Take Back the Site: Valerie Smith on the Olympic Sculpture Park

Article excerpt

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 northwestern 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.

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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. …