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Transformed by a creative use of space

A waterfront industrial waste site becomes a free sculpture park, and a rare point of accord in a city at a crossroads.

January 15, 2007|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

SEATTLE — The 9-acre waterfront plot at the northwest edge of downtown Seattle was an oil depot for much of the last century; for years it was considered a fuel-soaked toxic waste site.

After a decade-long cleanup, it caught the eye of developers, who floated proposals for apartment buildings there in the 1990s.

This week, a remarkable transformation of the site will be complete, when it is reopened to the public by the Seattle Art Museum as the Olympic Sculpture Park, one of the largest urban art spaces anywhere in the country.

The free-admission sculpture park will feature works by Alexander Calder, Louise Bourgeois, Richard Serra, Claes Oldenburg, Beverly Pepper, Teresita Fernandez, Tony Smith and about 20 other artists. It is dotted with groves of trees, native plants and trails, against the stunning backdrop view of Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains (which are visible more often than Seattle's rainy reputation might suggest).

It even includes something that hitherto could not be found among the mass of seawalls, tourist shops and cruise-ship piers along the busiest parts of the bay here: a beach.

"Where Earth Meets Art," proclaim banners at the site, which opens Saturday.

For a city feuding over a vision for other waterfront land, the park is a welcome relief from the bickering.

The park has been widely acclaimed ahead of its official opening for combining open space with soaring artwork and a spectacular natural setting, and even for the view it affords of the rail traffic emerging from Seattle's busy port.

Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat calls it "a marriage of Seattle's wilderness beauty and its industrial grit."

The $85-million park sprang from a preservation campaign launched in 1999 by the art museum, known here as SAM, and the Trust for Public Land.

It is easy for anyone to sneak a peek through the fences that surround the park, and it is impossible to miss some of the sculptures -- Calder's 39-foot-high, bright-red steel "Eagle," or the 5-ton, 19-foot-high "Typewriter Eraser, Scale X," by Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, which indeed evokes a classic circular reddish-orange eraser with the blue brush tail.

"Seattle Cloud Cover," by Fernandez, is a 200-foot-long, 60-panel display of laminated-glass cloud patterns. They shimmer and change in color and intensity in Seattle's frequently changing weather and under the arc of the sun, which sets after 9 p.m. in the early summer but just after 4:15 p.m. during the days around the winter solstice.

Some here have fretted that a free-and-open-to-all park could become another Muscatel Meadows -- the nickname for a downtown park that has become a gathering spot for public inebriates. But the general mood about the art park seems optimistic.

"I can't imagine anybody not falling in love with this place," said Mike Harrelson, a banker from the city's Queen Anne neighborhood, out for a jog in light snow the other morning. "It is a glorious gift to the city."

Seattle's downtown is experiencing a renaissance. The steel-and-glass Central Library, designed by the Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and featuring a bright, spiraling interior, opened in 2004 to international acclaim. And SAM plans to reopen its main museum in May with a redesign that nearly doubles its gallery space.

But plenty of Seattle's future is still being hashed out. Civic groups and the city's political leaders are engaged in a long-running battle over whether to tear down the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct, an expressway that separates much of the waterfront from downtown.

Mayor Greg Nickels, who calls the roadway "The Big Ugly," wants it replaced with a tunnel. Critics dismiss the idea as a boondoggle and see potential echoes of Boston's famously problem-plagued Big Dig highway-and-tunnel project.

But for the moment, ill will seems to have been put aside to celebrate the art park.

SAM Director Mimi Gardner Gates said the project capitalized on the "tremendous asset" of the location.

"What finer legacy could we leave to future generations," she said in the foreword to a museum booklet about the opening, "than a waterfront sculpture park located in the heart of the city, with a beach and stunning views over Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains, featuring great works of art and green space, open and free to everyone?"

Museum officials and others involved in the project told reporters recently that the park's various natural areas were intended to evoke the diverse settings in which outdoor sculpture can be seen and enjoyed.

Marion Weiss, of New York-based Weiss/Manfredi, the designer of the park, said the goal was to define a "new model" for presenting art to the public.

"Our intent is to establish connections where separations existed," said Weiss, "inventing a setting that implicitly questions where the art begins and park ends."

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