I-5 is one of the most frustrating things about Seattle. The highway slices north-south between downtown and the Capitol Hill and First Hill neighborhoods, severing most of the surface roads running east to west, effectively disconnecting the hilltop neighborhoods from the commercial core. The deleterious effect on Seattle's urbanism was certainly recognized early on - as evinced by the design for Freeway Park (Lawrence Halprin, 1976), which attempts to mend the gap with brutalist concrete and hanging gardens.
While I-5 was being completed, another north-south route was being planned. Located a few miles east, the road would have cut through quiet Montlake neighborhood and portions of the Washington Park Arboretum. Thanks to protests in 1969, the project was scrapped, but several ramps had been constructed, over the wetlands between the arboretum and SR-520.
Over the intervening decades, the abandoned ramps became a popular spot for graffiti artists, skateboarders, picnics, outdoor parties, etc. They became impromptu diving boards; the columns supporting it served as a kayak course. The ramps became a civic amenity. Last year, the Washington Dept. of Transportation announced plans to demolish the ramps, and while this is probably necessary for safety - I doubt there's been much maintenance over the years - the city will lose one of its great unprogrammed public spaces.
Seattle's Re-Collective, a group of artists and architect, recognized the value of these apparently-useless structures, and last week unveiled an installation in an attempt to highlight this. The Gate to Nowhere, in the artists' statement, "celebrates Seattle’s unfinished freeways by reflecting their provocative beauty, unintended urbanism and legacy of 1960s citizen activism." One of the ramp's supports is wrapped in reflective Mylar sheets, and in certain light, appears to vanish into its surroundings, the imperfect rippling of the material mimicking the subtle waves of the pool it stands in. At other times of day, or from another angle, the metallic surface contrasts brightly with the murky pond, and stands out like an inverse-torii, the ceremonial gate to some imagined shrine.
This oscillation between visibility and invisibility (or at least visual confusion/camouflage) underscores the instability of the site both in form and function. The ramps will soon be demolished, and the reflective surface reads as a premonition of absence: the artists' intervention thus serves as a marker of a specific time - when ducks swim between the concrete columns, before this peaceful edge the arboretum turns into a de-construction site. This anything-goes third-place will soon be cordoned off, the swimmers and skateboarders turned away. Before that happens, I'll try to take a canoe out to the Gate to reflect a moment on what public space means in this city.
Map: Gate to Nowhere
More Photos Here.
Returning to the US after years of work and travel abroad, Evan Chakroff attempts to bring a global perspective to analysis of the relatively-unknown architectural traditions of his new home, Seattle, Washington.