A Review of Seattle's Skyline (and What It's Becoming)
They're easy to overlook, but there they are, well below the Space Needle, hidden in plain sight: the white Gothic arches that Minoru Yamasaki created for the 1962 World's Fair U.S. Science Pavilion, which later became Pacific Science Center. They're among the beauties of the Seattle skyline, and when they went up, they were monuments to idealism by the homegrown modernist architect. They were so celebrated, in fact, that they attracted the attention of the Port Authority of New York, which just that year had settled on a Lower Manhattan parcel of land for the city's World Trade Center, and invited Yamasaki to submit a design. He proposed the Twin Towers.
Now, the arches that stand so quietly in Seattle bring it all back in bony, ghostly form: the idealism, yes, but also the egotism and the wreckage. They echo the Gothic-arched Twin Tower fragment that famously stood amid the rubble, broadcast around the world as an American ruin. All at once, it became clear that Seattle's arches had nothing to do with science; they had been a foreshadowing, and now they were a relic, of a distinctly American zeal undone.
This is not the time for American skylines. What was once a blazing symbol of optimistic speculation—the photographer Alfred Stieglitz proclaimed he saw the ship of America charging toward him the first time he set eyes on the Flatiron Building in New York—has become a problematic mess. The vaunted nature of skylines has been tarnished by awareness of their environmental, historic, and socioeconomic implications. (Another one of Yamasaki's creations reduced to rubble—a housing project in St. Louis—was a harbinger of this.) The dark side of skyscrapers is ascendant, the exploitative, inhuman side. As early as 1913, Cass Gilbert, designer of the Woolworth Building in New York, admitted that the skyscraper is "a machine that makes the land pay." After September 11, American skyscrapers have become not only unfashionable, but dangerous and shameful artifacts of a preening hubris we no longer want to project to the world. How, then, to gauge the success of a skyline any longer? By whether it is the target of a terrorist plot? By whether it is not?
These days, there is majesty in modesty. Maybe that explains the almost universal adoration for Seattle's smallest high-rises; the 1914 Smith Tower and the 1928 Northern Life Tower, now called Seattle Tower, are easily the best skyscrapers in the city. Thanks to the preservation of the low historic district Pioneer Square, the Smith Tower—which architect Walter Schacht thinks of as a Victorian lady trailing her bustle—dominates its own skyline. At Third Avenue and University Street, Seattle Tower is an art-deco beacon, the color of its bricks lightening subtly toward the sky, in a design taken from Eliel Saarinen's second-place proposal in the 1922 Chicago Tribune Tower competition. Meanwhile, Smith Tower and Seattle Tower rank 16th and 36th in height in Seattle, respectively. Seattle's overall skyline ranks around 45th in the world according to calculations of height and density (along with the likes of Dallas and Philadelphia), but in popularity polls, Seattle's skyline lands in the top dozen in the world. Height is not the badge of quality; the race to the top has left these shores. Seattle is a sentimental favorite, for structures like the Space Needle, which is less than two-thirds as tall as Seattle's tallest building. Even though the Needle represents the false heart and trampling feet of tourism, it is nevertheless a little city's dream set down in charming angles, and personality matters.
Most of Seattle's biggest towers are anonymous and forgettable, or bad. The 76-story Columbia Center on Fifth Avenue is a thick, bland thug, and the stubby double trapezoids of the Sedgwick James Building in northern downtown—both were built by the charging developer Martin Selig—look like Columbia Center's evildoing sidekicks. The Seattle Municipal Tower, tucked behind Columbia Center, unmistakably bears the appearance of a circumcised penis but lacks the slightest sense of humor about it. The sparkling emerald dome on the "Ban Roll-On" building at Second Avenue and Seneca Street seems to imply that white-robed people are luxuriating in a natatorium inside. It's depressing to discover the dome encloses only a roomful of machines.
A trio of lighter, higher notes strike in the middle of downtown: the flute-voiced wafer of the brand-new Washington Mutual Tower (a feat of finesse considering its girth), the spark-plug ting of the 1988 WaMu Tower, and the lyric soprano of 1989's Two Union Square. These are pleasing, but somehow not stirring, as if being so many feet up in the air has lost its thrill at this late date.
