Olympic Sculpture Park

Seattle, Washington
Weiss/Manfredi Architecture/Landscape/Urbanism

Weiss/Manfredi weaves the Olympic Sculpture Park and its mix of art and design into the urban fabric of Seattle

By Clifford A. Pearson

Architects talk a lot about “landscape” these days, using the word in so many different ways it’s often hard to know what they mean. Is the reference literal or metaphorical? Does it encompass buildings as well as landforms? Is it just a fancy way of saying “context”? Marion Weiss, AIA, and Michael Manfredi, FAIA, have spent most of their careers wrestling with this slippery concept. Their design of the $85 million Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle takes the notion of combining architecture and landscape even further, adding art and infrastructure to a heady mix of components. While some architects have tried to blur the lines between these disciplines, Weiss/Manfredi has knitted them together here, so you can see the seams and the stitches.

Centro Das Artes – Casa Das Mudas
Photography: © Paul Warchol
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The sculpture park occupies a spectacular 8.5-acre site adjacent to the gentrifying Belltown neighborhood and overlooking Puget Sound. But for most of the 20th century, the property served as a fuel storage and transfer facility for Union Oil of California (UNOCAL). In the 1990s, UNOCAL worked with the state to remove 120,000 tons of petroleum-contaminated soil, then prepared to sell the site to developers wanting to put up condos. The Seattle Art Museum, though, had a different idea for the parcel, and with a sizable donation from its chairman, Jon Shirley (who had been president of Microsoft), it bought the land in 1999 for $17 million to create an outdoor venue for showing sculpture. It held an international design competition in which 52 firms participated and selected Weiss/Manfredi on the strength of a scheme that uses a Z-shaped path to define a series of zones for displaying art, and to take visitors from the city’s edge to the waterfront.

The site, however, posed serious challenges for the designers. Although UNOCAL had already removed the contaminated soil, contractors had to bring in new soil, rebuild a seawall, and create an underwater habitat for young salmon. The property also came with active railroad tracks and a major street (Elliott Avenue) slicing through it. Running parallel to the water, the railroad and the street—which had to stay open during and after construction—essentially cut the site into three pieces. Weiss and Manfredi addressed these obstacles with their zigzagging path, a simple but visually powerful device that bridges first Elliott Avenue, then the railroad, and serves as an essential element unifying the entire scheme. They emphasized cuts in the land where the street and railroad run below by building retaining and supporting walls out of angled, sloping panels of precast concrete, a strategy that also enhances a sense of layering.

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