Open and Shut

The indoor/outdoor sculpture park pavilion makes a case for site-friendly design. Will Seattle listen?

A sneak peek at the Olympic Sculpture Park construction site last week showed that one of the biggest surprises of the Seattle Art Museum's new outdoor wing might be indoors. A 7,000-square-foot pavilion designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architects promises to be one of the highlights of the project.

The low-lying glass and steel structure, which steps down the hill like some kind of high-tech experiment in terrace farming, anchors the park's main entrance at Western Avenue and Broad Street. It shows an open face to Broad but keeps a low profile that will not dominate the park or the sculptures installed there.

Inside, there are few walls, so you can roam from place to place, but the pavilion is small enough that it doesn't feel cavernous. It houses a cafe, coatrooms, exhibition space, a reading area that will stock books on sculpture, rest rooms, offices, and an informal classroom. A large gathering area with a view of the garden and Elliott Bay will be rented for weddings and corporate functions (an important source of revenue for the park, since it's free to the public). The two sides of the building facing the garden are lined with windows, and on sunny days, many of them will open to let the outside in.

Overall, the pavilion has a porous quality and pedestrian scale that too many of Seattle's highly touted new civic structures lack. Think of Rem Koolhaas' Seattle Public Library: an architectural thrill ride inside, but bland and unfriendly at its main entrance on Fourth Avenue. Or Benaroya Hall: an acoustic bull's-eye, but flat and functional on the Third Avenue side—a windswept bus stop. Or, sadly, the Seattle Art Museum's new stainless steel high-rise addition downtown: Was Allied Works Architecture trying to make it look like a JCPenney store, circa 1976? (Or maybe a bank, since SAM will share the building with Washington Mutual?) If so, they were wildly successful.

Museum staffers promise that the interior of SAM downtown will be more inviting, with two floors of free exhibits and activities and interactive features. And it's easy to imagine that the gallery spaces will be an improvement over those in the old facility (designed by Robert Venturi and considered by some to be a failure, with its cutesy facade and the huge "stairway to nowhere" at the entrance). But when will Seattle's cultural tinkerers learn that the way a building "talks" to its surroundings is as important as what's inside it?

Maybe after the Olympic Sculpture Park pavilion opens to the public in October. Or so we can hope.

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