Landscape of Ideas

A graphic thought experiment: place a map of the Bay Area, from Marin to San Francisco to San Jos to Oakland to Concord, over the same scale map of North America’s latest megalopolis, Vancouver to Surrey to Bellingham to Seattle to Tacoma. It is perhaps only because an international border divides this new Puget Sound/Georgia Strait city of seven million people that there is not yet a new tag stuck to it–after all, the “Bay Area” nomenclature only emerged in the 1960s. Because of their similarity, Seattle-Tacoma and Vancouver are now one of the world’s most exciting ongoing demonstrations of how culture and politics shape the contemporary city.

The two cities are non-identical twins, with the same hinterlands, founding industries, climates, sites perched between mountain, forest and ocean, even comparable distance from design metropoles, and so on. Despite similarities in history and situation, however, the urban character and architectural cultures of Vancouver and Seattle-Tacoma could hardly be more different. This came clear to me when touring the superb urban rooftop plaza of Tacoma’s new Museum of Glass by Arthur Erickson and Nick Milkovich of Vancouver. Good Vancouverites, their scheme is predicated on an active public space, open to all 24 hours a day, connecting a waterside path with the rest of this blue-collar city.

But cultural and management resistance to the civic principles of this museum’s design is already evident. Museum officials have already posted security guards on their rooftop plaza displaying monumental glass artworks, and are lobbying to have this, the only public access to the water, gated off at night. A magnificent stair wraps around the base of the museum’s signature form–an angled cone–but this curving path is littered with tacky signs advising caution, limiting legal liability and urging use of handrails. Which is right: Erickson’s idealistic Canadian commitment to public space, or the paranoid pragmatism of his American clients? There hangs a tale.

Erickson has paid a price for maintaining his Canadian hopes for safe and generous public spaces in his American commissions. In the late 1980s he was a finalist for the Harold Washington Library in downtown Chicago. He lost that job to a postmodern confection by Thomas Beeby, almost entirely because Chicago’s then-mayor and senior planners thought that the Vancouver architect’s generous public spaces would lead to nothing but trouble, that no one but dope dealers and babblers would inhabit its string of terraces. Beeby’s decorated bunker has since proved an embarrassment to Chicagoans, and Erickson’s commitment to public space has come to be admired in the breech.

Considered spatially, and in its commitment to animated public space, the Tacoma Museum of Glass is a major triumph, the best public building in 15 years by the dean of the Canadian architectural profession. That said, a limited budget and a too-long design gestation period dominated by the cyclic cost reduction process he waggishly calls “De-Value Engineering” have conspired to deny Erickson his usual palette of fine materials. The Tacoma museum is evidence of Erickson’s rejuvenated career, and it took enormous focus and skill for Erickson, associate architect Nick Milkovich and project architect Wyn Bielaska to see it through with its sculptural and urban principles intact. It is now nearly eight years since Erickson first won the competition for this project. In a classic case of his blunt but effective wit, when asked by the selection committee the day his design was chosen what he thought of their industrial city, Erickson replied “Tacoma stinks!” And Erickson winks…

Urban Design

Not only is the architecture of the Museum of Glass all-Canadian, so is the urban design that first situated it. Bruno Freschi is a former Erickson associate and current partner of Cannon International’s Washington office who was engaged by the Executive Council of Greater Tacoma in the late 1980s. This organization consists of many leading families and institutions of Tacoma. Worried about the fate of their fading mill town of a city, especially its downtown, they asked Freschi to come up with architectural and urban design solutions.

His Vision Plan of 1990 came up with the idea of a waterside museum precinct (now almost entirely built out), with a “bridge of glass” providing pedestrian access to a museum in which the glass art and archives of Tacoma native Dale Chihuly were intended to play a central role. The museum is perched on a slope between an arm of Tacoma’s downtown harbour called the Thea Foss Waterway and an extension of downtown in the form of a brickish former warehouse district. Between the harbour and downtown are the familiar huge impediments to both architecture and pedestrians that have severed so many North American industrial-age cities from their waterfronts: railway tracks and a freeway spur. Two of Freschi’s urban design decisions were particularly wise. He carefully situated the datum for the plinth upon which the museum sits to maximize views and buildability, then insisted on flanking it with high density housing–over the intense initial scepticism of local planners and developers. That housing has now been built and accepted well by the marketplace, a triumph of urban values over fears of urbanity.

