City Icons of Seattle

Architecture is frozen music. So said that great German writer, Goethe. His words came to mind as I sized up the eclectic and evolving symphony of architectural confections that stud the Seattle skyline. It’s a lavish banquet of styles, spanning the decades and saluting the shifts in design fads. Here are some definitive masterpieces that should be included on every self-respecting sightseeing check-list. Posing as if their lives depended on it, the selfie-brigade is swooning over Seattle’s latest eye-grabber, the three Amazon Spheres. Opened in January, these four-storey faceted glass globes are creating huge buzz. Created as a perk for Amazon’s 40,000-strong downtown workforce, they are designed as a retreat for workers to relax – and think outside the box.

Open-plan meeting spaces are surrounded by secluded seating nooks, beverage counters and jungle-style catwalks. Reminiscent of Singapore’s bio-domes, the Seattle Spheres have been dressed with walkways, bridges and hundreds of plant species, including a 40-year old fig tree transplanted from California. The “Amazon Effect” is never far from the lips of local conversations – or Donald Trump. I noticed what used to be a five-storey downtown shopping mall is being completely demolished to make way for another shiny office tower to house Amazon’s employees. How symbolic. Across the road, the symbolism is even richer at the grand old Macy’s department store in Seattle. The traditional retailer now only operates from the first two floors of its city flagship. Amazon has hoovered up the other five, to accommodate more of its staff.

The Spheres may well rivalling the Space Needle in the city icon stakes, but the 1960s’ Space Age landmark is fighting back, with the final touches being applied to its major renovation. Full floor-to-ceiling windows and glass floors are transforming the revolving restaurant and observation deck. Another definitive city landmark is MoPop, the Museum of Pop Culture. Designed by Frank Gehry and financed by Microsoft co-founder, Paul Allen, the façade’s design aimed to capture the energy of rock-n-roll music. Composed of undulating stainless steel, translucent metal and coloured glass accents, it’s an urban dazzler. Spanning music, science fiction and pop culture, permanent exhibits include Jimi Hendrix’s smashed guitar, Blade Runner’s Spinner flying car and the Wicked Witch of the West’s hat. Nearby, Chihuly Garden and Glass hooks them in with a wondrous world of artworks.

Dale Chihuly’s permanent exhibitions showcase pieces and influences that shaped his career. The massive installation piece featuring 1400 Chihuly Persians is a show-stopper, and the outdoor gardens ingeniously blend indigenous Northwest botanical finesse with glass art. I made my way down to Chihuly, MoPop and the Space Needle on another signature Emerald City staple, the Seattle Center Monorail. The elevated people-mover has been high-riding the streets since it opened for the World’s Fair in 1962, along with the needle. Elvis Presley hopped a ride shortly after opening. With many cities, including Sydney, decommissioning their monorails, it adds to the novelty to taking a ride on Seattle’s Jetsonian version.

Central Waterfront is enjoying a major renaissance with freshly face-lifted piers and added new enticements triggering a new-found love affair with the precinct. If you’ve visited Seattle previously, you’ll probably recall how Highway 99, the ugly roadway viaduct, not only undermines the aesthetic beauty of the waterfront, but brutally severs the city centre off from harbour. That is all about to change, due to the imminent completion of a multi-billion dollar cross-city double-decker tunnel. Set to open later this year, the hulking overpass which is the nation’s most dangerous stretch of highway, will be completely demolished, allowing Central Waterfront to seamlessly meld with the city centre, with a sweep of pedestrian-friendly developments looming, backing on to Pike Place Market.

Some developments have already been completed, including a public space extension that was primarily funded by the community. Donors were honoured with charm bracelets, wrapped around the railings, glistening in the sun. Freshly painted and looking resplendent, Piers 55 and 56 are jam-packed with quirky shops and eateries, including Elliott’s Oyster House, The Crab Pot, Ye Olde Curiosity Shop (amazing taxidermy!) and the Seattle Great Wheel, jutting out over the waters from Pier 57, with epic views across Puget Sound.
From there, I wandered down to Pioneer Square, the original heart of the city, where the atmospheric streetscape of faded glory buildings are inhabited with a hive of eclectic businesses, eateries and independent stores. The smaller scale of the terracotta and brick Romanesque revival buildings provide a stirring contrast to the soaring heights of the glassy skyscrapers.

After the Great Fire in 1889, much of the original street network was filled in and built over, which has given rise to a host of underground tours, if you want to delve deep into the city’s secrets and hidden surprises, along subterranean passageways. Pioneer Square is also home to an architectural peach, the Smith Tower. When it opened in 1914, it was the tallest skyscraper west of the Mississippi. This 38-storeyed neo-classical blockbuster oozes pure grace, even though it’s been dwarfed by so many contemporary high-rises. A recent renovation project has added a Prohibition-era themed cocktail bar to the observation floor of this beloved landmark.

I joined a Smith Tower tour, which whisks you up to the open-air Observation Deck for heart-stirring skyline views, before enjoying a barrel-aged cocktail in the roofline bar. This sky-high speakeasy exudes a heart-warming glimpse into the glamour and elegance of the age when Smith Tower first inspired Seattleites to reach for the skies.
I finished my skyline roaming at Seattle Central Library, an 11-storey asymmetrical glass colossus designed by the daring Dutch architect, Rem Koohaas. The expansive two-level atrium is light and airy, dressed in miniature gardens and lounge-styling seating. Above the atrium, the “book spiral” houses four floors of bookshelves, which you explore by following the gently angled ramp, wrapped around each floor.

Not only is this library a designer knock-out, but you’ll enjoy a gob-full of cracking city views as you wind your way around the structure. Many of the top-billing attractions, like the Space Needle, MoPop and Chihuly are incorporated into the Seattle CITYPASS booklet. You’ll save time and money and see the city at your own pace. www.citypass.com

Another great way to get the inside scoop on what’s hip and happening in the Emerald City is to join a ride with Seattle Cycling Tours. The three hour guided tour takes in the central business district, Chinatown, South Lake Union ( aka Amazonia), the Waterfront, Pioneer Square and Seattle Center. You’ll be fully kitted out with an urban bike, helmet and water. Great fun and highly informative.

By Mike Yardley.

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