Seattle Art Museum's Olympic Sculpture Park, designed by the New York–based firm of Weiss/Manfredi, is a triumph of urban reclamation. While the critical assessment of SAM's sculptural works has been mixed, the 8.5-acre brownfield turned waterfront park has proven to be a hit with the public since it opened last January. There is, however, one key element of the park that has, for the most part, escaped critical scrutiny: the landscape design by Seattle's own Charles Anderson.
Anderson's goals appear to be twofold. By limiting the plant species to natives, he hopes to heal the site of its toxic industrial past by allowing these supposed former occupants to reinhabit the place. Not content to let their arrangement lack a grand concept, he invents a dramatic context: a "mountains to sound" facsimile of the Seattle region laid out upon the compass points and grade changes of the park itself.
While the ideas behind the design speak to a love of the environment and desire for a culture of sustainability, the design fails to take sensory experience into account. Plus, many of the plants themselves, while native to the region at large, are unsuited to the punishing climactic conditions of this exposed site, and suffer as a result.
Throughout history, landscape designers have strived to re-create the scenic effects of the natural world on the vastly reduced scale of the garden. The most refined expression of this tradition took hold in Japan and lives on in the work of most landscape architects today. The designer establishes vantage points throughout the site and composes views that both resemble and represent the natural world's geography and flora. Specific plants are chosen to suggest mountains, woodlands, meadows, lakes, and streams. Their arrangement is intended to create a feeling akin to being in a natural setting.
The Olympic Sculpture Park boasts a wide range of so-called habitats. There is a valley surrounded by conifers that holds Richard Serra's Wake, a grove of quaking aspen where Tony Smith's sculptures are nestled, a trio of meadows of native wildflowers (one is home to Claes Oldenburg's Typewriter Eraser), and an actual shoreline along Elliott Bay. But Anderson's impulse toward restoration leaves us with a design that is literal rather than aesthetic, pedagogical where it should be sensual, and—worst of all—idealized instead of pragmatic. The tendency among contemporary landscape architects to use native plants may be rooted in sound principles of sustainability, but efforts to return sites to their "natural" states by using such species often reflects a sentimental romanticism and can lead, as it does here, to ill-conceived and unappealing public spaces.
Anderson selects plants from specific environments to replicate those environments in the park. The western larch is a deciduous conifer that grows at high elevations in the Cascades, so he places it on the highest, far-eastern edge of the space along Western Avenue. The shore pine, frequently encountered along the coast, is planted along the beach. These seem like appropriate choices until you consider their overall function within the design. The group of pines he has stuck into the sand could someday protect the tiny shoreline cove from blistering winds, but the visitor who arrives there seeking sunshine or views will instead find dark, towering conifers. For the larch, the situation is worse. Planted behind the potentially much larger Douglas firs, they will soon disappear behind them. Their bright orange needles will be invisible to those strolling through the park in late fall when they turn.
When traditional Japanese landscape designers wanted to create a mountainous effect along the outer regions of their parks, they planted pines. Not only were pines commonly seen in their mountains; they also looked like mountains. They did not function simply as specimens from the areas they were meant to represent; they possessed physical properties that established a tangible sense of those areas. Anderson has ignored the underlying visual principle. Plants are given museum-style labels (complete with phonetic pronunciations of their original Salish names), but not dynamic placement.
The dream of an authentically restored landscape precludes such thinking, but the truth is that nonnatives might have succeeded better at creating the intended effect. For a place that is all about rebirth, there is plenty of death in evidence. In mid-August, rows of broadleaf evergreen shrubs and groundcovers (salal, mahonia, kinnikinnick, and huckleberry) had burned to a crispy brown. The stands of Douglas fir and western red cedar were stressed and discolored; some had recently been removed. The remaining leaves on the vine maples had dried up, clinging to the branches in an advanced state of autumnal red, while the Garry oaks were almost completely defoliated. Many of the plants simply do not belong here. Quaking aspens, which make up the landscape design's most claustrophobia-inducing feature, are subject to a host of diseases and do not perform well in Western Washington. The dogwood, an understory or woodland edge tree, doesn't thrive when subjected to blasts of marine air.
But isn't this a sculpture park, after all? If Anderson was unwilling or unable to treat plants as visual, sculptural objects, then perhaps he should have scrapped his concept and instead spent his time establishing the plant textures and colors that at least are suited for large sculptural backdrops. A real native habitat, like West Seattle's dense, old-growth preserve Schmitz Park, is no place for sculpture anyway.