceived and built, around the same time as other prominent urban landscape project such as the Highline in New York or the Millennium Park in Chicago. These projects in the first decade of the 21st century represented a new conception of public infrastructure – from the “grey infrastructure” that occupies nature and serves industry or transportation, to the “green infrastructure” that reconnects the city with the natural environment and to serve the public and its citizen.

Key Drivers with a Shared Vision

The Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park project is designed by the architect duo Weiss/Manfredi, the winning entry of an international design competition in 2001, and the park is completed and opened to public in 2007. In many case, our attention to public projects starts from its vision sketches and renderings, yet the making of such significant public project began way before the first drawing, through the works of an intricate network of key drivers. The story of the Seattle Olympic Sculpture Park is an example to illustrate this process of the making of major public work, which a collective effort from national, state, city to institution and individual level contributing to a multitude of input in site acquisition, design expertise, construction and operation.

The idea of the project began in 1996, when Mimi Gates, the former director or Seattle Art Museum (SAM), was looking for ways to accommodate its large-scale sculpture collection, while Martha Wyckoff, a trustee of the Trust for Public Land in Seattle, believes that the growing city needs more public parks. The shared ideas for the arts and for the community intersect perfectly, to become a common vision in creation of a public sculpture park for the city of Seattle. With strong support from major arts patron to pledge for the initial funding, it was one of the fastest pace capital campaign in the region and the land was secured at a discounted price through the help of Trust for Public Land in 1999. An initial USD$1million was raised within the first six months, and the subsequent cost of $16.5million for land purchase was secured in the next three months. Major donors included SAM patrons the Wrights family and the Shirley family, the Allen Foundation and the Gates Foundation, as well as the wide range of private and individual supporters [1].

Key Drivers relationship mapping

The Site

The 3.4ha site is the city’s last waterfront brownfield, formerly the fuel storage depot of Union Oil Company of California (Unocal). After a 10-years clean-up effort since the company cease operation, the site was re-zoned to allow high density development, which turns it into prime real estate for commercial mixed-used function. It was up in the market with a potential developer buyer, who has already a luxury condo project in mind. However, the public support for a park is strong across sectors, including Federal and State environmental stewardship, the City and King County advocate for the need of a public waterfront, and politicians representing the interest of Native American in salmon fishery. The collaborative effort allows the Trust for Public Land to secure this important piece of land for the city and for public use. Although it sits at the waterfront with an open view to the Puget Sound, the site was “six weedy acres of trash and tin, chipped concrete, chain-link fencing, and paved parking…” at that time [2], and this idea of the waterfront urban sculpture park is in need of a design to realise the vision.

The Competition

The design competition was implemented through the “New Public Works” grant by the National Endowment for the Arts, as part of its Design Program initiative in 2000. As described by Mark Robin, then director of design at the NEA, many cities and public officials tend not to prioritise quality design in consideration of public projects, usually due to limited budget and lack of expertise. Therefore, the “New Public Works” program provides financial and organizational support to initiate design competitions, to promote the importance of design and to solicit the best design idea for public projects, where the NEA bridge the client (public officials) and the designer towards a mutually beneficial relationship [3]. In comparison to the capital funds, the New Public Works grant is quite modest ($50,000) and does not contribute to the realisation of the project. However, the endorsement and publicity that came with it was proven to be instrumental for subsequent private and corporate fund-raising. Following the NEA guideline to administrate the competition also allow the institution to think deeper into their needs, as they formulate the design brief. The public and the media was also highly involved, making this not only an inner-circle arts project but an important public project that evokes discussions and debates.

The international design competition organized by the Seattle Art Museum has attracted entries, from famous architects such as Rem Koolhaas and Zaha Hadid, landscape architect James Corner to artist James Turrell. It was an open-call to all discipline to provide proposals, as the brief calls for “not only to reinvent the site but also to form a connection between the city and its neglected shoreline.”  [4] Weiss/Manfredi eventually won the competition among the 52 international respondents. Besides their cross-disciplinary approach in architecture-landscape-urban design, their presentation in 2001 has impressed the jury with a thorough understanding of the city and the site, as well as the team’s perspectives on the role of art. These background builds up to their still rough but very strong initial concept of the Z-shape landform, descending from the city street to the waterfront. It was later told that the design came out of hundreds of hours of design research but the idea strike during happy hour with a business card torn and shaped to test the switch back ramps [5].

