All posts in “Weiss/Manfredi”

Shaping New Sightlines: The Olympic Sculpture Park’s Evolving Landscape

Walking through the Grove at the Olympic Sculpture Park, it’s easy to forget you’re in a city. As the path descends, the flickering Aspen leaves, purple pops of Oregon grapes, and thick layers of ferns make the urban landscape feel suddenly distant. One could almost mistake the path for a hike outside city limits were it not for the landmark that emerges at the end: Tony Smith’s sculpture Stinger, a square, geometric fortress made of slick, black steel.

The Olympic Sculpture Park’s landscape merges artistic, natural, and urban landscapes of the Pacific

Northwest, via the innovative design by architects Weiss/Manfredi and Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture. The Z-shaped Mosley and Benaroya paths guide visitors from the PACCAR Pavilion and surrounding cityscape at Elliott Avenue and Broad Street, down 40 feet to the waterfront below, bringing them through four landscapes that reference regional ecosystems along the way: the Valley, the Meadows, the Grove, and the Shore.

When the sculpture park opened in 2007, the plant palettes that filled those environments were 95% native to the region—an unusual accomplishment at the time and one that established the park as an early model for future parks’ design. Julie Parrett, a former project manager for Charles Anderson Landscape Architecture, explained, “Ten years ago, there weren’t a lot of examples of corporate campuses or institutions that were working with native plants extensively. A couple of universities were doing it but it was pretty rare. . . . One of the unexpected outcomes was creating habitats that we didn’t even necessarily know we would create, for both birds and marine life.”

Over the past ten years, the park’s landscape thickened and flourished around the sculptures and architecture, filling in with denser grasses and taller trees. This is due in part to the way the native plant species are maintained with limited human intervention. Bobby McCullough, Head Gardener since the sculpture park opened, described, “Unlike strict, well-groomed, extremely maintained gardens, the sculpture park landscape is meant to constantly evolve, so we have to let it grow as it succeeds and replace what fails.”

Humans aren’t the only species to appreciate this approach. The natural landscape has also encouraged wildlife to return to the once-toxic stretch of Seattle’s urban core. McCullough pointed to the Shore as an example of a new habitat that has become established since the park’s opening: “We allowed the shrubbery and grasses along the waterfront to grow more on the natural side, which has enabled it to become a bird sanctuary. Even though we clean it up once a year to remove the dead grass, we try not to touch it very much because it’s become an active habitat area.”

The Olympic Sculpture Park experience feels especially unique in the moments when the landscape, art, and design come together before our eyes. Whether this happens while sitting on one of Louise Bourgeois’s Eye Benches, spotting a seal on the Puget Sound, or watching crows perch in the steel branches of Roxy Paine’s Split, the land brings new insights to the way we see the art, and the art frames the natural world in ways we wouldn’t ordinarily see. Over time, the park’s sightlines will continue to shift and evolve, promising new encounters with every visit.

—Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager

This post is the fourth installment in a series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over the course of this year, we will continue reflecting on the Park’s evolution over the past decade.

Images: Photo: Natali Wiseman. Photo: Benjamin Benschneider. Photo: Paul Macapia. Photo: Paul Macapia. Photo: Paul Macapia. Photo: Paul Macapia.
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The Park In Balance: Siting the Olympic Sculpture Park Collection

Walking through the nature and art of the Olympic Sculpture Park, from the low-lying valley around Richard Serra’s Wake to the span of open water that fills the sightlines of Jaume Plensa’s Echo, one experiences an impeccable balance of nature and whimsy. “I think the way all of the art in the park works together, in combination with the way everything is spaciously placed, is what makes the Olympic Sculpture Park truly unique. You have breathtaking views, while the art can really stand on its own and be appreciated,” said Catharina Manchanda, SAM’s Jon and Mary Shirley Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art.

But, the process of achieving this effect was far from simple. SAM’s former Director of Exhibit Design, Michael McCafferty, led the process of arranging the park’s permanent sculptures within Weiss/Manfredi’s architectural design while collaborating with artists, curators, museum staff, and other partners. McCafferty approached the placement of the art as if he were working with a “very complex gallery”—a larger, outdoor version of the exhibit spaces he designed at SAM’s downtown location and the Asian Art Museum. He worked with a to-scale model of the Park that included the varied topography of its landscape, as well as miniature, hand-painted versions of most of the 21 works that were on view when the Park opened.

McCafferty began by placing the largest pieces that would be on view, such as The Eagle by Alexander Calder, the Sculpture Park’s founding gift from trustees Jon and Mary Shirley, as well as Stinger by Tony Smith and Typewriter Eraser, Scale X by Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen. “I would take the various models of the sculptures and move them around and around, considering the best viewing angles for someone who will walk all the way around the piece while they’re in the park and also for someone driving along Elliott Avenue,” McCafferty said. The medium and smaller sized works were then sited, through a design that balanced their weights and masses with the larger sculptures and the landscape, in a spirit he likened to a Japanese garden.

Over the past ten years, the park has grown and changed. The Aspen trees around Stinger stretch taller, the grass beneath The Eagle has thickened and new sculptures have entered the collection. One of the most recent is Jaume Plensa’s Echo, a large-scale piece depicting a tranquil visage that was donated by trustee Barney Ebsworth in 2013. Maintaining the approach established during the Park’s initial design, Echo’s placement, looking out onto the Puget Sound, was made by considering the pedestrians and cyclists who pass beneath it, as well as those who approach it from the water. The location of Echo also thrilled the artist, as Ebsworth described: “Jaume Plensa said how wonderful the placement overlooking the Olympic Mountains is because the sculpture’s subject is from Greek mythology. It’s perfect because Echo looks out towards Mount Olympus.” This siting of Echo between nature and art, between open space and calculated design, between land and sea—embodies the ethos that makes the Olympic Sculpture Park a uniquely Seattle place to experience art.

This post is the second in our series of stories exploring the history of the Olympic Sculpture Park in celebration of its 10th anniversary. Over the course of this year, we will continue reflecting on the Park’s evolution over the past decade.

—Erin Langner, Freelance Arts Writer and Former SAM Adult Public Programs Manager

 Photos: Paul Macapia
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