Olympic Sculpture Park is no stranger to accolades and positive reviews. Today’s update is no exception as Seattle is fortunate enough to house this fluid, didactic, sophisticated gem of a park.
Designers Weiss/Manfredi Architects won the international competition in 2005 and completed the project with Charles Anderson Landscape Architects in 2007. The park is open to public with no admission fees and free guided tours. SAM (Seattle Arts Museum) maintains the park operations and sponsors farmers markets, evening events and outdoor exercise in the park.
What began as an industrial port and brownfield gas plant with access to rail and highways has now become one of Seattle’s favorite parks. This says a lot for a city that is home to Dan Kiley’s Discovery Park, The Space Needles 1962 Fair Grounds, Richard Haag’s Gasworks Park, and Larry Halprin’s Freeway Park. Olympic Sculpture Park accomplishes this by properly addressing a multitude of nodes and connecting beautifully with the surrounding architectural and urban forms.
Weiss/Manfredi is a multi-disciplinary firm based in NYC with a holistic approach to the built environment. Their understanding of urban infrastructure and architecture provided vital experience in synthesizing the many conditions. Transportation constraints and pedestrian connectivity were handled with ease as a Z-shaped pedestrian bridge seamlessly moves users on green platforms over a four lane freeway and industry rails. The grading and site work reflects distinct ecological landscapes of the northwest: temperate evergreen, deciduous forest, and shoreline.
At the main entrance, an exhibition pavilion provides parking below and galleries, gift shop and educational areas above.
There are many places to sit, enjoy, reflect, gather and converse. The rigid geometries of the pathways organize but still allow open spaces for improvisation. The north end of Olympic Sculpture Park merges with another park on Elliot’s Bay and provide bike access for commuters and tourists. The bay shoreline becomes a sculpture in itself as driftwood gathers on the beachside inlet.
The park itself exhibits a good range of art throughout the property. Whimsy and cultural appeal describe most of the pieces and tend to produce a smile rather than a tearful awe. Most of the published criticisms are aimed at the ‘Don’t Touch’ instruction plaques and the ‘underdeveloped’ experience of the artists. But for those with average concern for high art, I deem it better than most installations. Each art piece holds its own in the park and are situated very well. This allows great views framed by the art throughout the site.
Beyond the contextual and user oriented successes, the design details excel and shine. Well designed plaques locate beneficial plant species and significant cultural ideas. Crisp edges and clean modern materials mix well with native planting beds and expansive lawns.
Ecology is consistently addressed and provides a necessary teaching element. My favorite installation is a living piece grown in a shade house that consists of thousands of spore and seed bearing species. Most of these fungal and plant species were dwelling on a felled redwood that was trucked to the site and maintained as a public classroom.
James Wheeler is a student of Landscape Architecture and Botany at the University of Florida and a contributing writer to Landscape Invocation.