The Design and Construction

The site is fragmented into 3 parcels at different elevation dissected by a 4-lanes highway and railway tracks. Since the first sketches, the architects presented a vision to reconnect the site through a z-shape landform to create an “emerged/submerged” condition6. They have built up the topography by 40ft (12m) where the transparent pavilion emerged on top and anchors the site, through a descending path towards the submerged shorefront beach. The pavilion is a steel-and-concrete structure with a cantilever roof, opens up to the terrace and through the amphitheatre stepping down into the valley covered by loose gravel, and there it sits the Wake, thelarge Richard Serra cor-ten steel sculpture.

Along the pedestrian path is the experience with the infrastructure as it is concealed or revealed by the bridge structure. The passage is integrated with different vegetation zones featuring indigenous landscape of the Pacific Northwest, with art pieces sitting in the landscape harmoniously. At each turn of the bridge it is aligned to spectacular views of the city, the bay and the mountains. The construction also includes the restoration of sea wall and aqua habitat, in response to the call of environmental and fishery advocacy groups, as the synergy of different cause working towards a common vision. The buttress of underwater stone wall (riprap) creates a protected environment for young salmon fish at low tide, and this strategy is being used along the shoreline for regeneration, as part of the current waterfront project designed by James Corner.

The Program and Operations

The project opened in 2007 after 6-years of constructions and incidental delays, and it has just celebrated its 10th anniversary with thousands of visitors, as the park has become a must-visit destination and a staple in the Seattle urban life. The programming and operation direction has shown a shift towards an urbanistic vision of the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), as a contemporary cultural institution that focus not only to collect and display but emphasis on public engagement and community experience. Since the conception of the project, the SAM intended to build an open park with the idea that it is completely open and accessible, instead of a sculpture “garden” confined by museum walls [6]. While safety is maintained through subtle operation of digital and manual surveillance, it is enhanced by the thoughtful lighting design that also blends in with the nature as it provides way finding assistance and accent to the artworks.

The 12,000 sq ft (1100m2) pavilion house programs such as the office, café, bookstore, exhibition and event space, also serve as the service point for the park. As the visit to the park is free, the pavilion operation was kept minimal, there is not permanent exhibitions and the cafe opens seasonally or used for special events. The pavilion in this sense has become a genuine “public living room” as the vast open interior with loose furniture welcome visitors and residents to use freely at all time, without prescribed function and therefore a more relaxed code of conduct. Extending from the pavilion is the amphitheatre looking into the gravel-lined valley with the Richard Serra sculpture, a slightly more secluded area that can also accommodate private and public events. It has become one of the most popular wedding venue in the city, and the SAM also host summer program with festive activities, where hundreds of residents and visitors would gather to enjoy the museum and performance in open air [7]. During regular days, we see all walks of life enjoying their time here, whether it is a fast jog or stroll through the park to the waterfront, or a slow weekend picnic on the meadow with friends and family, or simply taking a seat to enjoy the vista. The non-prescriptive programming allowed the space to become a place that is open-ended, a container for social activities, with a good balance of service and control.

CONCLUSION: the Making of an Urban Project

It has been the vision of Mimi Gates, the former director of SAM, to “break the barrier of museum walls” in terms of making art accessible8, and the Olympic Sculpture Park is showcase achievement of the vision for accessible art and accessible public space together. After over a decade of operation, it sees success not only in its popularity and increasing visitation, but how the project is being used in many different ways. In the early stage of the project it was the collective effort and strong drivers that takes it forward, with the design being pivotal to the implementation of the vision. As the making of the project did not begin with the first rendering, it does not end when the building is complete, but constantly growing and evolving along with its institution. This project has not only transformed the landscape but played an important role in the urban changes for the city and its residents, as it continues to see a series of public space or infrastructure regeneration projects in progress. It takes a strong institution, dedicated drives for the cause, together with the right expertise to make this happen. While patronage is important, the question to ask is also how to effectively utilise it into greater impact for the city.

[1] Robbins, M. (2010). New Public Works : Architecture, Planning, and Politics. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. p.52-67.

[2] Williams, M. “Sculpting a New Park for Seattle’s Waterfront”. Land & People, Fall 1999. Accessed:15/10/2019

[3] Robbins, M. (2010). New Public Works : Architecture, Planning, and Politics. New York: Princeton Architectural Press. p.14-23.

[4] Manfredi, M., & Weiss, M. (2008). Weiss/Manfredi : Surface/subsurface. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.

[5] Gonchar, J. “Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park”. Architectural Record, July 2007. Accessed: 15/10/2019

[6] “Free Events in Seattle at Olympic Sculpture Park.” Summer at SAM. Accessed: 10/10/2019

[7] Seattle Art Museum (2001) Annual Report 2001-02. Accessed: 20/10/2019

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