Has ever so dreary a car tunnel been constructed as the one we just built to replace the Seattle waterfront viaduct? The two-and-a-half-mile tube is about as artless a roadway as the looming elevated hulk it replaces, its concrete ceilings and roadways and sterile white walls broken up only by stick-figure drawings indicating distance to the nearest escape. It’s an utterly joyless utilitarian experience to traverse. Even in a city of mostly unimaginative architecture, this latest public work stands out for its brutal banality. And why?
In 1973 the city of Seattle passed a Percent for Art ordinance, mandating that one percent of every city capital project had to be set aside for art. King County Council passed a similar law the same year, and the State of Washington followed a year later with a half-of-one-percent program.
Scroll ahead 46 years and the city, county and state are now owners of thousands of pieces of art acquired through a program that has been widely regarded as one of the best in the country.
One of the best of the local public art programs has been the downtown bus tunnel stations – built in the 1980s – and more recently the Sound Transit stations along the region’s first light rail route. The Westlake Center Station is the most ambitious and luxurious of these, the art chosen and designed by lead artist Jack Mackie and program director Vicki Scuri. The walls are covered in terra cotta tiles, which gives the station a rich, Deco feel. Seattle artists Fay Jones, Gene Gentry McMahon, and Roger Shimomura have the most prominent pieces – giant ceramic murals that adorn the walls. They’re whimsical and engaging.
With Westlake as its flagship, the light rail stations each evoke personality. They signal visually where you are in the system. Most important, they are a pleasure to be in. The original five bus tunnel (now light rail) stations had an art budget of $1.5 million and the art program was extended to the subsequent light rail stations. Ridership on the light rail system has surged, and of course it’s not because of the art – but the art certainly makes a difference in the experience of moving around on system, the ways riders daily experience the city.
“All the signs we see are telling us either what to do or what not to do,” Stefan Hofmann, a partner in the art collective Electric Coffin recently told Crosscut. “What if moving through the city also included moments of discovery — more deliberate beauty?”
We are complacent about Seattle’s natural setting. While some cities aspire to create significant buildings to define themselves, we have tended to erect utilitarian institutional boxes with limited curb appeal rather than rising to the occasion of our surroundings. At a cost of $3.3 billion and decades in the arguing about, the tunnel was expensive both financially and politically – and one of the most significant public works projects the region has built in decades.
Half of one percent of the budget would have produced an art budget of about $15 million. It might have made the experience of using the tunnel more enjoyable, or at least less dreary. It might have made the tunnel distinctively Seattle rather than something that could be mistaken for an old 1950s Soviet roads project. For a roadway officials hope drivers will be willing to pay tolls to use, the cost to make it more of a pleasure seems like a real bargain.
Image: Washington State Department of Transportation