This is what the world calls a living wall! This is what South Lake Union calls a living wall:

  • Anne Jaworski
You will find a good part of the story behind this world-class failure in a piece, "The Living Wall," Anne Jaworski composed in my Writing the City class at Hugo House:
On one side of the Living Wall is a plaza - on weekdays full of well scrubbed professionals. Across the plaza is an old brick building, an historic landmark, now full of restaurants. So desirable that Tom Douglas has two! Amazon looks down on the plaza with love, love for the money that built this palace of programmers, love of the money that pays the shareholders. Behind the Living Wall is an old concrete building. Like the little old lady that wouldn’t sell her beach house surrounded by gleaming condos, this building sits towered over, glowered over, by Amazon. The Living Wall was built to mask the view of this old building next door. But the Living Wall they built will never do that. It will never be featured in a glossy magazine like the overpass at Pont Max Juvenal France, the Skyfarm in Toronto, the Oulu Bar in Brooklyn. This wall is a row of 24 metal cables, rising 40 feet high. Vines planted at the base. Some of the vines have struggled halfway up the cable, some only a few inches. On some, no sign of a vine at all. The vines are weak, straggly, forlorn. These vines will never be so full and lush that they can fill in the gaps, reach out and touch each other. They will always stand alone. It is a wall without wall-ness, without opacity, a green wall short on green. This Living Wall knows that is worse than what it was built to cover.

What is the solution to the problem of progress? One thing you can do is build a wall - a wall to protect the new from the old, a wall to shield the shiny and clean from the old and dusty, a wall to assure that the new need not be reminded of what they have destroyed. This particular Living Wall is part of a billionaire’s vision, his creation of a shiny new urban world, his need to have his name in the history books as something more than a rich sci-fi nut, friend of Ann and Nancy. Years before he wanted a park. It would be called The Commons, and it would rival Central Park. It would be glorious and his name would be all over it. But he couldn’t have that. Put to a vote of the people it was defeated not once, but twice. Why didn’t we want that park? It’s hard to recall, other than that we didn’t want Paul Allen gentrifying our neighborhood. We were so proud! But look what we have now. He’d bought all this land, so with the mayor snuggled up in his shirt pocket and new zoning laws in hand his people built this new vision of urban life, of sparkling clean tech workers in sparkling clean buildings. All in conformity. The old warehouses, parking lots, ramshackle rooming houses, gone. The homeless to find somewhere else to call not-home. Ah, retrospect! Regrets!
I can tell you how to reach this wall in case you would like to go and see what it isn’t. One way you can get there is to ride the SLUT, the shiny sleek streetcar built to go with the shiny buildings and people. But you don’t have to ride the SLUT to get there. The bus goes there too. When you do get there, however you get there, look up above the Living Wall to where I used to stand and look down, when I worked in the building behind the Living Wall. Back then we looked south to Lake Union, seaplanes flying low for landing, fireworks on the Fourth of July. Gone, all gone.


The memories! Remember the time a rail car delivering corn syrup to Bunge Foods had a spill? The sugary goo ran down the rail tracks and the neighborhood was rank and rife with fruit flies, until the next rain came.
The day we found a homeless man asleep in our doorway. Couldn’t wake him up - the employees had to step over him to get to work until the police came. We hired security to keep the hookers away from the parking deck at night, so we wouldn’t find used condoms in the morning. I’d see them at 8th and Thomas, 6:00 AM, on my way in, high heels and fleece jackets.
One day I find a man and a woman unloading a large sheet of metal painted dumpster green from a shopping cart and leaning it against our dumpster. Students from Cornish on a project to photograph themselves blending in with their urban surroundings.
Another time a guy driving a big rig tries to turn right from the alley onto Thomas St. His trailer gets caught on the wall next to the ramp with the cab blocking Thomas. He drove his load from Arkansas to a city he didn’t know, out of his element, stuck on a wall, a bored and irritated cop yelling at him.
The time a crow pecked at the high voltage transformer across from the parking deck until it blew and the neighborhood went dark. Shell of a crow body atop the transformer, legs up, like a dead cartoon crow. The City Light guy says “Oh, yeah. We see this a lot. It’s The Time of Year when Crows Commit Suicide.”
On the day we moved into this building in 1986 (the building that is not hidden behind the wall), we had a small fire. In a misunderstanding related to how mean my coworkers were to me, I thought they had left me behind to die in a burning building, and I had a rare loss of temper. Later, after all that was sorted out and the fire department had left, we went over to the Dart Inn for scrambled eggs and screwdrivers.
This is the cast of vibrant and unexpected characters that surrounds you in the city. And this building behind the wall was good to us all those years, a solid if not entirely level workplace, sloping toward the sea. To this building my commute was 15 minutes. I could walk to Westlake Center at lunch. Gone. All gone.


According to Wikipedia this type of wall is actually a Green Façade not a Living Wall. Plants climb either on the wall itself or on specially designed structures. Living Walls and Green Facades are out there in the world. Beautiful and real, they soften the lines of the city, cushion us from the density, add charm to the concrete and steel. While pitching the Amazon project, the Vulcan boys and girls pointed out where the Living Wall would grow, they provided us a definition. Showed us the pictures from Spain, France, of what could be. Tone condescending. How could we possibly understand the greatness to which they aspire? This wall, the reality now that the developers have moved on, fulfills at least one of the criteria. The structures are here. What is missing is the green. Not that I am against progress, or change. Just that there should be at least as much gain as loss. Imagine how wonderful South Lake Union would be if The Living Walls were truly alive! Does anyone really love the dead sterile place it has become? Perhaps so, but I wouldn’t know. I’m gone.
Gone, gone, to the suburbs. Woodinville! I commute to Woodinville from West Seattle now. Outside our facility in Woodinville there is no colorful cast of characters to enliven our days. There is no one at all. Cars pull into the parking lot, employees scurry inside, nothing else happens. I return one last time to the empty building behind the Living Wall. To step behind the Wall, lay one hand on the cool concrete. I was young here once I say. Good-bye my friend. And the building whispers back: Amazon just posted a loss. Hope they can still pay the mortgage with a little less green.