SEATTLE SOUNDINGS | A failure of imagination

As the antiquated Fun Forest at Seattle Center staggers through its final months of life, controversy has erupted over what to replace it with.

No doubt, the controversy comes as a huge surprise to members of the Seattle Design Commission, the agency charged with deciding how to use a big chunk of open space in the heart of Seattle.

That’s because its proposal smacks of somebody’s concept of a “safe” idea meant to offend nobody: 44,000 square feet of exhibit space for the glassworks of iconic local artist Dale Chihuly. Who could possibly object? Everybody loves Chihuly, right?

Well, no. Quite a few people, actually, brand Chihuly with the k-word (“kitsch”). Chihuly is to modern art what McDonald’s is to hamburgers: ubiquitous, predictable and a satisfying facsimile of the real thing. But replacing the Fun Forest — which is actually listed as part of the Webster’s definition of “kitsch” — with kitschy art is hardly the worst of the problems with this idea.

Limited vision
A bigger problem is that ubiquity. Chihuly already has a quite good local museum devoted to his product, in Tacoma, as well as any number of installations of free public art in Seattle. Why do we need more? And why should we pay for it?

The current proposal calls for most of the Chihuly exhibit to be in an enclosed space requiring admission, using both the existing Fun Forest arcade building and much of the open space now occupied by rides.

That’s two problems: charging admission for a product that’s already available (often for free) throughout the region, and closing off a parcel that, according to the most recent Seattle Center master plan, is intended as open space.

And make no mistake: Chihuly’s art is a product, relentlessly marketed and widely available. Chihuly himself does few of the works bearing his name these days; instead, they’re cranked out by the craftspeople he employs in his factory, er, workshop. Chihuly is a brand, a massively successful commercial enterprise that scarcely needs the marketing help of the City of Seattle.

But all of these problems — the nature and existing availability of Chihuly’s work, the paid admission, the loss of what’s meant to be open space — are merely reasons why dedicating a big chunk of Seattle Center to this project is a bad idea. The real issue (and the real commentary on the limited vision of Seattle civic leaders) is less the specifics than the overall nature of the proposal.

Forty-four-thousand square feet of blank canvas in the heart of Seattle, and this is the best they can do? The last thing Downtown Seattle needs is another place where good, educated Seattle liberals can pay to stroke their chins and admire abstract art. Instead, the proposal takes away two things that the downtown area desperately needs: an open public space where people can congregate, and (with the loss of the Fun Forest) a place that’s designed for families and kids.

Grand gestures vs. real amenities
Seattle hates kids. (Seattle hates fun, too, but that’s another column.) With all the money and effort being put into paying, er, encouraging developers to build massive market-rate housing in downtown, Belltown, South Lake Union and the other neighborhoods whose new buildings now cast shadows over Seattle Center, somebody needs to ask an obvious question: What happens when the upscale young professionals those projects cater to have kids?

The answer, of course, is that they move to the suburbs, which defeats the whole purpose of all that development. There’s no schools downtown, no playgrounds, no public gyms. Why not use the Fun Forest space for a gym, a skate park, a massive playground?

Why not design a place people will want to come to because it’s fun — as opposed to yet another installation the chamber of commerce can show in its “Visit Seattle!” videos, but that most of us locals will visit once (because it’s good for us) and then never use again?

Whether it’s transportation projects or urban planning, Seattle’s civic leaders are infatuated with the grand gesture and are apparently bored silly by the nuts-and-bolts amenities that make a city not just a “world-class” tourist destination but a desirable place to actually live.

For every sports stadium, new museum or tunnel with seven or 10 or 30 digits in its price tag, what could be done with the same money to improve our schools, install sidewalks, repave roads or even put some nets on the barren basketball rims in our parks?

If Seattle wants to encourage people to live in its downtown neighborhoods, it has a rare chance to use a big patch of downtown space to make those neighborhoods better places to live. Instead, we get a chance to pay to admire the Starbucks of glass art.

The last time a chunk of open downtown space presented itself, we got the sculpture museum. Before that, it was Paul Allen’s vanity museum. Enough already.

Plant some grass and trees. Put in a playground, picnic tables and grills, basketball courts, a skate park. Preserve rare downtown open space, and install something people (especially kids) will actually use — for a change.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State![[In-content Ad]]