Northwest Travel: Seattle Center

New Chihuly Glass House and Garden highlights 50-year anniversary

John Gottberg Anderson / For the Bulletin /

Published May 20, 2012 at 05:00AM

SEATTLE — They are like something described in the rock opera “Hair” — curly, gleaming, streaming, twisted, flowered, bangled, tangled, spangled and spaghettied.

As primped and coiled as Medusa's serpentine hair, they are sea forms and baskets, vases and chandeliers, towers and flowers. Their colors are more than you'll see in the rainbow, and with nighttime illumination, they increase the wow factor at the Space Needle tenfold.

Made entirely of hand-blown glass, these works are the magnum opus of Puget Sound native and internationally renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly. Today, at the foot of Seattle's iconic Space Needle, the collection will be revealed to the general public.

Known as the Chihuly Garden and Glass, this magnificent contribution to art lovers comes on the occasion of the 50th birthday of Seattle Center, on the site of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair. In a city that abounds in cutting-edge architecture and design, it may be the boldest creation since the Space Needle itself was erected.

Chihuly, who never met a color he didn't like, broke ground on the project last August, a few weeks before he turned 70. It took him and his team just nine months (and $20 million) to develop a 1 1/2-acre plot, repurposing an old exhibition hall and building a new glass house surrounded by a garden that blends fanciful glass foliage with the real thing.

Meanwhile, the rest of the 74-acre Seattle Center is finding myriad ways to celebrate its first half century. From the Space Needle to the International Fountain Pavilion — from the Pacific Science Center to the EMP Museum, the Seattle Center Monorail to the KeyArena and the theaters lining Mercer Street to the headquarters of the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation — the city's cultural hub is pulling out all the stops in recalling its roots.

Childhood memories

Back in 1962, the Seattle World's Fair was called the Century 21 Exposition. It spread along the base of Queen Anne Hill and was linked to downtown Seattle by a mile-long monorail — the country's first commercial monorail and an engineering marvel of its time.

As a child, attending with my family, I was fascinated not only by the monorail and the Space Needle, but also by the variety of international pavilions and by an exhibit mounted by NASA less than a year after the first Americans were launched into the stratosphere.

Some of my memories were rekindled last week when I visited the “Celebrating Century 21” exhibit assembled by Seattle's Museum of History and Industry. In particular, a display of artifacts and photographs — most of them kitschy and quirky, from Space Needle ashtrays to fashions of the times — brought a smile to my face.

Here, for instance, I could hear part of the soundtrack from Elvis Presley's movie, “It Happened at the World's Fair.” A photo of the Bubbleator, a giant elevator designed like a see-through beach ball that lifted visitors between the basement and the second floor of the Center House, reminded me that I had once been a passenger.

At the exhibit I met Amy Nikaitani, who 50 years ago worked as an artist beside the International Fountain. Earning extra dollars for her family, she painted pastel portraits of fairgoers from morning till night. Still lively at 88, she sat beside the International Fountain and showed me a journal and sketchbook that she had kept during the fair.

Some 2.3 million visitors attended the 1962 fair, which ran from April 21 to Oct. 21. When it ended, the Space Needle and U.S. Science Pavilion reopened to the public, the latter as the Pacific Science Center. Other buildings, including the Center House (formerly the Seattle Armory), the Coliseum (later to become KeyArena), the Century 21 Playhouse (renamed Seattle Repertory Theatre) and the Opera House (renamed Marion Oliver McCaw Hall) were retained, along with Memorial Stadium, home of everything from rock concerts to high school football.

Many years later, the first major new addition to the Center grounds was the startlingly avant-garde Experience Music Project (now the EMP Museum), architect Frank O. Gehry's landmark structure, which opened in June 2000.

The Space Needle

When it was built in 1961, the Space Needle was the tallest building in North America west of the Mississippi River. Today, at 605 feet, it is merely the tallest building in its neighborhood of Lower Queen Anne. But its remarkable and creative design has made it a symbol of the modern Pacific Northwest like no other.

Three men and a cocktail napkin are credited with giving the Needle its unique look. Legend maintains that a casual sketch (of a tower with a revolving restaurant) by hotel and airline executive Edward Carlson was its point of conception. Architect John Graham Jr. decided to make the restaurant look like a flying saucer, while architect Victor Steinbrueck devised the hourglass profile.

