Seattle’s Asian Art Museum Discreetly Upsizes: Not Just A Connoisseur’s Jewel Box

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After several years of controversy and two years of construction, Seattle Asian Art Museum is now welcoming visitors.  

The new addition works hard behind the scenes. It can’t be beautiful, because the original building already has that job. Instead the long-planned addition, by Seattle’s LMN Architects, stays out of the way where it must and reveals surprising beauty where it can.

The old building appears untouched from the front, and all of the familiar spaces on the main level are still there. What’s new is the way the museum now opens up to views of the park. The addition stands behind and to one side, taking advantage of a dip in the ground level on the east side. The $54 million addition accommodates contemporary installations as well as conservation and education rooms, plus space for traveling exhibits.

The old 1933 building, revolutionary in its day when nearly all museums were in a classical style, was designed in the Moderne style with symmetrical stone façade by Carl F. Gould of Bebb & Gould, a leading Seattle firm in its day. It still commands the center of the Olmsted-Brothers-designed Volunteer Park. Most of the architectural changes are subtle. Opaque glass panels behind the ornate metal grill in front have been switched out for clear ones, so it’s a little less like a mausoleum. But almost everything else is in place, including the original paving and the overgrown shrubbery. In the back, grand trees have been preserved, with the help of landscape architects Walker Macy.  

The Fuller Garden Court in the center of the old building now holds an LED light canopy by Kenzan Tsutakawa-Chinn. In keeping with the symmetries of the original design, two new openings bring in a glimpse of the park to the east. Visitors emerge on the east side facing an expansive new circulation space with floor-to-ceiling glass, right at the tree canopy level. They can commune with Asian statues and ceramics and favorite trees at the same time, all with breathing room to spare.  

The project brings the Seattle Art Museum and its collection full circle. From its beginnings with Seattle collector and principal benefactor Richard Fuller, Asian art was an important part of the institution. The SAAM (Seattle Asian Art Museum) building began as the home to SAM (Seattle Art Museum). Then, beginning in the 1980s, SAM expanded with a new downtown building designed by Robert Venturi at First and University, and later into an adjoining tower by Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works in Portland. More recently, SAM developed the Olympic Sculpture Park, designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architects of New York, dramatically spanning railroad tracks and a street as it steps down the hill to Elliott Bay. 

The original Asian art collection, plus some recent additions, remained behind in Volunteer Park. The older building was renovated in the early 1990s after the construction of the downtown SAM.  After two decades that saw lots of new Asian immigrants in the Seattle area, the larger institution needed more space and system upgrades at SAAM. The organization faced a familiar dilemma: How to add floor area to a cultural icon without ruining the architecture. It’s one of the biggest challenges for architects, from the Louvre to the Guggenheim. 

SAAM did not seek an iconic expansion. The museum already had an impressive presence, but it needed mechanical upgrades as well as some new exhibition space. Despite the modesty of the expansion plans, local neighborhood and park advocates made the expansion into a long battle

The challenges were completely understandable. Historic parks in the U.S. have suffered losses over the years, as large pieces were carved out for museums and other projects. In this century, parks preservationists have grown more vocal on the local and national levels, determined to hold a hard line against any expansion or new construction on park land. SAAM may have drawn the last card. 

The pushback started several years ago when national groups joined neighborhood activists to turn back the planned SAAM expansion. The project went on hold so that their concerns could be addressed. Doug Bayley of the Volunteer Park Trust played an intermediary role between SAM, nervous neighbors, parks preservationists, and the city of Seattle. “We fought over every inch” of the addition, Bayley said. 

Luckily for all, the original building lies along a natural ridge, dropping off at the rear. So even though the front is just a tall one-story building, it already stood a rough three stories at the back, where a super-modern addition can stack up and do its work without competing visibly with the old part. And there’s a bonus. For every square inch of park space lost on the ground, three square inches got added to the museum. In the bargain, some Olmstedian trails around the building got repaved and the piping underground got modernized.

The addition does its job without calling attention to itself. Instead it points visitors to trees and sky as well as art. In addition to the perimeter treehouse-like circulation space behind the courtyard, there’s a large new exhibit space right there on the (main) top floor. Modern works by artists like Do Ho Suh (circular stainless steel “Some/One”) have come home to SAAM. New attention can be given to favorites in the old collection including treasures like the Deer Scroll, a precious Japanese artifact. 

Even though the addition disappears from many angles, the southeast corner shows its bulky height from the depths of the hollow behind the building. That’s clearly because the top encloses new gallery space, hardened against UV rays. But it’s difficult to tell where the old galleries stop and the new one begins. It might have been better to tuck the new gallery into the next level down, accessed through the open stair, and this might have allowed for a beautiful event space on top. But this is a quibble. 

The lower level has been added to and revised with the event space, educational area, and core services.  There is a new conservation area built and furnished with traditional Japanese collections in mind—complete with a small Shoji pavilion, raised mat floors and low tables ready for visiting restoration experts. Enshrining a living tradition like this is a little spooky, but there it is, and it helps to show that SAAM is not just a connoisseur’s jewel-box. After years of growth and perseverance, it is stepping up as an international cultural center.

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