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Sunday, April 4, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

Deference to nature keeps Seattle from becoming world-class city

Special to The Times

Seattle sunsets are raw and bloody things: Good ones look like a busy day at the slaughterhouse, as the sun, or its refracted image, grazes the white peaks of the Olympic Mountains beyond the dark industrial forests on the far side of Puget Sound.

Stuck for a dramatic front-page picture, The Times and the P-I regularly run photos of the previous night's heavenly gore: in the foreground, a container ship plowing northward up the Sound; in the middle distance, low hills of second- and third-growth Douglas firs; the scissored line of background mountains; the sky a wild light show of reds, oranges, and rifts of unearthly green. There must be a cause for these sunsets: The scattering effect of salt particles from the Pacific Ocean in the air and the reflective properties of the Olympic snow fields seem the most likely candidates. Whatever their physics, the spectacular ultramontane sunsets are an important part of Seattle's claim to be "a flower of geography" — as Henry James called the city in 1907, placing it in the company of Cape Town, Rio de Janeiro, Naples, Sydney, and San Francisco.

With mountain ranges front and back, puddled with lakes, and squatting on a reach of sea a hundred fathoms deep, Seattle is up to its ears in nature — rather too much nature for its own good. When the view is not socked in by mist and rain, you can see the great snowy heaps of Mount Rainier to the south and Mount Baker to the north, apparently suspended in mid-air, and even within the city nature is engaged in a perpetual guerrilla operation against culture: In this moist and temperate climate, every unattended patch of ground turns quickly into a little wilderness of bramble, vine, salal. I've watched bald eagles on Fifth Avenue, and picked blackberries on my street.

The boosters like to say that this is a city where you can go skiing in the morning and sailing in the afternoon, which is the line that accounts for the stubbornly unurban style affected by so many Seattleites — GoreTex and Velcro, Birkenstock, North Face, Patagonia, Helly Hansen. If you spot someone wearing a skimpy black cocktail number, you can bet she's a tourist. The residents clump around in gear more suited to the piste, the marina, and the rockface than to a city. The homeless are clad in the castoffs of these outdoor types, so that a gathering of winos in a Seattle back alley looks disconcertingly like an ad hoc convention of dinghy racers or mountaineers.

The truth is that Seattle's intense proximity to nature makes it an unsatisfactory city. Real cities supplant nature — witness the man-made cliffs and canyons of Manhattan, or the labyrinthine, warrenlike character of central London. In a real city, the landmarks are unnatural: the Monument, the dome of St Paul's, Marble Arch, Nelson's Column. Nature, where it is allowed to show its face, must be strictly gardened (St James's Park), or tamed with memorable architecture. When I think of the Thames in London, what springs first to mind is not the river itself but the string of bridges that traverse it: from the pretty pink-and-white confectionery of Albert to the Victorian storybook medievalism of Tower.

Real cities are works of epic communal artifice, and they tend to flourish best on flat, or flattish, land that denies the citizen the chance to compare a cathedral with a living forest, or a skyscraper with a 15,000-foot mountain — comparisons that are always likely to work to the city's disadvantage, making its most audacious flights of fancy look conceited and puny. Had Wren been forced to build his Monument in the foothills of Mount Rainier, it would have had all the nobility and grandeur of a telephone pole.

Since 1852, Seattle has been trying to assert itself against its overpowering geography. After a fire razed the downtown in 1889, the city was rebuilt in the florid style of Wild West classical, part Emperor Vespasian, part Klondike whorehouse, part Harrods. In 1914, the 42-story Smith Tower was completed; for an eyeblink it was the tallest building in the world outside New York, and until 1963 it stood as the tallest building west of the Mississippi. Seattle, chronically height-challenged, puts much store in claims of that sort. The Space Needle — a Dan Dare-era UFO, sitting on top of a wasp-waisted 600-foot pylon — went up in 1961 as the chief icon of Century 21, the Seattle World's Fair. Age has given the Space Needle the wan charm of period kitsch, and there are mornings of thin luminous fog when it loses its habitual air of hangdog provincial aspiration and succeeds in looking spooky; even, almost, monumental.

