Good Urban Plaza

The Garden of Remembrance, on the SW corner of Benaroya Hall at 2nd and University, is an urban plaza done right. All the key ingredients are there: lots of places to sit, sun and shade, privacy and exposure, beautiful plantings, water, a comfortable human scale, an elevated prospect from which to watch the action on 2nd Ave, activation provided by the bus tunnel, the pedestrian way down to Harbor Steps, and a cafe, and even a thoughtful theme.

And the proof is in the people: When the weather is nice, the plaza fills up. In contrast, on the day these photos were taken, the steps next to the Seattle Art Museum across 2nd Ave were nearly empty.

The only way the Garden of Remembrance could be improved is if it had more activation after work hours, such as with a restaurant that could spill out on to the plaza on warm summer nights. Of course, night time activation is always a challenge for this part of downtown that is so dominated by day time office uses.

The Garden of Remembrance illustrates how a relatively modest amount of urban open space can go a long way. Large urban open spaces are appropriate in some cases, but are all too often underutilized, either because of alienating design, or because people have no reason to be in them. If we aspire to maximize the potential for livable density in our cities, we would do well to focus our efforts on the open space model of the Garden of Remembrance.

18 Responses to “Good Urban Plaza”

  1. Sabina Pade

    The comparison of the architecturally unassuming Benaroya Hall with Frank Gehry’s ostentatious Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles is instructive. Not only does Benaroya, as pointed out above, provide a very well-functioning and aesthetically pleasing public space, it links Second and Third Avenues with seductive gracefulness. Too, along Third Avenue the building itself actively invites the passerby to step inside.

    This, whereas Disney, albeit sculpturally remarkable and notwithstanding the great expense and hype associated with its construction, hides its public garden from view, formally turns its back to the less elevated area of Bunker Hill surrounding it, and along Grand Street, location of the building’s pedestrian entrance, positively sneers at the passerby.

    Perhaps the planners at Disney were so eager to have its (revenue-generating) parking garage in place, and so frightened by the facility’s burgeoning cost that they handcuffed Gehry into ignoring many obvious urbanistic considerations. Or perhaps Gehry simply hasn’t been a pedestrian often enough in his life to have real insight into such considerations.

    Certainly the planners at Benaroya deserve commendation for prioritizing the facility’s users, as opposed to the egos of its builders.

  2. RC

    The plaza at 2 Union Square is also attractive and popular (although also only in daytime) despite being not as visible from the street as the Benaroya example.

  3. Josh Mahar

    Sadly, Sabina, having gone through some modern architecture books, it is Disney that makes the pages, not Benaroya. I think it has to do with some (and I very much qualify this) architects are more involved with the astetic of the building as a whole, failing to understand the building in context. This is baffling since getting a full view of an impressive building can be rare in urban areas. It is much more likely that people will enjoy and engage with the building from street level. Lucky for us the Benaroya designers understood this.

    I wonder about this with the Seattle Central Library. While the building is pretty impressive, they didn’t do much to encourage reading around the outside of the building. The odd shape of the building makes for some very unique, cave-like spaces that could have been very fun to sit and relax around. Perhaps the designers were too interested in the structure itself to plan much for street engagement. Of course, it is public and the inside space is pretty neat, so perhaps they just focused on that. Still I would love to have seen some little Garden of Rememberance style nooks around the SPL.

  4. Matt the Engineer

    At least several times per week I walk up and down University starting at the base of the Harbor Steps and ending near the freeway. This passes past the wonderful SAM stairs* and past the Garden of Rememberance**.

    I love summer, when there are people all over the Harbor Steps, sculptures displayed all along the walk, and sometimes musicians playing somewhere. I almost forget that I’m on my way to work.

    * To see a different line of sculptures, enter SAM and walk up the same stairs but on the inside. This is especially nice when it’s raining. Sadly, you can only do this on your way up the hill, not down (thanks to an auto-locking door at the top).

    ** To avoid a stoplight and a hill climb, enter the bus tunnel and go up the escalator. This is also nice when it’s raining.

  5. Sabina Pade

    Josh, agreed that the Seattle Central Library seems to want to keep its readers indoors!

    Happily its reading areas are for the most part blessed with natural light.

    We can hope the gardens of the Nakamura Courthouse across 5th Avenue, once renovations are complete, and perhaps also the gardens of 909 5th across Madison, will offer us some outdoor seats with eye candy to enjoy a good book in.

  6. Sabina Pade

    Matt, thanks for the * and ** tips!

  7. dan bertolet

    Good critique of SPL here:

    “But while some of the library’s spaces are comfortable, active, and visually stunning, the building as a whole turns inward from the city around it, limiting its effect on downtown.”

    The piece also has a telling photo of the Disney Concert Hall.

  8. JoshMahar

    Thanks Dan for the article, pretty cool group that PPS too.

    Dan, (and others) any thoughts on the new South Downtown proposal? Personally I say ABOUT TIME! It’s been sad that such a close urban area was left underutilized for so long. It’s one of the few places in downtown that I actually want to see MORE luxury condos.

  9. David Sucher

    I like Benaroya Hall. The Plaza looks good but I rarely get downtown so I don’t know personally. But its Arcade on Third Avenue is absolutely brilliant — a textbook example of how to activate an institutional streetfront.

    But overall Benaroya Hall missed opportunities to create studios for (at least) musicians as Carnegie Hall did; it vastly underuses its site. The idea of studios and even residences for musicians was raised during design but rejected by the Symphony. Big mistake.

  10. Sabina Pade

    David – Studios and residences for musicians at the concert hall… an intriguing idea!

    Carnegie Hall, as you know, incorporated live-in artist studios in its original 1891 design. To the best of my knowledge, they were relatively humble. Few artists in those days could have afforded posh. These original studios, if I’m not mistaken, were not substantially altered during the 1986 renovations.

    Cesar Pelli designed a handsome slender revenue-generating office tower to stand alongside Carnegie Hall. Today the performers’ facilities of Carnegie Hall extend into the lower floors of this tower. But surely you speak specifically of the famous old rickety upstairs artists’ studios above the main auditorium. Alas, I’ve bad news for you: Carnegie Hall management wants these studios now for archives and administrative office space….

    I’m not sure why you say Benaroya Hall should have included such spaces. I in fact once lived above the concert hall I worked at, in a large mixed-use 1930 structure that held office, light industrial, retail, residential and entertainment spaces – notably an old movie palace the owner wanted to demolish and that I had (with success) encouraged the city to re-use as a concert hall. I had a beautiful apartment full of period Art-Deco detail, a splendid view of lake and mountains, the rent was reasonable, and I could go to work in my slippers.

    Not one of my musician colleagues ever expressed serious interest in renting an apartment there as I had. And I can’t imagine the players of the Seattle Symphony wanting to live above Benaroya Hall. Most professional musicians prefer to go home after work.

    Artists’ studios above Benaroya Hall, unless expressly subsidised, would have to rent at market rates. Consider that the Carnegie Hall studios have for decades now been relatively affordable in part because they’re a century old and have never been significantly upgraded.

    I’m not aware of any purpose-built modern-day dedicated concert hall that includes living facilities for its resident professional orchestra. There are new facilities that include silent rooms, saunas, exercise rooms, game rooms, but residences? Quite simply, most professional musicians prefer to go home when they’ve finished working for the day.

  11. Azzie Catala

    I recognize this was a really interesting post thanks for writing it!

  12. Erin Andrews

    I was pleased to read this article, keep up the good work.

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