Charles Moore, with his Los Angeles franchise Moore Ruble Yudell, was responsible for planning a satellite University of Washington campus in an upslope grouping of late 19th century warehouse buildings. Moore followed this up by winning the design competition for the Washington State Museum of History in the early 1990s, beating out Erickson as a finalist. The History Museum, which clones the shapes of the adjacent Union Pacific railway station in new construction, was designed by Moore in association with his final partner, Arthur Andersson of Austin. After Moore’s death, this successor firm also designed the much less successful Chihuly Bridge of Glass, passing over railway and freeway to connect with Erickson’s museum. The title of a famous essay by Charles Moore might serve as an epigraph for Tacoma’s success, and a caution to Canadians, whose re-investment rates in cities have lagged behind those in the United States in the past decade: “You Have to Pay for the Public Life.”

A Tacoma Promenade Architecturale

As is also true for his UBC Museum of Anthropology and Robson Square, both in Vancouver, this Erickson creation is best experienced and illustrated by Le Corbusier’s concept of a promenade architecturale. This is an artful sequencing of architectural form that animates movement up to and through a building, best exemplified to many by the pathway up and through Le Corbusier’s Carpenter Center at Harvard University. Our Tacoma promenade architecturale starts uphill in the warehouse cluster, with a view towards the Museum of Glass through the ceremonial archway of the History Museum, a visual marker suggested in Freschi’s plan. The vista of the Museum of Glass entices through this frame, most evident being the shiny angled cone of the hot shop, a glass-blowing demonstration theatre that is its most unique element. Continuing our tour, the flanking terraces of the Museum of Glass come into view. With its pools, terraces, ramps and stairs, this is a made landscape of concrete, that very Canadian conception of building as both continuation and counterpoint to environment, an invented landform wrapping activity.

The bridge of glass serves as the last stand for the flamboyant glass art of Dale Chihuly after the artist withdrew from full participation in the museum itself in mid-design. Mid-bridge hunky vitrines protect Chihuly’s brightly-coloured swirling works, but also block views as one walks across. The ham-handed design of the vitrines permits only fragmented glimpses of the Glass Museum beyond, but even these sightings trump their enshrined artwork. Perched on the Museum of Glass’ roof deck is a wheelchair entrance block-cum-sentinel sprouting broad metallic wings, a space frame wrapped in perforated steel mesh. These wings look lik
e elegant refugees from Boeing’s nearby factories.

From this vantage point the roof landscape’s power is clear to see, accentuated by heroically scaled artworks. Terraces rise on the left, forming a small amphitheatre for casual performances. At this point the architectural flneur faces a choice between ramps on the left or a wide spiral stair radiating around the metallic hot shop cone. Either way, this final passage to the main entry plaza is a masterstroke, ensuring views from one end of Tacoma’s harbour to the other, with return vistas to cone, entry sentinel and upslope museums and university. The effect is nothing less than cinematic, reminiscent of the swoops and pans of French New Wave directors at their impish finest. Along the way are several reflecting pools with the same “infinity edge” of a rolled bullnose that Erickson used successfully in the Dunbar residence on Maui. Explaining this detail, he says “Because budget did not allow us to build in glass as much as we might have liked in Tacoma, we used water as its analogue.” Seen from above, these pools unite with skyscape; from below, they soften the concrete ramps and terraces by wetting and animating them.

After this dramatic visual saunter, a number of disappointments in materiality, colour and texture await at the museum’s entrance and interior. On the plaza in front of the waterside front door there is a second elevator, its glass construction only surface mitigation to the fact that museum management nixed Erickson’s double entry concept (the sentinel was to serve as a secondary public entrance, not solely wheelchair access), necessitating this late and awkwardly-situated addition. The effect is worsened by large white display frames outside the front door which have seemingly taken their cues from Andersson’s clunky bridge–Erickson’s team had nothing to do with them.

From a distance, the large flat V of the waterside framing beams impresses, but closer up it loses its power and authority. This is largely because “Value Engineering” substituted pre-cast concrete for Erickson’s preferred cast-in-place. These warmly coloured elements were cast at LaFarge’s Edmonton plant, and trucked to Tacoma; it is a tribute to both designer and manufacturer that only one panel cracked en route. However, limits on the thickness of panels meant that rough textures and reveals of more than three inches were not possible, flattening the surfaces of the museum. Sadly, this landscape is clad, not shaped.

Inside the Museum

The museum’s extremely modest budget (less than US $250/square foot, less than half the going rate for many contemporary American museum buildings) is equally evident in interior details. Although coloured a rich brown and given scale by clean diagonal forming lines, this is a museum with a bare concrete floor. Gallery spaces lack daylight and are simple in layout and detail. But this is what curators, the museum’s board and architect all wanted–nothing to distract from the artwork on show, mainly glass but ranging into all zones of contemporary art, as demonstrated by a John Cage/Mark Tobey/Morris Graves opening exhibition bereft of a single piece of melted silicon.

