AKA: SAM #2, Downtown, Seattle, WA

Structure Type: built works - exhibition buildings - museums

Designers: Allied Works Architecture (firm); Olson / Sundberg, Architects (firm); Venturi, Scott Brown, and Associates, Architects and Planners (firm); Denise Scott Brown (urban planner); Bradley Thomas Cloepfil (architect); James W.P. Olson (architect); Richard Paul Sundberg (architect); Robert Charles Venturi (architect)

Dates: constructed 1991

6 stories, total floor area: 150,000 sq. ft.

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100 University Street
Downtown, Seattle, WA 98101-2902

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The world-renowned Post-Modernist architectural firm of Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown created the design for this second Seattle Art Museum, designed for a highly visible site on 1st Avenue in Seattle's Downtown. Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, of Philadelphia, PA, worked with the respected Seattle architectural firm, Olson Sundberg, well-known for their buildings housing art. The building had a "complex and contradictory" aesthetic, making decorative allusions to various architectural vocabularies, and had supergraphics that derived from Venturi's Pop Art-influenced works of the 1960s.

Building History

This second, Downtown Seattle facility, designed by Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown, opened on 12/05/1991. Illsley Ball Nordstrom (born 04/11/1912 in Walla Walla, WA-d. 01/18/1996 in Seattle, WA), widow of Nordstrom executive, Lloyd Nordstrom (d. 1976), donated $2 million for the development of the new Seattle Art Museum in 1990.

The primary galleries on floors 2 through 4 provided a 300% increase in floor space for permanent collections compared to the original art museum in Volunteer Park. According to a feature on architect Denise Scott Brown, the Seattle Museum gallery plans diverged from the prevailing trends of the 1990s: "The idea behind the design was not to conform to the current trend of museum as 'articulated pavilions' but to an older tradition of museums as generic loft spaces, for instance the adapted palaces and grand museums of the 19th century and New York’s original Museum of Modern Art. A grand staircase displays sculptures and connects the exhibition spaces, which were specifically designed to accommodate a variety of periods and types of art." (See Google.com, Google Arts and Culture, "The Era-Defining Work of Denise Scott Brown," accessed 12/18/2018.)

The University Street facade feature an undulating wall faced in limestone into which was incised in large letters, "Seattle Art Museum." At ground level, an arcade of arched, triangular and ogee-arched openings stepped up the steep grade along University Street The architects trimmed the voussoirs of each of these arches in variously colored granite, marble and terra cotta pieces.

Building Notes

The Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown building contained approximately 150,000 square feet, of which 45,000 were dedicated to gallery space.

The exterior of the museum featured Venturi's familiar super-graphics and the exaggerated, ironic use of ornamentation typical of Post-Modern design. The building's main creative stroke was Venturi and Scott Brown's "art ladder," a stairway on its south side that created a processional movement toward the inner sanctum of the galleries. The art ladder was punctuated on both ends by Ming Dynasty sculptures which act as guardians of the art sanctuary. It paralleled a similarly stepped walkway lining University Avenue on the exterior. The museum's first (main) floor also had a large lobby on its southwest corner, expanded museum shop on its northwest corner, an auditorium on the north side, and, on the sotheast corner, a children's activity room, and smaller meeting spaces. A central, mezzanine dining area was planned between the main and second floors. Gallery spaces stretched across most of the second, third and fourth floors. The second floor gallery space was intended for traveling exhibitions. On the second floor's northeast corner was a delivery room for trucks. The top floor was given over to administrative offices.

A 1989 Seattle Times article on the revival of use of colorful terra cotta in buildings featured the Seattle Museum of Art #2. Author Marsha King quoted several contemporary architects, including Robert Venturi, on the renewed relevance of the material for designers: "'The idea of actually decorating a building was thought to be corrupt,' says Portland architect Robert Frasca. `Terra cotta, with its neoclassical references, was sort of swept away.' But of late, as the built world looks more and more the same, the public yearns for cities that stand out from one another. And architects want more expressive materials than marble, steel and stone. Terra cotta can be an answer. In small ways it's making a comeback here and across the country not only in the restoration of historic structures, but as a viable material in new construction as well. `There is a new interest in color and ornamentation on buildings,' says Robert Venturi, architect for Seattle's downtown Art Museum. `So naturally terra cotta is coming back. It's a beautiful way of getting color through a durable but light material.' Venturi has designed a scheme of hand-pressed terra cotta in five colors - black, yellow, white, green and blue - as a jewel-like accent on the otherwise masonry-clad art museum. Exact shades haven't been selected.`It's our way of getting touches of vivid color. You can't get colors that vivid from natural materials,' he says." (See Marsha King, "Feats of Clay--Architects Turn Back to Terra Cotta to Bring Vivid Colors to Buildings," Seattle Times, 03/12/1989, p. L1.)

The Seattle Art Commission and the Museum Development Authority jointly commissioned the Los Angeles/Maine artist, Jonathan Borofsky (born 12/24/1943 in Boston, MA), to design a $450,000 large metal sculpture to place on the Seattle Art Museum's southwest corner. The 11-ton piece, "Hammering Man," depicted a workman with a movable arm that hammered and was conceived to honor American workers. During its installation on Saturday, 09/28/1991 by the Mobile Crane Company, a strap used by a crane to hoist the sculpture from its delivery truck broke, causing the Hammering Man to drop onto the pavement, damaging it and surrounding objects. The Seattle Times described the incident: "The sculpture was only a foot off the ground when it fell. The bottom edge slammed into the pavement with a loud bang. The sculpture then teetered against one the cranes. Bystanders ran out of the way. The crane boom then buckled and fell across the sculpture's head and the hammer-holding arm. A second mobile crane was used to steady the sculpture and the damaged boom while workers tried to figure out what to do. The sculpture dropped to the street, its heavy steel feet gouging holes in the pavement, then fell across the top of the crate operator's cab. The crane operator was unhurt."

Seattle Times writer Bob Lane also commented: "The sculpture's fall was yet another problem for the new art museum. Its opening has been delayed by construction problems, and the museum's contractor has asked for more money, because of the complex nature of the building designby celebrated architect Robert Venturi." (See Bob Lane, "'Crashing Man,'" Seattle Times/Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 09/29/1981, p. B1.) Noted photographer, John Stamets (d. 0608/2014 in Seattle, WA), a lecturer in photography at the University of Washington, documented the scene, and one of his images was used to illustrate the 09/29/1991 story.

PCAD id: 3302