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Sunday, November 26, 1995 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Architecture / Urban Design

Revitalized Seattle Center Shines Again

Last month, the citizens of Seattle presented a huge love note to the people of Puget Sound. A fresh Seattle Center was revealed in the form of new and renovated buildings, grounds and fountains. Previously a tired, even somewhat tawdry remnant of the '62 World's Fair, the place is now absolutely spectacular.

Back in the late 1980s, Seattle Center was on the verge of being redone by Disney. Instead of a splendid, home-grown regional center, we would have gotten an embarrassingly contrived theme park. Thankfully, the rodent "imagineers" were sent packing.

Instead, Seattle voters passed a bond issue in 1991 taxing themselves to improve the center, despite the fact that it is a regional attraction, used by folks from Stanwood to Steilacoom. Other city monies added $83 million to the pot. Another $7.5 million came from the county and state, and $38 million was contributed by the private sector. The money has been well-spent.

After decades of a fortress-like appearance along Denny Way, the walls have come down. The Pacific Science Center has a sparkling new facade designed by The Callison Partnership - somewhat of a tease since it is only usable by organized tour groups. All of the inward-facing chintzy pavilion buildings left over from the fair, along with the tacky carnival rides, have been removed from the base of the Space Needle.

Opened a year ago, the Charlotte Martin Children's Theatre is one of the most elegant new theaters in the Pacific Northwest. Its artfully articulated front frames a promenade that sweeps in from the west, along the axis of Thomas Street. Usually, a theater's stage house is austere and imposing. This one is like a delicate tapestry. Architects McKinley/Gordon created a centerpiece that is both refined and engaging. Now we just need to bulldoze the mangy old Flag Pavilion so this fine structure really can be seen from a distance.

Perhaps the most dramatic transformation is the KeyArena. Previously a structure that somehow managed to combine dowdiness and kitsch, the former Coliseum is a wonder. NBBJ architects essentially designed a new building inside the old one. There is not a bad seat in the house; from even the furthest seat up, the view is both intimate and comfortable.

Outside, the Buck Rogers space station motif has been replaced by deftly proportioned forms and details that suggest a lighted pagoda. The awkward spaces around the "legs" of the swooping roof are now generously sized, scalloped public spaces, both gracious and intimate.

Another "rediscovered" building is the Center House. Originally an armory, its muscular steel roof trusses have been revealed after years of being obscured by a false and flimsy metal ceiling. This redesign by The Callison Partnership, in collaboration with Van Horne and Van Horne, brings loads of natural light into the space from south-facing windows and skylights.

A new entrance court embellished with fanciful figures by artist Timothy Siciliano provides a dramatic backdrop to the bosk of mature London Plane trees that flank the south side. Siciliano also designed the paving pattern, which takes on the appearance of a finely woven welcome mat.

At the north end of the Center, the space between the Opera House and Intiman Theatre (known as Founder's Court) has been thoroughly reinvigorated by a design by Atelier landscape architects. Previously a rather boring plaza, the area is now more like a walled garden. It's east side is flanked by a whimsically beribboned arcade.

The rather static piece of contemporary sculpture that used to mark the center of this area has been relocated to a more appropriate spot off to the side. A new, quite fascinating, but oddly diminutive fountain has become the focus of attention. Unfortunately, the circular swirling water invites an immediate comparison to a dentist's spitting bowl or another hygienic device of even less social stature.

Finally, the International Fountain at the heart of the Center has never been better. It is surrounded by a combination of sloping grass and finely detailed paving designed by landscape architects Nakano/Dennis and TRA Architects.

The fountain, by WET Design, is magnificently animated. With its acrobatic jets and steam, it appears at times like liquid fireworks. Nakano's original concept was a grand and gracious space extending toward the south all the way to the Children's Theatre. We can hope money will be found to build it soon.

Care has been taken to ensure that the Center is usable by all people. Even skateboarders are welcome to use a specially designed space. The underlying intent is to present a venue for many events while creating a lasting, gracious public place - one that celebrates the joy of everyday living.

Seattle Center is clearly in good hands. With strong direction from the passionate and driven zeal of Director Virginia Anderson and a variety of organizations and institutions, Seattle Center has come alive. It is fun and lively. Like a fine old piece of familiar furniture that has been lovingly restored and embellished, the place simply shines.

Mark L. Hinshaw is a private consultant who provides urban design services to local governments. His column runs monthly in the Home/Real Estate section of The Seattle Times.

Copyright (c) 1995 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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