Review: Olympic Sculpture Park – Seattle, WA

Words and photography by Peter Secan

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Outdoor art offers an interesting and often confrontational dichotomy between the fragility of fine art and the durability of exterior exposition. Each piece must be too beautiful and precious to touch yet durable enough to stand up to Mother Nature and Father Time. Not only does the Olympic Sculpture Park house over a dozen such pieces, but it does so without ignoring its obligatory thread within the urban fabric of a metropolitan setting. Somewhere between teetering on the unbalanced and transforming the urban experience, the Olympic Sculpture Park in Seattle, Washington represents one of the most eclectic, daunting and viscerally moving collections of outdoor art on the entire West Coast.
 
Rather than focus on a few select works, I feel it is appropriate to paint a more holistic picture of the grounds, its surroundings, and how it all meshes to create a larger and more profound piece of urban art. Critically viewing individual pieces from within a vacuum would be to ignore the very thing that makes them special. It’s about place, not about object.
 
A recent trip through the undulating switch backs and landscape-cutting mess of pathways reminded me of just how special the park is, especially on a rare sunny afternoon in the city. Light and shadow play a particularly candid role when the sun is out, making the scale of pieces such as Alexander Calder’s Eagle and Richard Serra’s Wake appear less human and more alien. If the promise of the designers was to rip the perception out of the grasps of the masses, then the Olympic Sculpture Park endlessly delivers. Completing the journey through the park’s meandering footpaths will leave you feeling as though you’ve just pulled your brain from an over-timed tumble dry. And I mean that in the best possible way.
 
Open since 2006, the OSP displays a progressive take on public gathering spaces. It creates decidedly unique processions depending on how you are moving through it. Whether by vehicle, bicycle or foot, the experience changes with distinct and deliberate glimpses of the parks offerings, all in an attempt to draw you into the fairy tale. Works such as the aforementioned Calder masterpiece, along with Claes Oldenberg’s Typewriter Eraser, Scale X provide car commuters with a tantalizing taste that screams, “park your car and explore!” And explore you shall.
 
It’s easy to get lost as you wander the grounds. Stumbling upon areas like the one that surrounds Tony Smith’s Stinger will have you believing that you were the first one to discover it. It truly is an exploration. While the OSP lacks the intense feeling of urban removal that Central Park might create, it takes advantage of its modest footprint by embracing its surroundings, even using them as podiums for which the artwork is displayed. Puget Sound provides the perfect serene backdrop for Mark di Suvero’s Bunyon’s Chess. Pick out the right grassy knoll and Calder’s Eagle appears to be holding hands with the Space Needle. New York based firm Weiss/Manfredi Architects meticulously crafted the master plan to accentuate each piece’s visual and emotional impact.
 
In addition to the park’s introverted beauty, it acts as a well-placed bookend to Seattle’s famous downtown waterfront. Like a large planet whipping a close-passing meteor back into space, the sculpture park takes you from the waterfront, spins you around, and spits you back out into the heart of Seattle’s robust food and drink culture. It’s because of this that the OSP is best served as the third or fourth course of a seven course urban tour. It is better that you understand the aesthetic and cultural context of the city that the park resides in. Do that and the sights, smells and sounds will be that much more potent. Go to Pike Place Market. Go to the Public Library. Go to Capitol Hill. Do these things on your way to the park. I promise you will walk away with a different set of impressions depending on what you saw and where you were prior to visiting the park. The museum doesn’t have to perpetually rotate exhibits in order to keep even the most artistically pretentious Seattleite from coming back.
 
If you find yourself in Seattle it would definitely be in your best interest to pay the Sculpture Park a visit. While I firmly believe it is a locale that is best experienced as an accidental waypoint on your way through the city, you’d be remiss not to plant it in the list of top five things to do while you’re in Seattle. It’s that good. But more than that, it’s an important step for a downtown screaming for vibrant, one-of-a-kind open spaces. The growing popularity of the OSP will hopefully spur the city to invest in future projects that achieve the same level of artistic and spatial sophistication. We would all be so lucky.
 
Peter Secan lives and works as an architect in training in Seattle, Washington. He is a project manager for Hybrid Architecture and Assembly, a small design/build firm that specializes in sustainable design, and pre-fabricated, modular building construction. He is passionate about life and writing about life, which is on display at his blog, www.thatpoorarchitect.com. Follow me on twitter (@PoorArchitect).

About Bloice Davison

Bloice C. Davison, III blogs, travels occasionally, and takes pictures. He has experience in the telecommunications, banking, retailing and outside sales businesses. He is a former fly-fishing guide and fly-fishing instructor for the Orvis Company. He served as an Aircraft Maintenance Specialist in the United States Air Force. A 1988 graduate of Virginia Tech, he also has a BS in statistics from the Metropolitan State College of Denver.

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