City Sound Transit Station Design Meeting: Nothing Says “Capitol Hill” Like Fighter Jets
posted by April 4 at 11:25 AMon
The meeting last night started amicably enough. A band of Sound Transit representatives laid out the most recent plans for a light-rail line that will connect the University of Washington to downtown (and the other light rail lines) to about 150 people nodding their heads. Architect David Hewitt showed slides, taking the group down through the layers of the Capitol Hill station, beginning at the street and down to the mezzanine and on to the trains. But when an artist revealed plans for a central sculpture, the mood turned ugly.
Before we get to that, some context about the light rail and station.
The University link, as it’s called, will run just over three miles. Underground. Like a real subway! (Haven’t we always been told that the soil was too smooshy or something for underground transit in Seattle?) Trips from downtown to the Capitol Hill station will take 6 minutes, and from the Hill to the University of Washington, three more minutes. The design phase is 60 percent complete and reaches a 90 percent milestone this fall. The first trains will run in 2016, carry 70,000 people a day by 2030, with 14,000 of them using the Capitol Hill station, and cost approximately $1.6 billion. Demolition will begin in 2009.
That’s Broadway running horizontally. In the lower-left is an entrance near Cal Anderson Park. A second entrance is a block north on the right, on East John Street, and the west entrance is across Broadway in the top-left.
The west entrance. Sorry these pictures aren’t so hot.
Razed will be the entire block on the east side of Broadway between Denny and John Streets, the two stately brick buildings on the southeast corner of Denny and Broadway, and the building that held the Mongolian grill. Although the entrances on the street level are fairly small, the blocks will be used for construction staging over those six years. After the station opens, Sound Transit will likely maintain ownership of the blocks, according to the agency’s Ron Endlich, and lease the lots for mixed-use development. Design review process accounted for, I wouldn’t expect the south end of Broadway (which will become coveted for it’s proximity to the station) to be redeveloped until 2019.
Station architect David Hewitt, who also designed the Harbor Steps, is the most endearing presenter to ever hold a laser pointer. Bald and wearing chunky black framed glasses and dark coat, he is Capitol Hill. Hewitt’s essential design is standard for a underground rail station, with modern entrances and massive smoke and air vents at the street level, escalators leading down to a mezzanine, and then to train platform, which he called “the main event.” Unusually, the platform room of the station is braced with a network of thick steel beams to support the walls. This allows the space to vault upward (rather than the traditional semi-circular shape of many subway stations). “We created a shape we think is provocative,” he says.
But the steel beams also obstruct views inside the station, presenting a challenge for
San Francisco Brooklyn-based artist Mike Ross, who was chosen from a pool of 120 applicants to design the station’s central sculpture. His presentation was rocky from the start.
“The first time I came to Seattle was to work on this project,” Ross told the group.
“I did a Google search on ‘I love Seattle because’ and found people mentioned clouds and rain,” he said, noting that many mentions of the weather were gripes. “It’s [an area] at the leading edge of technology,” he said, noting Boeing and Microsoft. “It is an area with an important relationship with the natural world,” he said, noting a picture a Blue Heron (Seattle’s official bird) on the screen.
“This bird is here to represent the natural world.”
He said he wanted to “get at some of the qualities of strength and fragility of the natural world—of how fragile this world can be.” Not to be snarky, but in an underground enclosure with a huge fire vent and braces holding back tons of dirt, does anyone want to be remind us of the fragility of our natural world? Seriously?
To capture the regional qualities, Ross wanted to build on themes of clouds and rain and planes. To capture the strength, he chose military fighter jets.
Audience lynch mob after the jump.
Real military aircraft, severed and painted in blushes of pink and orange, and suspended in an organic flow—like the heron—the sculpture represents transformation to more gentle forms, he explained. “We’re taking the aggressive images and use them in a non-aggressive way,” he said. “They’re not attacking each other. These two tips are kissing each other.”
The platform and the planes.
The crowd wasn’t buying it. “I really liked your presentation until it became a fighter plane,” said one man. The crowd cheered. “It’s sad to think Capitol Hill would use the image of a war plane.” The mob cheered again.
“You have strong reaction; I also have a strong reaction…” said Ross, who go cut off by hecklers.
“You’re not from Seattle,” and “Yeah, you’re not from here.”
More. “It would be really repulsive to me. I’d hate to see that when I go to work. Are there any visible guns pointing up or down?” No, said Ross. “Whatever you do, take it away from being fighting planes.” And. “When you shine a light on a turd, it’s still a turd,” said an unrelenting yet smiling woman. “Where are you buying the planes?” she asked. “I don’t want my tax dollars going to the Department of Defense.” For that line, the crowd practically did “the wave.” Calmly, Ross explained that the sculpture represents ttransorming tools of war into works of art, and that they are dismantled to reflect the method used in a disarmament treaty between the U.S. and Russia.
After his presentation, I asked Ross whether the reaction, if also reflected by the public at large, would prompt him to reconsider the plans. “At some point,” Ross said. “It’s a democratic process.”
Sound Transit’s Endlich stood up for the piece, telling me that people who liked it “may be less likely to speak up in an environment like this.” And Hewitt, who said he’s enjoyed working with Ross, said, “I think it’s very exciting.” He compared the transformation of war machines into art as “swords into plowshares.”
This is a tricky issue. At first, the piece is offensive to anti-war liberals. Even if it is an attempt to meld gentleness with strength, war planes and pastel seem the worst of both worlds. Dismembering the machines does little to assuage the connection to the brutality of war. And to bring the military to one of the most anti-war regions in the country is to invoke what many Capitol Hill denizens detest.
But to its credit, the pink sculpture is an emasculating gender fuck, provocative, ironic, co-opting, cynical—you know, Capitol Hill.
One of the reasons the sculpture was poorly received, I think, is that Ross used dippy clichés throughout his presentation. After thinking about it, it’s not the concept that irks me—my initial shock at the fighter jets has transformed, as he promised the crowd it would—but rather how the shapes interact with the rest of the station. An animation of the escalator trip shows the hanging components of the sculpture blocked and then revealed in pieces. The bits of metal end up looking like space junk.
As a side note: Sound Transit reps touted this light-rail line as linking the three highest population districts of the city (downtown, the Hill, and the U-District), but that’s slightly disingenuous. The north end of the line terminates on the southeast corner of the UW campus, next to Husky stadium—1.2 miles from NE 45th Street and The Ave, which is the residential and economic center of the neighborhood.