Contractor Howard S. Wright II built the Needle to withstand 200-mph winds and a 9.1-magnitude earthquake. It was Wright's descendants, who still own the structure and its footprint, who approached Dale Chihuly about building his garden of glass.

Today, a valet parking circle fronts the Space Needle's ground floor. Inside, a large gift shop surrounds a ticket desk. I paid for a ride to the observation deck and, along with about 15 others, boarded a glass-sided elevator that took me up 519 feet in just 43 seconds.

From this vantage point, on a clear and sunny day, I could see from the Cascade Range to the Olympic Mountains, and seemingly each feature of every Seattle neighborhood. I watched as float planes landed on Lake Union, ferries crossed Elliott Bay to Bremerton, container ships unloaded their cargo at the mouth of the Duwamish River, and a solid stream of traffic crossed the Evergreen Point Bridge to Bellevue and Kirkland.

On the level below the observation deck, the Sky City restaurant makes a full 360-degree revolution once every 47 minutes, affording diners the opportunity to perceive the entire cityscape without leaving their seats. The view of sights directly beneath the Needle, including the Chihuly garden and the EMP Museum, is better from this angle than it is from above.

The EMP Museum

From the Space Needle, the EMP appears as a mangled mass of shiny, colorful metallic panels drawn together by a track of disjointed strings from the neck of a guitar. It looks like a musical instrument that has been smashed onstage, and that may be no accident.

Software pioneer and philanthropist Paul Allen foresaw the museum as an homage to his childhood hero, rock musician Jimi Hendrix, a Seattle native who achieved international fame in the late 1960s. Hendrix, whose landmark “Are You Experienced?” album helped to name the museum, would be a bridge to the rich musical heritage of the Pacific Northwest, where bands like the Kingsmen, Paul Revere and the Raiders, Heart, Nirvana and Pearl Jam could also have their stories told.

But Allen believed the Experience Music Project should offer a hands-on opportunity for visitors to involve themselves in the music. To that end, the EMP includes instructional studios and sound booths where guitarists, drummers and keyboard players can practice riffs and jam with one another. It also features videotaped oral histories where visitors can watch and listen to the music and memories of famous and not-so-famous performers and producers.

The centerpiece exhibit is a two-story-tall, tornado-shaped sculpture built of 500 electric guitars and other instruments. Designed by the artist Trimpin, “If VI Was IX: Roots and Branches” is a computer-controlled structure that plays a remarkable range of music. The guitars are self-tuning, their pegs regulated to shift whenever the pitch registers as too sharp or too flat.

“If VI Was IX” stands outside the entrance to the Hendrix exhibit and the Guitar Gallery, which displays a rich history of guitars beginning with an 1840 Martin. Headphones encourage visitors to interact with all of the exhibits, listening to music and personal histories of such bands as Seattle's own Nirvana and Australia's AC/DC, both of them featured through the summer.

Four years after the EMP opened, Allen added a Science Fiction Museum in the south wing. It has since been melded with the museum as a whole, but continues to offer a unique set of exhibits.

“The Lure of Horror Films” recommends the greatest scary films of all time; it features a soundproof “scream booth,” where visitors may practice bloodcurdling responses to fright-night moments. “Avatar” describes in detail the special effects employed in James Cameron's Oscar-winning 2010 movie. Beginning June 9, “Icons of Science Fiction” will display a wide-ranging collection of memorabilia used in films from “Star Trek” to “Terminator.”

Linking the music and science-fiction sides of the museum is the cathedral-like Sky Church. By day, music videos are played on a giant screen; many evenings, popular bands perform here for after-hours events.

Architect Gehry, renowned for such buildings as the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain, did not initially hear the same degree of acclaim for his design of the EMP. Forbes magazine even called it one of the world's 10 ugliest buildings. But with the passage of time, the strange structure has become more accepted.

The Science Center

By contrast, the latticework towers at the entrance to the Pacific Science Center, designed by Minoru Yamasaki, have always been embraced as an integral part of Seattle Center. That's ironic in a way, as Science Center officials staunchly defend their independence.

“While we are close neighbors, Pacific Science Center is actually not affiliated with Seattle Center,” said media and public-relations manager Wendy Malloy. “That being said, we are also celebrating our 50th anniversary, independent of Seattle Center, in October.”

Built as the United States Science Pavilion for the world's fair, the Pacific Science Center was founded — when the fair ended — as the first private, not-for-profit American museum dedicated to science and technology.

