An Olmstedian vision survives midcentury campus planning to thrive again.
By Randy Gragg
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A city of hilltops and lakes bracketed by two mountain ranges, Seattle owns a surplus of views. But none quite matches the grandness of the Rainier Vista. John Charles Olmsted captured it in his plan for the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, guiding the era’s standard, plaster-and-wood City Beautiful architecture to frame Mount Rainier in a compressed perspective sliced through the thick forest. As the University of Washington, the site’s owner, grew, it kept the vista as a front yard, building its early collegiate gothic edifices to bracket the burly 14,400-foot volcano. Take that, Ivy League.
But then came the era of the auto and midcentury campus planning.
Olmsted shaped the grand axis as the exposition’s entrance from railroad and ferry stops at its foot. But he sketched nothing beyond the great fair’s grounds. Thus the view’s foreground became a visual ellipsis petering out in the forest and marshes beyond. That lower terminus (known as the Montlake Triangle) and its surroundings sprouted a clutter of buildings and infrastructure: widening roads, giant underground pipes for steam and sewage, and a barely buried parking garage. As UW’s medical research arm grew into one of the country’s most muscular, a second campus of beige, Lego-set buildings rose at the vista’s end. And as the UW Huskies became a Pac-12 football powerhouse, their stadium surged to the east with 70,000 seats and home-game Saturdays that clog the surrounding roads for miles. Meantime, the onetime Burlington Northern Railroad at the vista’s foot in 1978 became one of the country’s first and busiest rail-to-trail paths, the Burke-Gilman Trail. But the university plowed a service road down the vista’s midsection.
“The surroundings became the boring-edge, white-space infrastructure area, a surplus space,” says Shannon Nichol, FASLA, a cofounder of GGN, the firm given the job to resuscitate Rainier Vista. “The view ended like a foggy distance in a painting rather than being really designed as valuable space. There was nothing interesting coming out of the land.”
But with the coming of Seattle’s underground light rail system, called Link—destined to dump thousands of students daily and tens of thousands of fans on Huskie Saturdays right at the vista’s foot—university planners saw an opportunity to revive and extend the Olmsted plan while creating a front door the university lacked. Three other agencies—Sound Transit, King County Metro Transit, and the Seattle Department of Transportation—plus their traffic engineers came with their own agendas, based in movement more than in vistas.
In 2008, Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates took the first turn at master planning the site’s layered challenges. The firm proposed sinking the most visible street—Pacific Place—at the vista’s foot and extending the viewshed with terraced stormwater retention gardens and a wide land bridge.
In 2009, GGN took the baton. But then, the recession hit. As the public agencies scrambled for dollars, the project nearly died. Then yet another agency, the Washington State Department of Transportation, arrived with new dollars from a nearby freeway expansion’s mitigation budget and yet another bike path to connect. Finally, after eight years, Nichol and GGN’s project lead, Bernie Alonzo, ASLA, synthesized the site’s many complexities into a few sharp strokes to fill in the fog of Olmsted’s original picturesque vision.
“On a conceptual level, we restored a sense of entry,” Nichol says. “Despite many plans since Olmsted, as a designed landscape, it had never been solved—never fully connected to the campus nor fully formalized as a place for people.”
In its plan, GGN’s Lower Rainier Vista stretches like a long, six-acre hourglass from midpoint in the original vista, narrowing at the bridge over Pacific Place, then widening over the Montlake Triangle garage. But for a few new plantings, GGN left the existing upper vista untouched. With what they called a “turf-and-concrete budget,” Nichol and Alonzo chose to focus on the big moves, taming what Nichol wryly describes as the many “tubes of modality”—pedestrians, bikes, and cars—while divining elegance from inexpensive, simple details.
The grading, for instance, almost imperceptibly terraces within the site’s 2 percent slope. Functionally, it rises enough to allow the bridge to clear trolley-line wires, but never steep enough to require handrails. Visually, the grade helps block the clutter. “We tried to create moments instead of just a linear ramp,” Nichol says. “As a result, the busy intersection at the vista often disappears from view.” The lower sections, Alonzo adds, have gentle weirs that could be retrofitted with the stormwater retention Van Valkenburgh first proposed. The newly sunken Pacific Place becomes a kind of ha-ha, channeling vehicular traffic and the Burke-Gilman Trail’s bicycles below the view line.
GGN sharply narrowed Van Valkenburgh’s proposed bridge and made it shallower in profile, reducing its budget while lessening the tunnel effect for the cars and bikes running below. The underpass’s retaining walls are tiered with two striations of gabions: the lower baskets filled with dark basalt below and lighter granite above. “When you are underneath it, you’re not in a monolithic unibody wrap of concrete,” Nichol says. “Instead, you’re in earth. It’s less like a freeway underpass.”