Taken as a whole, Seattle's skyline has a rhythm that only a scat singer could love; if it were an EKG, the patient would be in trouble. "Seattle is a good city in spite of its buildings," then–New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger quipped in 1983, referring to the downtown core. A frequent and more specific criticism throughout the development of Seattle's skyline since the 1970s is that it is a pastiche in need of native style. High-rises here "respond to the precedents set by other men in other places," complained UW Emeritus Architecture Professor Norman J. Johnston in 1988. Indeed, 1969's Seafirst Building (now 1001 Fourth Avenue Plaza), often referred to as "the box the Space Needle came in," is a black rectangle modeled after New York's Seagram Building. Likewise, the Sedgwick James Building was made in the likeness of Houston's Pennzoil Place, and the 1988 WaMu Tower is a generic example of the postmodernism that its designers promulgated better in other cities. More than anything else here, it's Two Union Square, a curving, white-capped edifice by the locally based firm NBBJ, that belongs to a city of water and mountains, as paradoxical as that sounds.
Seattle was never destined to be a great sky city; it joined the sky race late and is culturally more invested in the earth and water that surround it. If this skyline is a work of art—keeping in mind that any skyline is "about as planned as 10 brothers and sisters," says Peter Miller of the eponymous architectural bookstore that's a landmark in Seattle—then it is not a sculpture, but a collage that emphasizes the differences of its parts more than their unity. Just as the city itself is a collaged element amid assertive landforms.
New York's skyline was modernism, and the Stieglitz circle of painters and photographers built its machine forms into their abstractions and distortions. A similar thing has never happened here; either the painters have been attuned to the land instead of its glass-and-steel interlopers, or the skyline just wasn't that rousing. Contemporary painters Paul Havas and William E. Elston, and printmaker Patrick Anderson (whose work is here), have been intermittently attracted to the skyline. "Skylines represent that '30s can-do attitude, the idea that we can build a world that's bigger and better than the last one," Elston says, quickly adding, "but this past decade of condo building in Belltown has put me off the skyline."
What's coming next will alter the skyline radically, at the next level down from the 600- to 900-foot sphere of the city's top five skyscrapers: At least two dozen condominium towers—many are luxury homes and 30 stories or higher—are proposed or under construction. (Thomas Francis describes a handful of them here.) The tallest is the 500-footer envisioned for Eighth Avenue and Pine Street; that's around the height of the balancing-obelisk Rainier Tower downtown.
In the hopes of gaining Vancouver-style slimmer towers that block fewer views but allow for growth—see Eric Fredericksen's look at the two leading Northwest skylines—the city council in April lifted downtown height limits (instituted by public vote in 1989) but left in place a restriction that dictates a building's mass based on the size of its site. That means a tower to rival the 935-foot Columbia Center would have to be awfully thin to pass.
Condos aren't known for their architecture or their affordability (although with the changes, the council did tack on developers' fees to fund at least some low-cost housing). Cristalla, a 22-story tower completed last year at Second Avenue and Lenora Street with a penthouse for sale for $2.7 million, is a disgrace on both accounts. Its corporate-looking blue-glass tower has what one local architect calls the "sound bite" of a yellow stripe at the top. The name Cristalla and a puny entry dome were touted as an homage to the beaux-arts Crystal Pool formerly on the site, where the public came to bathe under a glass dome designed by legendary vaudeville-theater architect B. Marcus Priteca (Cristalla architects Weber + Thompson refer to him in their materials as "Martin Priteca"). If this is what the future holds, blech. About the new towers of the residential boom, John Braseth of Woodside/Braseth Gallery says, "I doubt there'll be many artists inspired by that skyline." To catch the disappearing current skyline, check out the gallery's show of seven-foot photorealist panorama paintings by Michael Stasinos in September.
Competition to build ever taller has moved to Asia and the Middle East, as Charles Mudede details here, and meanwhile an American struggle to make a new peace with skyscraper building is underway, especially—and dreadfully, as Jerry Saltz writes—in Lower Manhattan, the place where skylines began. (Literally. Harper's coined the term "skyline" in 1896 to describe that neighborhood.)
On the ground in Seattle we may consider our monuments in the sky only occasionally, when they cause the cancelation of New Year's parties or the blockage of a favorite view, but the skyline is very much alive up there. And it's moving.