But thanks to some bum-lovin' angel, none of Seattle's homeless were under the pergola when U.S. Xpress truck driver Pete Benard drove his rig up onto the sidewalk on the morning of January 15, clipped the corner of the pergola, and brought the thing down. No lives were lost, a cop at the scene assured me. What was lost, however, was a small, graceful, human-scale urban amenity, the kind of thing that doesn't get built around here anymore. Seattle's insecurity complex ("We're a world-class city! Really, we are!") has left us unable to build anything human-scale; as a consequence, our modern "urban amenities" tend to be big and ugly, crass and soul-deadening.
With so many so many larger, uglier targets in town (EMP, Safeco Field's retractable roof, and--coming soon--Mayor Schell's refurbished city hall), it's a shame Pioneer Square's pergola got clipped instead of the grandest blight of all: the 10-story-tall glass canopy built over Pike Street during the Washington State Convention and Trade Center's $167 million expansion. The view-obstructing, sun-blotting, pedestrian-intimidating canopy--shortly to be covered in pigeon shit--would seem equally vulnerable to runaway trucks, with its exposed support columns at street level. But there's no guarantee that the canopy would come down even if a civic-minded truck driver were to ram one of the canopy's support columns at full speed.
"Cast iron structures are fairly brittle," explains Charles Roeder, a professor of civil engineering at the UW, referring to the pergola. "Cast iron can fail in a big way, and that's a big problem with cast iron." The convention center canopy is made of steel, which is much stronger stuff. "If you overload steel, it will go through large deformations, but it's less likely to break."
What if someone rammed a truck into one of the convention center canopy's supports? "Perhaps a lot of the glass in the canopy would break," Roeder said, "but one truck ramming a street-level support wouldn't cause the structure to collapse."
Ten trucks? Twenty trucks?
"Well, if you get enough trucks, you might be able to bring all or a part of it down. Or if you put a bomb in a truck--that's happened a number of times in recent years. If someone parks a bomb out there, that's a different story. That might do it."
City Council Member Peter Steinbrueck strongly opposed the construction of the convention center canopy, and the thought of a truck bringing it down had crossed his mind in the wake of pergola's collapse.
In June 1978, "the old West Seattle Bridge was struck by a sea captain who wasn't paying attention to where he was going," observes Steinbrueck. "People had been calling for removal of the old bridge for years, then this 'accident' happened. The lesson, of course, is that a happy accident can sometimes restore something we once had. Views of the waterfront, for instance. You could think of any number of happy accidents that could improve the city."
So if a hundred careless drivers simultaneously rammed the support columns of the butt-ugly, view-blocking convention center canopy, or the Alaskan Way Viaduct, causing both to collapse, Steinbrueck wouldn't be upset?
"Let me be clear: I can't condone or encourage the destruction of public property to do away with things we wish had never been built in the first place," said Steinbrueck. "That would get me in a lot of trouble. I leave the convention center and the Alaskan Way Viaduct in the hands of fate." But if either should be brought down by happy accidents or determined civic activists/terrorists, would Steinbrueck make city funds available to rebuild these blights? "That's a definite no," said Steinbrueck. "I would mourn the tragic loss, of course, and then enjoy the open space and views we once had."