Lately, Seattle has taken to commissioning internationally famous architects to design buildings that are sufficiently imposing, or eccentric, to wrest the eye from nature and bring it back to the city. Robert Venturi's art museum was already past its post-modernist sell-by date when it was completed in 1991. Frank Gehry has created some wonderful buildings, like the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, but his Seattle effort, the Experience Music Project, is not one of them. EMP squats at the foot of the Space Needle, a garish assemblage of curvilinear modules, supposedly based on the idea of crumpled guitars. People who work at the neighboring TV station call EMP "the hemorrhoids" — and once you hear that wickedly appropriate name it's hard to remember the building by any other.

The most recent architectural novelty, Rem Koolhaas's almost-finished public library, is a genuinely extraordinary creation that has the knack of turning dubious visitors into astonished converts. Seen from the street, Koolhaas's traffic-stopping, cantilevered, gravity-defiant, many-angled stack of toppling glass boxes is a work of extravagant artifice, as ingenious as a trick-picture by M.C. Escher. Inside, it brims with natural light and treats book borrowers and the homeless (always an important sector of a public library's clientele) to million-dollar views of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound. Where Gehry's EMP and Venturi's art museum are effectively windowless, as if the best way of dealing with the competition was to blot it from sight, Koolhaas's library is all window: spectacular in itself, it appropriates the spectacular view as an amenity, as if the wild nature surrounding the city were its private park. It's a refreshingly urban take on Seattle's peculiar predicament. Looking at the new library, you see immediately that Koolhaas isn't overly impressed by forests, mountains, sea, and sunsets: Like pictures on a wall, they have decorative value, prettily enhancing the true wonders of trapezoid steel frames, and copper mesh, and gas-filled glass, and people congregating around the spiral core of shelved books.

Seattle needs this building. Seattleites flatter themselves shamelessly when they say (and they always do) that theirs is "a beautiful city." It's not. It's a nondescript city, spread, in a higgledy-piggledy, low-rise, low-density sprawl, across miles of hills and lakes that were beautiful once, framed by mountains and sea that are beautiful still. It's an unfortunate fact about flowers of geography that they don't bother to work as hard on their appearance as places less favored by nature, like the muddy ford where London got its start, or the salt swamp from which Venice triumphantly arose. So far as architecture and town planning are concerned, Seattle has bothered even less than most. Not that there's a want of money here: Rich Seattle has bought itself all the essential ingredients of metropolitan life — restaurants, theaters, universities, major league sports teams, a first-rate symphony orchestra, opera and ballet companies, a famous rock-music scene, and much else. It's an intricate patchwork of diverse neighborhoods: Any city that requires 161 bridges to connect its different bits together can hardly be accused of lacking complexity.

What's crucially wrong with Seattle is that it has no real consciousness of its own urbanity. It has earned for itself a strange place in urban history, as the first big city to which people have flocked in order to be closer to nature. It likes to boast that it owns more boats, more pairs of skis, more mountain bikes per head of the population than any other city on Earth. Outsiders might read this as an unqualified recommendation of Seattle's charms, but they'd be wrong. Our nature-fixatedness has turned the city into a place where nobody dresses up for anything short of a wedding or a funeral, where dinner parties, arranged weeks beforehand, end on the stroke of ten, where the vital hum and buzz of city living are generally regarded as the regrettable price to be paid for the pleasure of being able to escape into the countryside. As a result, Seattle's social fabric is depressingly threadbare, existing as it does in pockets of underground resistance to the city's prevailing tone.

That's why Rem Koolhaas's library is such a tonic piece of architecture. Here is a thoroughly urbane building, street-smart and witty, which knows how to live on easy terms with the nature around it without ceding an iota of its big-city swagger. It would be nice to think that Seattle might take its new library to heart, and follow its splendid example. It's time Seattle grew up. For the last couple of decades, it has clung to the conceit that it's really an overstuffed Vail or Newport, R.I., which just happens to have an international port, an aircraft factory, a giant software corporation, and a few other useful engines for making money. Now is the moment for it to wake, like Rip Van Winkle, to the realization that sometime while it was out snowboarding and sailing it turned into a metropolis, and must learn to live like one.

Jonathan Raban's books include "Waxwings" (2003), "Passage to Juneau" (1999) and "Bad Land" (1996). This commentary was published March 28 in the London-based Independent newspaper, www.independent.co.uk

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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