A happy accident happened early one morning not too long ago: Walking through Freeway Park, I happen upon a mini construction site—busy men in hardhats, yellow tape demarcating work space, concrete equipment over here, bulldozers over there. The men in hardhats are not building just anything but are instead installing a considerable sculpture in front of the sloping green glass exterior of the Washington State Convention & Trade Center.
The person overseeing this heavy work just happens to be the sculpture's creator, Angela Danadjieva, an architect based in San Francisco. She's wearing a shiny purple overcoat, her large eyes are behind big black sunglasses, her hair is white, her hand is on her chin, and her small body seems to express a high degree of satisfaction with the way things are going.
And then I discover it: This is not simply an artist watching the installation of her art; this is the woman who designed the most remarkable park in Seattle.
The story of how this came to be begins in Bulgaria, where she was born and from where she moved to Paris to study and practice architecture in the mid '60s. In the late '60s, San Francisco developers took notice of her work in a design competition and hired her to design a major and bold urban project that, ultimately, never materialized. While in San Francisco, landscape architect Lawrence Halprin took notice of her work and hired her. Soon after she entered Halprin's firm, Portland took notice of her work and hired Halprin's firm to design Forecourt Fountain in Portland. After that project was completed in 1970, Seattle planners took notice of her work and hired Halprin to design Freeway Park, which was finished in 1976 and formed from nearly 12,000 cubic yards of concrete.
"I know this I-5 from top to bottom, at every level. I know more about it than anyone else. To understand this park you must understand the freeway," she says to me with a serious expression on her face.
Earlier, right after I'd introduced myself, she explained her role in the park's making ("I managed the design"), her principal architectural notions ("it's all about symmetry"), and her worldview ("we need to get back to basics, to look at nature and appreciate it"). After all these years in America, and a spell in Paris, she still has a thick Eastern European accent. And, yes, there is something aristocratic about Danadjieva, something completely Old World—a Europe that was cemented by a rigid class order and ruled by families with lines that ran deep into the past.
Danadjieva is charming, and her new sculpture is a wonderful addition to the park because it's not out of place like Buster Simpson's Seattle George Monument, which was completed in 1989 with utter indifference to its environment. What does the metal head of George Washington have to do with the futurist/brutalist magic of evergreens and concrete? It says nothing about the park, the freeway that it lids, or the sky-reflecting corporate towers that surround it. Simpson's sculpture can be removed from this context with no loss. Its true place is not Freeway Park but Fremont, where funky art of this kind is much appreciated and promoted.
"When I came to America, I was a young woman. You can imagine; it was not easy for me. But I'm really an architect first and so I think about the relationship between things, between forms. This is how the park was made. It thinks about the relationship between natural materials and man-made materials. See the sculpture; see the glass behind it. This is the kind of thinking I do."
The sculpture, untitled as of yet and commissioned through the state convention and trade center, is made from rough-hewn basalt but looks like several clusters of redwoods that have been cut low, ravaged by a reckless lumberman. The treeness of the stones corresponds with the leafiness of the glass windows on the building directly behind them. The stone trunks are planted in two planters that are cast from timber and that formerly contained vegetation. It is this intersection of the natural and urban that makes Freeway Park special and makes it thrive. In fact, the trees that were planted in the park back in the '70s grew faster and larger than Danadjieva anticipated. Nature is at home in the woman-made world.
"There is much more I have to tell you, but I don't have the time. I have to fly back to San Francisco this afternoon," she says. I thank her, and leave the enchanting woman in her enchanted park.