Art for our sake

Art—in all its forms—may be Benaroya Hall's most significant civic contribution.

Two weeks ago, Benaroya Hall threw open its doors, after nearly two decades of private and public effort. The first new symphony hall nationwide in almost 10 years, it is a major local cultural institution occupying an entire city block in a relatively small downtown. On time and on budget, it still faces real and serious civic obligations, which must be met through its art, architecture, and programming.

So far, there are five major artworks and a public plaza—all of which have begun the work of turning Benaroya into a place where public and private urban life intersect. The Garden of Remembrance, designed by Murase Associates, is the first visible component and an elegant introduction to the building from Second Avenue. Public gathering places are difficult to carry off, and downtown Seattle has few successful examples.

This one works. With its strong retail presence (Starbucks) and an imaginative combination of hard and soft landscaping, the Garden welcomes you for a 15-minute latte or an hour’s alfresco lunch. The comforting sound of water makes it a place to contemplate and remember—public, but private.

Walking through the Garden into the Metro tunnel, you enter the Temple of Music. Funded by 1 Percent for Art, this piece is the most visibly public of the five artworks. Erin Shie Palmer, a Seattle artist/architect, repeats the theme of memory introduced in the Garden, sculpting the tunnel to recall the vaulted ceilings of train stations and the sensual curves of musical instruments.

Palmer’s work, functional and attractive, expresses in built form the conceptual relationship between music and architecture. Not frozen music, though; the light glows warm as apples. Restive hands find haven here, in tiles etched with patterns, notes, and signs. Palmer balances visual and tactile stimuli, turning the small space into both a room and a hallway, allowing users to move at their own pace.

Like Palmer, Anna Valentina Murch subtly orchestrates perception to blend private and public space. Once, when Murch was visiting from San Francisco, the daily paper featured a glorious sunset; only in Seattle, she thought, would that make the headlines. Her light installation honors our ambiguous, ever-changing sky.

Skytones paints the Third Avenue interior arcade in sunset colors, using 300 fluorescent lights as a brush, dipped in colored gels. Nature, invited into the building, encourages visual interaction from city dwellers. Hurrying home, they can watch the evening reflected in Skytones as it dissolves from pink to blue.

Two Dale Chihuly chandeliers anchor the north and south corners of the Boeing Arcade along Third Avenue. On the north, a goblet-shaped piece caps the staircase, and you long to touch it. At the southern end, a crystal Medusa’s head—thousands of dangling glass pieces—shows Chihuly’s talent for putting light in its proper place.

Taken together, the Crystal Cascade chandeliers celebrate public space and speak clearly to the urban context, reinforcing the busy activity and sight lines of Third Avenue. The southern Chihuly crowns the Third Avenue tunnel entrance, making the Hall’s riches visible to the public even when the arcade closes.

Mark DiSuvero’s sculpture Schubert Sonata also brings inside and outside together. Passersby can see it from the cascading terraces that step down from the grand lobby to University Street. Slim lines, fresh as pavement art, defy its five-ton weight. Inside, its placement in the sculpture court is precise as chamber music. Spinning in the wind like a rusty weather vane, its iron form is strongly counterpoised with the delicate Chihuly.

The placement of Robert Rauschenberg’s Echo in the grand lobby offers glorious evidence of the way Benaroya Hall will enrich downtown’s diverse environment. The lobby itself, a sheer glass curtain wrapping around three sides of the building, looks out on the complex built and human environment surrounding the Hall. At night, Benaroya will become a five-story lamp at downtown’s heart, with Echo the crackling filament in its incandescent core.

Virginia and Bagley Wright, patrons and friends of Rauschenberg for over 30 years, specially commissioned Echo for the Hall. It represents Rauschenberg well: Like a microwave oven, he bombards viewers with dense layers of visual puns and allusions. Echo‘s specific architectural function is to frame the facade of the inner auditorium. The piece also serves to synthesize all the building’s themes: The images in Echo call and respond to one another, creating an environment so charged with currents and crosscurrents that it becomes visual music.

Indeed, Rauschenberg makes many literal references to music—instruments and composer’s scores, including that of Phillip Glass, another artist connected with the Wrights. He also calls to mind the oblique music of the city: clanging car horns, the squeak of a homeless woman’s shopping cart, a bicycle wheel’s whir.

Echo also features images from Rauschenberg’s Florida home: quiet day lilies, the wind’s sound through palm trees. Their tropical warmth warms the wintry photographs of city life.

Rauschenberg’s genius lies in his ability to synthesize a collection of parts into a greater whole. Fragmented and non-hierarchical, the accidental glimpses caught in Echo add up to an urban vision, of the city as work-in-progress, always in the state of becoming. Like the city, Echo cannot be seen once and left behind; it demands, and rewards, repeated viewing.

Benaroya Hall, too, is still in the process of becoming. There isn’t much art on its bones yet, but what there is, is choice. When additions are made—and given the same care and intent as the first five works—the Hall and the city will benefit. Till then, blank interior corridors give concert-goers and passersby no reason to pause and enjoy the building. Great art deserves good company.

A modest beginning would be mounting the recent Greg Kucera show of cardboard signs, “Homeless—Hungry—Please help.” This would continue the theme of integrating diverse urban experiences and remind us that winter will be cold and that not all evenings will end in champagne and Chihuly. Truly civic buildings are not built in one night; here’s hoping that Benaroya’s art and architecture follow through on their extraordinary promise.