Interview: Weiss Manfredi Architects (Spring 2003)

BB.Opening Day
Seattle Olympia Park Sculpture Gardens – opening day (photo: Ben Benschneider)
SG 1


COMPETITIONS: What were the main program challenges you had to solve in designing the Seattle Sculpture Park? The project is now in the development phase
(2003); so has your approach changed somewhat, or are you sticking pretty much to your original plan?

 

WEISS: We invested an enormous amount of time exploring a number of strategies. We ultimately focused on a strategy of inventing an entirely new topography, wandering from the city to the water’s edge, over highway and train tracks. That proved to be a rather supple strategy. In fact, the current design right now is very much an elaboration of that scheme, but with a more richly developed palate, with landscape, urban, infra- structural, architectural, artistic agendas shaping it.

 

MANFREDI: The scheme was resilient enough, partially because the proposition of building a sculpture park in an urban setting had no models that we could fall back on. So we did look at a very large range of ways to envision the site. We talked to many artists and sculptors about what would constitute an interesting and dynamic sculpture park. A lot of adjustments went on prior to legally receiving the contract. But the scheme was ultimately able to undergo change without being radically different.

 


Original schematic proposal: Olympia Park Sculpture Gardens

 

WEISS: The strategy itself is incredibly simple on one level. The strategy can be drawn with one hand. That kind of clarity on one level has been able to accommodate a number of adjustments and change—the just right 20’6” clearance for the federal highway, the 23’6” clearance over the train tracks , etc; very approximate assumptions become more definite in development.


COMPETITIONS: To what extent do you want to be intrusive in designing this Seattle landscape, and to what extent do you want the sculpture in the landscape to do the talking?

 

MANFREDI: The thing about this site is that there is nothing natural there. It is actually a brownfield site, which has been excavated. What fascinates us is the opportunity to rethink what an artificial landscape might be; we don’t have the usual split between what is natural and what is artificial. This is all an artificial landscape within a very interesting city with topography, train tracks, a shoreline with boats—this is about as artificial as you can get. Everything is invented; so that kind of schism isn’t present on this site.

 

WEISS: In this case, one has to think of the landscape as a kind of partner for art. Here the surrounding itself is so much larger than the site with the views to the south of the city and the views to the north of the water and mountains. The site feels as large as the sound or as large as the city. We create a brand new topography, which navigates that forty-foot drop from the city to the water’s edge. If it were just a flat landscape, it would be a pretty uninteresting setting for art. So we have hyper-articulated the ups and the downs within certain areas, whereas the primary armature is very gentle over a slow path. If anything, we wanted to heighten the understanding of where it is highly topographically charged, and where it is neutral. So really it is both.

 

COMPETITIONS: The Olympia Fields Park competition was undoubtedly a milestone event, which opened a lot of doors for you. What prepared you for winning that competition?

 

MANFREDI: This sounds like a glib answer, but I think that a little naiveté helped. We always enter a competition with a little bit of innocence and a very high degree of optimism. Those are some of the virtues that still sustain us as we take on other competitions. If you have an optimistic frame of mind, you can be freer to propose solutions that you otherwise might be concerned about, given the program, site, or jury. You have to be somewhat fearless about that and have a certain amount of optimism and innocence.

 

WEISS: We actually initiated our practice by collaborating on a couple of pro bono projects in Harlem—one for a school community center, the other for low-income housing. I think what drew us together initially as architects was the conviction that architecture should be taking place in the public realm, where funding is so often elusive.

   What prepared us to win may be harder to answer than what prepared us to enter
(Olympia Fields). What made that interesting was that it was asking how to create a center or a ‘there, there’ in an undifferentiated suburban landscape, a realm that didn’t have a common ground. The Olympia Fields project was clearly one which had a strategic budget. But they had very real resources to realize the client’s aspirations—to create a center where there had not been one for the community. It was interesting because it involved architecture and landscape; engineering and art.

 

MANFREDI: When you enter a competition, it has to ask the kind of question that is inherently fascinating. The competition for Olympia Fields asked not only social and formal questions, but posited the opportunity to explore a whole range of disciplines that are often segregated—like landscape architecture and ecology, architecture and civil engineering.

 

COMPETITIONS: The Olympia Fields site was very compact for a park. The space between the buildings on one end and the beginning of the terraced activities areas is separated by a depression in the landscape which leaves the viewer with the impression of the space being larger than it actually is. This is an old trick employed by landscape architects. Since you are both architects, not landscape architects; I wondered if this was a calculated gesture on your part?

OF Entry 2
The American Green – Olympia Fields Mitchell Park Competition board  (courtesy: Weiss Manfredi Architects)

SCANTIME: 12/18/95 MODTIME: 2/6/40 MEDIATYPE: 052/55 SPD 0000  #00 SCANNERVENDOR: KODAK SCANNERPRODID: FilmScanner 2000 SCANNERFIRMREV: 3.56 SCANNERSERIAL: 0242 PIW: Eastman Kodak PHOTOFINISHER: ROBIN IMAGING
View to Mitchell Park entrance with meeting facilities (left) and administrative offices (right) Photo: Paul Warchol

WEISS: That touches on the observation that Michael made earlier about our frustration with these disciplinary boundaries—they’re really just administrative boundaries. Who is to say that a landscape architect might not have profound views about making architecture? Similarly, why shouldn’t an architect have views about what it takes to make a setting for architecture? Our background is such that we grew up in environments where the landscape was in many ways formative to our understanding of what we loved about architecture—Michael came from Italy, Rome to be precise; I grew up in northern California, in the apricot orchard district in the hills. In all cases the architecture was a participant, in a much larger landscape or setting, but never the sole presence. All of those have been about shaping settings as well as shaping buildings. You can say that it is the purview of the landscape architect in the traditional sense; but arguably, I think we have been keen on straddling a whole series of disciplines.

Login to see more

(login problems? E: scollyer@competitions.org or http://competitions.org/contact/)