PRINT September 2006

US News

the Olympic Sculpture Park

THE GARDEN DESIGNED with sculptural embellishments has an ancient history, but usage of the public park as a gallery for art first developed in Britain after World War II. The Western park as a site created specifically for the display of sculpture is still more recent, and only a handful exist. Even in such rarefied company, the Seattle Art Museum’s Olympic Sculpture Park, set to open in October, stands out: The site is intended not only as a home for the institution’s major collection of primarily American modern and contemporary sculpture but also as a brownfield redevelopment project, a showcase of four different north- western ecologies, and a restoration of the Chinook salmon’s natural habitat. The 8.5-acre terrain in the city’s downtown will be the third venue for SAM (the museum, whose own building is in the midst of an expansion, also oversees the Seattle Asian Art Museum), but it is by far the most complex.

The “Emerald City” is celebrated for its beautiful parks and is experiencing an architectural renaissance, with buildings by Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, and Robert Venturi. Seattle is also a center of public art dating back to the ’60s and ’70s—much of it commissioned by local collectors Virginia and Bagley Wright, who have now donated numerous works to the Olympic Sculpture Park. However, this project presented both a unique opportunity and a tremendous challenge. “It was an orphaned site, a tortured site,” according to Michael Manfredi of Weiss/ Manfredi Architects, the lead designers. The land’s previous owner, Union Oil of California (Unocal), had soaked the soil and groundwater with petroleum, and a decade of work had not removed all the pollution. A first step in the SAM project, then, was to move more than 200,000 cubic yards of dirt—half of it recycled from the museum building’s construction project—to the site, where the earth capped the remaining contamination as well as re-formed part of the historic profile that had been leveled to make way for development at the turn of the twentieth century.

A second matter was how to make a unified park from a site broken into three discrete areas by railroad tracks and a busy roadway. The architects’ solution was to connect the sites in a Z shape, creating a single strip of landscape that poetically wanders down to the edge of Elliott Bay. Lisa Corrin, SAM’s former chief curator and deputy director, explains that the layout “develops the history of sculpture in a nonlinear way—as moments.” Many works were sited with the artists’ assistance, and the sculptures seem well placed in their new location. Richard Serra’s Wake, 2002–2003, an undulating series of five forms, takes on new meaning given its proximity to Puget Sound and the region’s shipbuilding industry; Mark di Suvero’s kinetic Schubert Sonata, 1992, positioned by the shore, is stirred by the bay winds. Other major works include six granite benches by Louise Bourgeois (Eye Benches I, II, and III, 1996–97) as well as a fountain she created especially for the park; and two pieces by Tony Smith, Stinger, 1967–68, and Wandering Rocks, 1967. At the park’s highest point stands Alexander Calder’s red Eagle, 1971, welcoming visitors with a patriotic flourish.

While these standard-bearers of American sculpture immediately announce the Olympic Sculpture Park as a destination spot, more interesting are the site-specific commissions that respond directly to the park’s landscape and design. “I always thought that the artist and the architect were like the snake and the mongoose,” jokes Mark Dion, whose Seattle Vivarium, 2004–2006, was planned with Weiss/Manfredi to echo the park’s mission to highlight Seattle’s environmental as well as cultural heritage. The work features a sixty-foot Western hemlock (the official state tree of Washington) nurse log that the artist found after months of searching forests for the perfect specimen. Housed within an eighty-foot greenhouse, the decaying tree will provide nourishment for new plants to grow. Dion sees this ecological learning lab as “an ambassador for future generations of forests.” Another work, Teresita Fernández’s Seattle Cloud Cover, 2004–2006, functions as architecture, infrastructure, and art. Enclosing a walkway that crosses the train tracks, it comprises sixty-six sections of glass that sandwich an interlayer of images of clouds and skies. The piece responds to the moody Seattle weather, becoming what Fernández calls “a constantly shifting event.” Also contributing is the Seattle-based artist Roy McMakin, whose Love & Loss, 2005, Corrin describes as “furniture with content”—the letters of its title are spelled out with seating, a table, a pool, a path, and an illuminated pole.

In addition to the permanent collection, the park will host temporary exhibitions both outside and within a Miesian glass-and-steel pavilion that provides breathtaking views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains beyond. For a city with as strong an outdoors culture as Seattle, it only makes sense that art become part of the local ecology.

Valerie Smith is chief curator and director of exhibitions at the Queens Museum of Art, New York.