Landscape Architecture Magazine — December 2016
Change Language:
Angles Entangled
Fred A. Bernstein


IN 2006, the artist Mark Dion had a fallen 60- foot western hemlock trunk transported to a small, custom-built greenhouse in Seattle’s Olympic Sculpture Park. Since January 2007, when the park opened, visitors have watched the log sprout masses of ferns and moss as it decays. Park employees—who, with input from Dion, decide what to trim and what to leave alone—are part conservators, part gardeners, part God.

In fact, the greenhouse is a microcosm of the park, which also mixes art and nature. A branch of the Seattle Art Museum, it is dotted with 20 monumental sculptures as well as 85,000 plants maintained with almost no chemical herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers. The landscape plan by WERK Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture called for representations of typical Pacific Northwest environments— from mountainside to beach. That made it ambitious enough without the need to accommodate permanent installations by Richard Serra, Mark di Suvero, Louise Bourgeois, and others, as well as temporary displays. “All surfaces—turf, meadows, planting beds, hardscape—can accept art, and do,” says Julie Parrett, ASLA, a landscape architect who worked on the creation of the park and now serves as its landscape curator. Art curators charged with protecting the valuable sculptures, who might prefer to see them in climate-controlled rooms, have to put up with the unpredictability of plants growing close to the sculptures. “We used 95 percent native plants, and native plants can sometimes misbehave,” Parrett says.

On the side of Mother Nature is Mimi Gardner Gates, who on a recent afternoon surveyed a meadow with plenty of imperfections, including bald spots (the meadows are not irrigated, and some patches burn out each summer) and clumps of wildflowers past their prime. “I like the messiness,” said Gates, who, as director of the Seattle Art Museum from 1994 to 2009, conceived the park as a place to show sculptures too large for the museum. But messiness has its limits; as Gates spoke, trees were being trimmed to keep from endangering people or sculptures.

Green space or gallery? More and more, Gates and others see the sculptures as a means to an end: a badly-needed urban park. “As the city gets denser,” she says, “the open space is ever more essential.” With condo buildings all around it, the park gets an estimated 300,000 visitors a year, not all of them drawn by art. Dogs (on leashes) are ubiquitous, and their urine has killed grass. The head gardener, Bobby McCullough, has responded by applying fish compost to affected areas, increasing irrigation, and occasionally fencing off patches of lawn for necessary downtime. Parrett says that, to its credit, the museum is committed to “adaptive management”—observing what is working and not working, and responding accordingly. Its commitment is evidenced, she said, by its decision to employ full-time on-site gardeners (and to increase their hours as invasive plants, such as horsetail, began proliferating) and to conduct annual reviews of the condition of the park, actively overseen by museum management and trustees.

When the museum bought the 8.5-acre site for $20 million, it was a defunct fuel storage facility in the final stages of an environmental cleanup. Descending steeply from the gentrifying Bell-town neighborhood to the city’s waterfront, it was sliced by a four-lane roadway and active railroad tracks. During an invited competition, the New York architects Marion Weiss, Affiliate ASLA, and Michael Manfredi, Affiliate ASLA, proposed creating a continuous terrain that zigzagged down the hill. Without that type of intervention, says Marion Weiss, “It would have been three parks and two bridges,” instead of what it became: “one park that would begin at the city and wander to the water’s edge.”

Jon Shirley, who with his late wife, Mary, was the park’s biggest donor, says the zigzag was worth every penny. The park cost $40 million to build. “Of course it could have been done cheaper,” Shirley says. “But Weiss/Manfredi made the bridges disappear. It’s brilliant.” Indeed, the park has won numerous architecture awards and become (along with the High Line) the progenitor of a new generation of public spaces that make the most of infrastructural entanglements.

The Shirleys (he is a former president of Microsoft) not only paid much of the cost of the park, which they chose to name for the Olympic Mountains, but also gave the museum $20 million for upkeep. Some was spent on repairs in the early years. “At one point, there was a small drainage problem,” says the hands-on benefactor. “We had to get two or three engineering firms to come out, until we found one that knew what to do.”

The Shirleys’ endowment allowed a committee that included Chris Rogers, the museum’s director of capital projects at the time the park was built, and now head of Point32, a project management company in Seattle, to conduct a five-year assessment of the park’s condition. One conclusion was that the park would benefit from a “landscape curator” to address ongoing issues—a role Parrett assumed. Weiss and Manfredi were brought back in to make a few tweaks, mostly where people had been taking shortcuts around the zigzag’s acute angles. One patch of trampled grass was replaced by a concrete chevron, and a vulnerable flower bed was raised behind a new V-shaped retaining wall.

But the maintenance of the artworks has, if anything, been trickier than the maintenance of the park itself. Waterborne salt makes the air corrosive. The bright red Alexander Calder Eagle, donated by the Shirleys, has to be repainted every few years; other pieces have wax or acrylic coatings that are inspected often and replaced annually. Then there is intentional, or accidental, vandalism. Visitors have climbed on Tony Smith’s Stinger, damaging its matte black surface, and carved their names on Richard Serra’s rusty-metal Wake. Signs warn visitors to stay off the sculptures. Not surprisingly, new gifts to the park are now expected to include money for upkeep. “We learned, and now we are frank with the donors,” Shirley says. “We can’t just say ‘thank you’ and accept the gift.”

And yet the gifts keep coming. Shirley, who is 78, has bequeathed seven pieces from his personal collection, including a Claes Oldenburg safety pin, to the museum; their locations in the park have already been chosen. But does a park with an Oldenburg typewriter eraser need a second pop-art implement? Other sculptures, from other bequests, will also end up in the park. Could this “art system” someday have too much art? According to museum spokesperson Rachel Eggers, “Ultimately, we will run out of space. The limit is not determined by the number of sculptures but by the aesthetics. Each work has to look stellar, and the relationships between sculptures have to be strong.”

Fair enough. But the park may be approaching that limit. Visitors should be allowed to enjoy Weiss/ Manfredi’s architecture, landscapes by Charles Anderson, FASLA, and views that include Mount Rainier and Seattle’s iconic Space Needle without feeling hemmed in by sculptures. True, the park was created by an art museum. But the museum needs to recognize that to many residents, the key word in “Olympic Sculpture Park” is “park.”