Its five exhibition halls, which horseshoe around a large central water court, include a variety of child-oriented educational exhibits. Among them are displays on dinosaurs, butterflies and other insects, marine life, health and wellness, computer technology and basic physics. There's also an IMAX theater, a Laser Dome and a planetarium.

A highlight of this birthday year is the return of the acclaimed King Tut exhibition. Beginning Thursday and continuing through the Jan. 6, 2013, “Tutankhamun: The Golden King and the Great Pharaohs” will showcase more than 100 objects from Tut's tomb and other sites representing 2,000 years of ancient Egyptian history. Promoters promise more than twice the number of artifacts seen when the original Tut exhibit passed through Seattle in 1978.

Summertime events

Elsewhere around Seattle Center, there will be plenty going on all summer.

In KeyArena, the Seattle Storm women's professional basketball team plays a May-through-September season. A busy concert schedule will be highlighted by back-to-back shows by Madonna on Oct. 2 and 3. The theatrical season will feature Seattle Opera and Pacific Northwest Ballet performances in McCaw Hall.

Major festivals scheduled at Seattle Center include the Seattle International Film Festival (now through June 10), the Northwest Folklife Festival (May 25-28), Seattle Pridefest (June 24), Bite of Seattle (July 20-22) and the Bumbershoot music-and-arts festival (Sept. 1-3). On Oct. 21, the Seattle Symphony will headline a Closing Day Community Celebration.

A renovation of the Center House, to be renamed The Armory to honor its original purpose, is already underway. New restaurants and a broader stage for weekend ethnic festivals are in the master plan, which retains the popular children's museum on the building's basement level. Immediately north, aging Memorial Stadium is scheduled to be re-landscaped for integration into the Seattle Center grounds.

On the east side of the Center House, next to the monorail terminal in an area that once offered carnival-style rides, Next 50 Plaza is projected as a playground for child artists. For summer 2012, however, it supports several temporary structures, including a pavilion with a series of two-month exhibits on sustainable futures, global health and world vision.

Those tie directly into the vision of the Bill&Melinda Gates Foundation, whose new headquarters opened three months ago on Fifth Avenue North on the northeast side of Seattle Center. A visitor center describes the foundation's three-pronged global goals in poverty relief, health and education.

The Chihuly Garden

The arts are an integral part of any culture and any educational curriculum. From that perspective, the Chihuly Garden and Glass is being regarded as an essential element of the Seattle Center — even as it opens.

Visitors enter past a gift shop into a redesigned exhibition space that was formerly the Seattle Center's child-oriented Fun Forest. Although not organized chronologically, the displays (in eight galleries and three “drawing walls”) offer detailed studies of various periods in the artist's creative life.

In the Northwest Room, cylindrical baskets stand side-by-side with the Native American crafts that influenced their creation, along with Pendleton blankets and historical photogravures by Edward S. Curtis. The Sea Life Room combines glass sculpture with original drawings of marine denizens. Ikebana and Float Boat places floral sculptures in traditional wooden boats from Finland, where the artist worked for an extended period. In Macchia Forest, Chihuly has speckled each cloudlike vase with all 300 colors available to him in a glass-blowing hot shop.

The centerpiece of the Chihuly installation is the Glasshouse. Forty feet tall, its glass panels held by a steel frame, this conservatory was inspired by the Crystal Palace in London and the Sainte-Chapelle chapel in Paris. Suspended beneath the ceiling is a six-section, 100-foot-long sculpture in various shades of red, orange and yellow.

The surrounding Chihuly Garden takes the artist's “Mille Fiori” (thousand flowers) concept to its logical climax. “I want my work to appear as though it came from nature,” Chihuly told an interviewer. Here, the glass is mixed into the environment of an exhibition garden, where dogwoods and azaleas, grasses and trees juxtapose with fanciful glass botanicals.

The winding garden path exits toward the Collections Cafe, which chef Ivan Szilak hopes to develop as a creative American restaurant in its own right. Casual visitors may be more impressed by the displays that gave the cafe its name: Dale Chihuly is a hoarder, and this is where he's chosen to exhibit some of the items he's amassed.

Hanging from the ceiling are dozens of accordions. Behind glass at the main entrance are hundreds of bottle-cap openers. Built into the tables are displays of fishing lures, toy soldiers, porcelain dogs, jackknives, kitchen juicers, antique cameras — in all, 28 separate collections.

I wouldn't be surprised if Mr. Chihuly also has a hidden stash of colorful hippie-era hair clips — bangled, tangled, spangled and spaghettied.