In 1962, a parcel at the northern tip of Lake Union was a toxic waste dump, the result of an industrial plant that turned coal to natural gas. By 1976, however, it was Gas Works Park, the result of a gutsy experiment in landscape architecture led by Richard Haag, a University of Washington emeritus professor of architecture.
Gas Works and subsequent projects established Seattle as one of the first American cities willing to recast industrial sites into places to celebrate.
Thaisa Way, a UW associate professor of landscape architecture, and several of her design students have curated “Experimenting in Public Space,” on exhibit May 9 to June 24 at the American Institute of Architecture design gallery in downtown Seattle. The exhibit explores Gas Works and 11 subsequent parks and public spaces in a series of sketches, photographs and architectural renderings.
“Gas Works was a radical move, especially since Rachel Carsons book, ‘Silent Spring, had just been published, and people were alerted about environmental pollution,” Way said.
Haag convinced the city that not only could unusual and sometimes polluted land be reclaimed but that it should be. Instead of the wide, rolling vistas of trees and flowers created across the country by the Olmsted brothers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, Haag celebrated the city and all its right angles. The gas works boiler house eventually sheltered grills and picnic tables, and the gas compressor became a play barn, all with a waters edge view of Lake Union and the downtown Seattle skyline.
Landscape architects Lawrence Halprin and Angela Danadjieva created Freeway Park over a stretch of Interstate 5 in downtown Seattle, viewing the road as a sort of urban gorge, the winding paths of the park a river of people and a 30-foot waterfall a way to muffle the roar of cars below.
Waterworks Gardens in Renton is the work of artist Lorna Jordan, inspired by Herbert Bayers Mill Creek Canyon Earthworks, which serve as flood controls in Kent. For the Renton sewage treatment plant, Jordan created a series of garden rooms where visitors see water being cleaned. On both of these projects, designers worked side-by-side with engineers, hydrologists and other professionals.
“Its pretty amazing,” Way said. “These artists got the public to believe in water cleansing and flood control designed by an artist.”
The Olympic Sculpture Park, opened in 2007, is a later example of Seattle turning a toxic waste site into a park. “Its really a legacy from Gas Works,” Way said. “Seattle willingly pushes the edges, pioneering new technology.”
Part of the “Experimenting in Public Space” exhibit is in the window of the AIA gallery. The exhibit also includes a section seeking public input on proposed changes at Waterfront Park, as a deep-bore tunnel replaces the Alaskan Way Viaduct.