With the bridge as the “neck” of the hourglass form, the Lower Rainier Vista echoes the gothic revival buildings at the upper end. But it functions as a curving cruciform intersection at the heart of what is, in effect, a multimodal cloverleaf. Despite the myriad crisscrossing pedestrians and bikes from the campus, Link, a busy nearby bus stop, and the bike trails, Nichol wanted it “to feel like a room, like a place that’s stable and is a social center.”
GGN kept the plant palette equally understated, as Nichol puts it, just “putting the forest back,” a seemingly simple enough goal that time will test with GGN’s 50-year successional plan. Fast-growing bigleaf maples now extend the frame of the vista. For the understory, Nichol drew inspiration from the rain-shadowed hillsides of the San Juan Islands—salal, barberry, native roses, and the like, with some California and Asian grasses that can survive the increasingly punishing summer sun on the south-facing slope while feeding birds and bees. As the maples begin providing shade, Douglas fir, western hemlock, and western red cedar can be added. As the conifers grow, in turn, the maples can be removed to keep the landscape light on the garage buried beneath it.
In an era of stratospherically rising Seattle real estate values and traffic, devoting so much land and infrastructure dollars to extending a view is, to say the least, unusual, as is the minimalist vision GGN brought to the vastness. The budget allowed only a few precast and metal fixed benches, but Nichol and Alonzo kept the vista even clearer, alleviating obstructions such as lamp stanchions on the bridge by tucking the lighting beneath the handrails. Nichol specified a fine-grained aggregate for the land bridge and walkways, echoing historic bridges nearby while distinguishing the vista from the many other circulation surfaces feeding it. The concrete’s scoring follows the hourglass curves, a small touch that adds to the simple palette’s elegance. Above all, Nichol wanted the bridge and paths to signal, “You’re in the campus.”
“We thought we should be thinking of the era that we’re connecting to,” Nichol says. “What would they do? They would be confident about being simple and big, setting the bone structure. And then it would be in the details and craftsmanship. Hopefully, over time, you’ll get that romance. In this case, we hope it will come from nature as the edges grow in and, eventually, a forest.”
The Rainier Vista has long been embraced for formal ceremonies such as commencement. The view is a logo, even gracing university banners that hang from nearby light poles. But the extension already has spawned a new, oh-so-Seattle fest: “rail-gate” parties that fill the vista with transit-oriented Husky fans who pitch tents and barbecue. Yet on most days, the vista serves the same purposes for which Olmsted designed it: a fountain-to-mountain view and grand entrance.
For GGN, it’s merely the latest dive into revivifying vintage plans and landscapes. In 2013, the firm designed a network of streetscapes, open spaces, and alleyways for the 10-acre CityCenterDC, restoring the original street grid of Pierre L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the nation’s capital. In 2014, GGN master planned a restoration and revitalization of the historic Group Plan Mall and Civic District for Cleveland’s downtown core, designed in 1903 by the architect Daniel Burnham, an early, more permanent realization of City Beautiful concepts he had developed in Chicago’s Columbian Exposition and the McMillan Plan for the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
“It’s like finding a sleeping giant,” says Nichol of working within these larger historic plans. “They’re tough sites, because they were part of a big macro plan that’s sort of out of scale to the human, and you end up with these weird triangle places or [spaces] turned into parking lots and oversized intersections. But you can reassociate it as an ornamental feature of the city and then bring the scale down so people appreciate it when they’re just in that given space.
“The City Beautiful movement fascinates us in its parallels to our current times,” Nichol adds. “We’re also reacting to an era of urbanism that’s been very unhealthy: the dominance of the automobile since the 1950s, just as the City Beautiful movement was reacting to the industrial revolution.”
Randy Gragg is a longtime writer and curator of architecture and urban design in the Pacific Northwest.
CLIENT UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON, SEATTLE. LANDSCAPE ARCHITECT GGN, SEATTLE. STRUCTURAL/CIVIL ENGINEER KPFF, SEATTLE. GENERAL CONTRACTOR SELLEN CONSTRUCTION/GARY MERLINO CONSTRUCTION JOINT VENTURE, SEATTLE. GEOTECHNICAL ENGINEER SHANNON & WILSON, SEATTLE. ELECTRICAL ENGINEERING/LIGHTING DESIGNER AEI/PIVOTAL, SEATTLE. TROLLEY SYSTEMS ENGINEER LTK ENGINEERING SERVICES, SEATTLE.