The generous museum lobby is less impoverished than corrupted. The architect’s trademark mono-chromia makes sense here, as colour aplenty awaits in the form of dramatically lit glass art in the galleries. However, this stillness is disturbed by several imperious gestures insisted upon by a key funder. A large map of the world is etched onto the glass walls of the museum’s restaurant. Obscuring views of the lobby’s most dramatic feature–an edge of the alligator-skinned conical hot shop–are several dozen large world flags representing countries in which museum members live. (Huh?) Thanks to Erickson and Bielaska’s efforts, these were fabricated in etched glass rather than even more distracting multi-hued fabric, as originally proposed.

The hot shop amphitheatre is a powerful union of structure, skin and space, boldly demonstrating maximum impact on a minimum budget. I saw a number of formy-looking hot shops in Erickson’s studio through the mid-1990s as design progressed in fits and starts, but the version we see now was shaped and rationalized by serendipity. Wyn Bielaska–himself an accomplished amateur photographer–encountered an art photography book, similar to those well-known volumes of water towers and steel mills by Berndt and Hilla Becher, documenting a now all-but-vanished element of the Northwest’s industrial landscape: conical sawdust-burner towers. Erickson brought a copy of the book to the museum’s design committee, where some senior members remembered their powerful shapes, and at last approved the idea after many tries by the architect. While glass cladding for the cone was considered for a while, it was both too expensive and had performance problems tied to the glass-making activities within. Despite its unusual shape and size, Erickson’s cone is subtle in execution. “The cone was a needed contrast with the rest of the composition,” the architect explains, “but as design progressed we wanted it as quiet as possible.”

It is not so much the sawdust burner form itself but its construction at 17 degrees off the vertical that leads to its spatial success here, adding a sense of directional drama to the room and accentuating visual focus on the five glass ovens and the hourly demonstrations of blowing, turning and annealing by glass artists–the museum’s most popular draw. Vancouver architect Peter Cardew also quoted sawdust burners in the form of the skylight at his Stone Band First Nations School years earlier, but being smaller and vertical, its provenance is less evident, its effect more mysterious (see CA, February 2000). James Stirling memorialized the ocean freighter design elements he saw as a Liverpool lad in his mature architecture, at a time when container ships were taking over. Clearly demonstrating Marshall McLuhan’s idea that dead technologies are memorialized by being embedded in new ones, architects often enshrine dying industrial forms as enduring architectural symbols.

Crowned with a massive exhaust engine, the cone is segmented on the inside, but a continuous curve on the outside–visually right on both counts. Making use of the clean lines provided by a British-designed purlin splice joint, structure is simply evident inside, with diagonal braces providing extra seismic re-inforcement in this prime earthquake zone, their spiral progress up the cone adding to its verticality and visual delight. Fixed seats accommodate 138, with almost as many standees, all of whom are guaranteed excellent sight lines toward the glass-making demonstrations, but judging by the eyes wandering ever-upward when I took in the show it is the hot shop’s architecture that provides the most memorable performance.

While the interior architecture of the hot shop and the rooftop concrete terraces could hardly be more different in look, they are linked by the best kind of populism, one that suggests that architecture can bind people together in a shared spatial right of vision. This has been Arthur Erickson’s key obsession for 40 years, ever since Simon Fraser University. In an era when art museums showboat their own forms, rather than accommodate their collections or enhance their urban settings, this is a very Canadian gift to the world. We should all take pride in the dedication to the idea of the public and the insistent artistry that shaped the Tacoma Museum of Glass. ca

Trevor Boddy has written recently about Arthur Erickson’s University of Lethbridge for the catalogue of the exhibition Lethbridge Modern.

Client: Museum of Glass

Architect team: Arthur Erickson, Nick Milkovich, Wyn Bielaska, Anne Gingras, David Liang, Randy Bens, Gerald Penry

Structural: Skilling, Ward, Magnusson, Barkshire

Mechanical: Notkin Engineering Inc.

Electrical: Sparling

Interiors: Arthur Erickson with Nick Milkovich Architects Inc.

Contractor: Baugh Construction

Lighting: Candela

Acoustics: Michael R. Yantis Associa
tes Inc.

Signage: Pentagram Security: Steve Keller + Associates

Pools/Water Feature: Vincent Helton + Associates

Building Envelope: Wetherholt + Associates

Area: 70,500 square feet

Budget: US $25 million

Completion: July 2002

Photography: Nic Lehoux