They called it jail for trees. It was a grid of nine flowering plum trees, three to a side, each one enclosed in blue chain-link fencing, on the top of a parking garage at the Public Safety Building in downtown Seattle. It was a work of art, not well liked.
Robert Irwin is an artist and the subject of Lawrence Weschler's classic 1982 book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees. It was in 1982 that Irwin designed Nine Spaces, Nine Trees for the cold, dark, northern-facing courtyard at Seattle's Public Safety Building, where the sun-starved trees stayed anemic and lonely. The nearby sheriff's office had requested that the fencing be transparent enough not to shelter escapees. The chain-link fence was of the no-climb variety, which sounds depressing.
Few people mourned the removal of Nine Spaces, Nine Trees when the Public Safety Building was demolished in 2005. It wouldn't fit anywhere else on city land, and many of its actual parts were destroyed with the building, so the state's public-art program assumed ownership of the design. The University of Washington offered a spot for a new version, next to the giant George Washington on the lawn in front of the brick Odegaard Undergraduate Library.
This is not your average relocated sculpture. "It's an intellectual property transfer," said Kurt Kiefer, UW public art manager.
Funds from the state, the Allen Foundation, private donors, and UW paid for the $300,000 rebuild, and last week, the finishing purple fencing began to go up around the new hawthorn trees in their Cor-Ten steel planters. (Hawthorns have white-pink blossoms in spring and orange berries in winter.)
Irwin's original planters were concrete, but the artist fell in love with Cor-Ten in gardens when he designed the grounds at L.A.'s Getty Museum in the 1990s. Another detail at UW—the concrete diamond turfstone, with tufts of grass growing up between the diamonds—is taken from Irwin's parking lot at Dia:Beacon, which opened in 2003. Nine Spaces, Nine Trees (redux) is a little compilation of Irwinania since 1982.
"There's also something of a lie here," Kiefer said. "We don't have nine columns underground, but it is above a parking garage."
The greater lie, the one that makes this not quite a true intellectual property transfer, is more fascinating: The conditions that created this sculpture are nothing but a backstory now. The sheriff, the escapees, the cold, the dark, the sketchy '80s "inner city." When the piece opens officially this fall, we'll find out what it's like to spend time in there, in with a born-again work of art. But the casual visitor won't get the history. So tell people.