Time and again, James Corner will toss the phrases “big city” and “big nature” together into the same sentence, let them bob and bang around on each other, and see what comes out. It’s woven into his personal history, growing up around the “tough” industrial urban environment of Manchester, England, while hiking and rock climbing in the Lake District every weekend. Creating such juxtapositions is what he most likes to do in urban landscape design today. His New York–based firm, James Corner Field Operations, has a $6 million contract to redesign Seattle’s one-and-three-quarter-mile downtown waterfront. They completed the conceptual design last summer and began the schematic design early this year. Construction is scheduled to begin in 2014. What has him stoked is that we’re offering so much of both: city and nature.
What attracts you about the intersection of city and nature?
I’m a big fan, or big lover, of both worlds. I love big nature on one hand—when I was younger I did a lot of camping and rock climbing and skydiving. And on the other hand I really relate to big cities. New York and London are great in terms of their intensity. So what I’m interested in is working with spaces where you can bring those two together. In Seattle you have a great example of a big city, a city that’s very tough and real and authentic, and at the waterfront it meets a big chunk of nature. Certainly in the psyche of Seattle, Elliott Bay is the front yard, the symbol of nature.
When you first saw the Seattle waterfront, what struck you about the possibilities?
The industriality of the city, particularly the port. In fact, on the cover of our proposal we didn’t even use a green image. The image was of the port and the bay. That’s very strong; not a lot of cities have that adjacency of industry. I think it’s a big deal that you see these amazing container ships going to Asia. It makes Seattle feel global, connected to a larger world. So you have the industrial activity, the port, the mountains, the water, the air always feeling a little chill—it’s a very strong environment, and it’s Seattle. It’s not San Francisco, it’s not New York, it’s uniquely Seattle. That industrial character with big nature.
So the downtown waterfront shouldn’t just be a pretty walk?
That’s what I feel design does in a lot of places. It just imports a plaza or a square, and it takes something away from what it was originally. We don’t want to do that here. There is a lot of juxtaposition. There is some tension and competing interests. There are some strange adjacencies. These are all things we should keep, rather than trying to make them sweet and clean and take away the original aura. It is hard to do, though—hard not to sanitize.
“This is a city you have to pay attention to. Every street that comes down to the waterfront arrives in a different way.”
What was your process in developing this design? Did you do a lot of walking around?
Sure. This is a city you have to pay attention to. Every street that comes down to the waterfront arrives in a different way. You don’t get that from a map. So yes, there was a lot of walking. And meeting people. Listening to stories.
This is a particularly complicated project because there are so many components to it. On one hand, it’s about how to make great public spaces. But it’s also about how to connect downtown to the waterfront and vice versa, so that psychologically and physically it’s much more interconnected.
It’s also a big transportation project. It’s an important fish corridor. It’s an economic story in that people are concerned about their businesses and the potential transformations or enhancements. The eastern side of Alaskan Way that’s presently the backs of buildings is about to become their fronts. Hopefully there will be restaurants and shops with residential above, creating a whole new neighborhood on the waterfront. So it’s not just a design problem in terms of making it a good-looking place.
Where might Seattle lose its way on this project?
It’s going to struggle with what all big, complicated public projects struggle with, which is maintaining focus, clarity, leadership, and financing. Big projects also have a tendency to sometimes appease differences by choosing the lowest common denominator or the easiest path. But differences are what make it interesting.
There are three things that I think have made it successful to date. The first is that it’s being design led. The design, in a sense, is always ahead, it’s not trying to follow and catch up. The design forces the conversation, and then out of that the design might change or take a different tack. Second, there’s a strong city staff and public agencies. And third, a very strong public interest in the waterfront. As long as those three entities are engaged, we have every chance of success.
Published: May 2013