Sometimes a Seawall Isn’t Just a Seawall

Message meets models in an eye-opening installation at the aquarium

By Eric Scigliano October 20, 2010

Here’s how Sydney did it.
Courtesy Cristina Bump

Usually when we talk about Seattle’s downtown seawall we lament how it’s crumbling and threatening to plunge the waterfront, the viaduct, and all the utilities running alongside into disaster. And how Mayor McGinn’s been pushing a bond issue to rebuild it, but everyone thinks he’s trying to end-run the waterfront tunnel so nothing gets done.

Rookie architectural designer Cristina Bump set aside these debates and asked some other questions: Just what kind of seawall should it be, and how should it fit into the marine shore environment? These questions came naturally: Mithún, the architectural firm where she works, sits on a historic waterfront pier. She got an American Institute of Architects travel fellowship and headed off to Vancouver, Sydney, Brisbane, and Melbourne to see what they’d done with their seawalls. Now she’s showing the results in Smart Seawalls, a little exhibit at the Seattle Aquarium that’s both beguiling and enlightening—with an opening reception this Thursday.

Here’s what Cristina bumped into in her travels: Sydney cut the cost of rebuilding its crumbling seawall 50 to 75 percent by squirting cement grout behind the existing sandstone—a trick that might not work in Seattle, but ought to be considered. It created new marine habitat—vertical tidepools—by adding niches, reef balls, and concrete extrusions, plus boulders in front to cushion the waves. Brisbane has no such smart seawall, but it’s kept a mangrove margin and managed to connect pedestrians to shoreline parks despite what looks like even thicker waterfront traffic than Seattle’s. And so on….

All these findings are clearly presented with the usual photos and wallboards (thought hey could use a little proofreading). But the treat is the old-fashioned three-dimensional, cross-sectional models Bump made of the seawalls she studied. Alas, the aquarium’s hung them by the play area near the Hawai’ian fish tanks, and the kids pull off pieces faster than she can refabricate them. So make allowances and check it out at the Thursday opening, 6:30-8:30pm (RSVP to [email protected]) or in the coming weeks.

Bump’s installation will remain up indefinitely. And she may not be over seawalls yet. Mithún’s been picked to work with the renowned New York landscape architect James Corner, who will design a new waterfront for Seattle.

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