The Etiquette of Altering a Park

Counterbalance Park in Seattle was one of the last works by Robert Murase, a preeminent landscape architect of the Pacific Northwest. Mark Hinshaw of Crosscut takes issue with both the aesthetics and process of some recent alterations on the part of a private interest group.

Seattles’s Counterbalance Park lit up at night. Matthew Rutledge on Flickr

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This piece originally appeared on Crosscut.

Fifteen years ago I had the distinct pleasure of working with Bob Murase, who was one of the Pacific Northwest’s greatest landscape architects. Murase’s persona perfectly matched the Zen-like quality of his body of work. His voice was so soft that one had to lean forward to hear him. Time slowed as he measured out thoughtful observations.

Murase had a gift for artfully manipulating stone and its interaction with water, whether flowing or still. We can see his keen craft in the Garden of Remembrance in front of Seattle’s Benaroya Hall, where layers of black stone mark the intersection of the avenue with University Street. You can also see his mastery in the beautiful, welcoming forecourt at the Fred Hutchison Center along Fairview, a space that replaced an off-putting, prison-like security fence. The simple, curving cut stone in the atrium of the Port of Seattle Headquarters is another superb example of his controlled and poetic craft.

Murase passed away in July of 2005. I write these words of praise not as a belated eulogy, but to note that his very last work was here in Seattle: A small park at Roy and Queen Anne Avenue. Recently, it has been the scene of an unfortunate and unnecessary dust-up. Perhaps the parcel is cursed—for many  years it was occupied by the huge White Blob, an ill-fated and bizarre piece of quasi-Middle Eastern architecture that was as much an embarrassing joke as it was a unique landmark.

Today, the Murase-designed Counterbalance Park occupies that spot. Its name commemorates the cable car that many decades ago used to run up and down the steep street to the top of Queen Anne Hill, operated by machinery using counterweights. Murase’s design is characteristically simple: Horizontal planes, one of which rises up to create a plinth, making a low wall for sitting. Fine, chipped granite covers the surface, as it does in many elegant parks throughout the world. High concrete walls at the rear, conveniently provided by adjacent private buildings, offer a sense of enclosure and the sense of an empty room that is waiting for people to use. The rear walls are accented with colorful lights in the evening, adding an ethereal touch. The park is small enough that a few people can feel comfortable in it and just large enough for modest gatherings and events.

Murase originally intended for one his signature elements to be a part of the upper level—a carefully-selected and sculpted arrangement of stone over which water would cascade. Alas, the budget for the park was too constrained to allow for that piece and it was deleted from the construction plans.

Limited public funds were supplemented by private donations to the Seattle Parks Foundation. But there still was not enough money available to add the final artful element. Moreover, Murase died not long after the park opened.

Flash forward a few years to more recent times. The Uptown Alliance, an organization on lower Queen Anne, decided to honor Raj Shah, a local business owner who made the largest private contribution to the park. The small plaque that had been installed was considered inadequate, so a proposal was made to the parks department to add an “art element.”

A charitable assumption could be made that there was sincerity in a desire to complete Murase’s original design intent as the medium chosen was stone and water. The general concept apparently was okayed by Parks staff with an understanding that a detailed design would be shown in the form of plans and sketches for final review and approval.

That apparently did not happen. Instead, a piece was privately commissioned and fabricated. This was composed of five sculpted rocks of different sizes, some as tall as a person, others smaller and carved in dish shapes to contain water. The two tall pieces had text incised into them, one naming the donor.

Credit: Mark Tilbe

Several things are going on here that are quite dismaying. First, the work of a renowned landscape architect has been altered without any review by designated bodies that normally approve of public design in the city.

Certainly, all parks evolve over time; few are so sacrosanct as to be kept absolutely intact forever. As landscape architect Guy Michaelson points out, “Most designers fully expect that their work will be altered with time.” But typically there is a very careful process, considered by professionals experienced in design of spaces, that considers appropriate scale, arrangement, and materials. This is to ensure that the design integrity is maintained. Parks are not spaces for anyone to simply decide to add stuff, no matter how well-intended.

Second, it is possible to imagine any number of artistic works that might have complemented the park by adding an unexpected element, a whimsical touch, a contrasting object or a quiet reverential piece as seen in many parks here and elsewhere. But choosing a medium that Murase himself would have used presents a “confusion of authenticity,” as Michaelson puts it.

Photographs of the stones reveal nothing that is close to the craft and artfulness that Murase’s mind would have created. To put it mildly, they are awkward, clunky and crude. Worse, with the text clumsily cut into certain facets, do they even rise to the level of art? Imagine Hammering man with the name of a donor stenciled up the side of one leg.

Finally, does this really even belong in the park—anywhere?

There are sincere and passionate people on both sides of this debate. How do you sufficiently give credit to donors while respecting a work of design? In some sense this has been answered in many civic buildings that have been supplemented with private money. “A donor wall” is located discreetly off to the side. Large donors get upper tier billing with larger font, while smaller donors find themselves in a long list. One rarely sees a single donor announced in the middle of an important space.

All this has become somewhat of an embarrassment to the Parks Department, highlighting its lack of a firm policy regarding such credits. According to Dewey Potter, spokesperson for the department, Parks staff have worked with the parties involved to locate the large inscribed stones off to one side. The smaller stones would be partially sunken into the ground level of the middle of the park.

A Solomon-like compromise, perhaps, but one that still essentially messes with the design of the park. And not in a good way.

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Tags: parksbuilt environmentseattlelandscape architecture

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