Proposed Seattle Asian Art Museum Expansion onto Volunteer Park
Architect Statement to Accompany Architect Sketches
After taking a few photos in the field and drawing some quick sketches, the sheer scale of the proposed addition and its overpowering impact on the surrounding park became evident to me. I would like to bring attention to several issues:
- First of all, the building has been repeatedly stated to be “three floors high.” But in common practice, floor-to-floor heights often vary and in some cases deviate from the standard 10 feet.
- While the addition may not exceed the height of the existing building at its southeast corner, the existing building at +/- 50′ is already nearly two stories taller than the height allowed in this neighborhood zone.
- The proposed addition references the height of the existing building as if the ground plane beneath is parallel to it, rather than taking into account the more than six foot change in grade within the proposed footprint toward the west. Thus, when one adds this, the experience of a person on the ground is of a building that is now pushing 6 stories in height. In addition, the east balcony projects an added 6′ and looms overhead of those using the park below!
In terms of whether the current proposed expansion program, which impinges into the landmarked Volunteer Park, is the only/best solution to accommodate SAAM’s program needs, I would like to stress the following:
- In terms of program needs, there have been oft-repeated public statements, but there has been a lack of supporting data/metrics showing that there are no feasible alternatives to expansion (i.e. more efficient reprogramming and repurposing of existing space, for example, locate new HVAC system on the building’s roof, OR branching out elsewhere off-site).
- A more modest approach to expansion might be in the immediate vicinity of SAAM. This could involve beginning to slowly acquire properties across 15th Avenue E in a way similar to what St. Mark’s, or The Bertschi School have done. They have each gained necessary classroom space with a far lesser impact on neighborhood bulk regulations than the proposed expansion.
With regard to proposed expansion of the building into precious protected Landmark park land, has SAAM looked carefully at the re-purposing of areas within the existing building or even expansion underground keeping within the existing built footprint? Expanding on the possibility of building underground, I’d like to offer a couple of points:
- One of the attached sketches identifies an existing unexcavated area at the lower level, while another identifies area available beneath the existing west terrace. At first glance, building below grade might seem more daunting and physically limiting. However, such expansion might dovetail well with and actually support already planned seismic updates. At the same time, it might positively impact the building’s fossil energy demands.
- Building underground might be viewed as providing less architectural identity and visual impact. However, the aesthetic challenge is then simply refocusing attention from the exterior envelope to interior design. A quick on-line search will reveal that there are numerous examples of compelling underground expansions that have been successfully added to landmark museums both in the US and around the world.
- If expansion underground were chosen, the most obvious ready access would be from the west. This is very appealing since the west lawn has no significant trees. So blazing new heavy equipment pathways through precious green spaces around trees and their canopies would not be necessary.
- This begs the next question. What if the entire west lawn and beyond were to be considered available for present and future underground expansion as needs dictate? Employing current “green roof” technology similar to our new City Hall, the west lawn and landscaping could be restored with little or no evidence of what is going on beneath.
As previously alluded to, there can be long term fossil energy savings in building below grade based upon the earth’s mean temperature. Taking this a step further, has as a ground source heat-pump system been considered in the building planning? The underground heat loop together with several compact mechanical condensing units distributed around the roof of the existing building might greatly reduce the space requirements of HVAC while also greatly supporting the long term viability of the existing building. Installing such a system goes hand-in-hand with excavation for museum expansion.
There has been on-going discussion about the up-dating of deteriorating park infrastructure by other city departments and now, what to do with the decommissioned, fenced reservoir. The pond vista has always been a key complement to the west approach to the landmark museum building. Now, what an opportunity this could be for inexpensively extending additional HVAC heat-loop as a part of back-filling and applying of a safe, shallow reflecting pond lid! While augmenting the museum’s present and future needs, it might be a source for other functions around the park.
Last but not least, what benefits do public parks provide and why are some even landmarked, as in the case of Volunteer Park? Have usage patterns of the park and park user counts been collected? SAAM has kept good accounting of visitors (being that one has to get a ticket to get in). To truly understand the level of usage Volunteer Park gets (being that it’s free) it would be necessary for Seattle Parks and Recreation to undertake a survey (which would also be a good opportunity to get citywide input on the proposed museum expansion).
As Seattle continues to grow, the many benefits open, treed space provide: clean air, clean water, and calming emotional benefits need to be held paramount.
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