The Seattle Asian Art Museum in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park is a splendid building housing a magnificent collection of ancient and contemporary art. Designed by the Seattle firm Bebb and Gould (designers of many noteworthy structures in Seattle, including many prominent homes on Capitol Hill) and built in 1933, it originally housed the entire collection of the Seattle Art Museum.
Set within Volunteer Park, SAAM shares its museum-in-the-park setting with other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose home is in New York City’s Central Park. As private collections predated by centuries those offered for public view, the museum-in-the-park typology finds precedent in that of the manor house in the landscape of either a noble’s estate in Europe or that of the landed elite of the East coast of the United States. Both the museum and the public garden are places of leisure, and their pairing is sensible, for sure, and allows for a full day’s outing both in and out-or-doors. In this tradition, SAAM and Volunteer Park present no less compelling a pairing than their historic or big city predecessors.
Art Deco (approximately the style in which SAAM was designed), to my mind, has always had a somewhat precarious and undervalued place within the history of modernist design. It never garnered the serious attention paid to many other 20th century movements, because it was seen, perhaps, as only a pleasant if not too serious ‘scenic’ detour along the thoroughfare of the more rigorous, international style modernism that eclipsed it. Architects, especially, like to see modernism as the built manifestation of industrialization and of the Enlightenment’s goal of human progress. Modernism’s emphasis on functionality, abstraction, and a machine aesthetic are well known. While modernist, Art Deco was perhaps too populist an expression of modernism’s machine aesthetic ideology, leading to deco’s being ultimately and sadly dismissed by ‘serious’ practitioners and their academies in favor of more somber fare. Ironically, deco’s embellishment with organic motifs and stylized figures doomed it to a short life even if those embellishments were crafted in the same materials, precision, means of that modernism propounded. Given its rather short life and relatively meager legacy, we are fortunate indeed to have such a building as SAAM, and that it is open to all to relish in.
Among modern materials, aluminum figures prominently, including in many Art Deco designs such as at SAAM. While not a new material, aluminum’s manufacturing costs had been significantly reduced by the late 19th and early 20th century making it more readily available (until then, it was priced as was silver).As important to its new, ready availability, was aluminum’s light-weight, corrosion resistance, and excellent casting characteristics — the perfect combination of qualities for the ornamental metal work sought by Art Deco architects. Add to that the fact these qualities allowed it to be utilized in its pure and visually uncompromised form (by being either polished or clear anodized – not painted) and you have the almost perfect ‘new’ material for the ‘new’ architecture, with no Seattle example better (Art Deco or otherwise) than in the spectacular aluminum screens and doors that comprise the entry at SAAM. With its organic motifs, shininess, and casting precision, the entry screen ranks among the best architectural features of any building in our city. And, dare I say, many an architect’s current fetish with screening and de-materializing could learn much from the effectiveness of SAAM’s entry screens in achieving those same qualities, the full effectiveness of which are realized best upon entry into SAAM (so go ahead, go in!).
Upon entering SAAM, one is impressed by a lobby that is of a grandeur befitting not only the institution itself, but also of the powerful design vocabulary offered by Art Deco. Still in a relatively early stage of modernism, Art Deco had to resolve many new and modern functional requirements, oftentimes without the off-the-shelf products available to today’s practitioners. Things that are now easily ordered from a vendor’s product line were either unavailable or were sufficiently rare enough that the architect had to design those elements themselves. In the skillful hands of SAAM’s architects, such commonalities as air grills, light fixtures, clocks, or doors became objects d’art in-and-of themselves, and are a testament to a comprehensiveness of design mostly absent from today’s buildings. While it is true that standardization has made such objects much more attainable (and therefore useful), there is something lamentable in this loss of design-in-depth. There is no escaping the observation that despite their adding of flourishes to such functional objects, there is an underlying and guiding reliance on streamlined aesthetic resulting from industrial manufacture – an aesthetic that (is essentially the same and) holds its own against a more ideologically correct modernism.
This being Art Deco, there is more to see than stylized architectural furnishings in SAAM. Gold foil, polished and richly veined marbles, and of course, curved surfaces abound. Despite this potentially chaotic assemblage of luxurious materials and forms, there is a skill in their assembly at SAAM that creates not only sumptuous spaces, but adds a dignity and refinement befitting of the art contained within the architecture of the galleries themselves.
The original home of the Seattle Art Museum, the space was relegated to display only a portion of it collection — Asian art — when the first downtown location opened in the early 1990s. While it was welcome that SAM’s collection warranted additional space and a new building, it is lamentable that those newer buildings (totaling two, including the 2000 addition) have perhaps drawn attention from the original Volunteer Park home where you will find not only an incredible art collection, but one of Seattle’s finest buildings. No single space better exhibits the vibrancy and quality of both qualities than the Richard E. Fuller Court, the physical and spiritual center of SAAM’s collection. Bathed in daylight, it is voluminous and resplendent in rich materials and fine sculpture. Just off of the museum’s entry hall, the Court is the museum’s most architecturally ambitious space and the hub off which other galleries radiate.
The sculpture within the Court takes full advantage of the daylight offered by the luminous ceiling, the pieces glowing in a diffuse light that evenly illuminates and reveals the skill that went into crafting these ancient pieces. Many architects struggle with using daylight in museums, leading to often drawn shades or perpetually darkened galleries that make way finding — not to mention the display of art work — difficult. At SAAM the architects realized the importance of daylight in displaying art and organizing the building. The Fuller Court also features a piece specifically commissioned for the space: a hand wrought, iron gate whose motifs are quite a contrast from the streamlined Art Deco of the museum’s architecture.
The entry from the main lobby into the Court has columns clad in the same green granite that one finds in the lobby. Note how the stepping of the entrance walls framing the Foster Galleries (second image down) — along with the coved ceiling within the galleries — emphasizes the perspective, increasing the formality of the spaces. Other deco details include the aluminum handrails (a nice reference back to the entry facade’s aluminum grille) and the font used to name the gallery.
Once inside the galleries, the quality of the art pieces exceeds the expectations set forth by the quality of the architecture. A captivating mixture of sculpture, furniture, textiles, decorative arts, and paintings almost overwhelm the senses with a richness of materials and delicacy of execution. Providing a harmonious union between the art and architecture, the care exhibited by the museum’s curators in the arrangement of the pieces throughout the various galleries makes for a fulfilling viewing. Each art piece is carefully staged, with the lighting and context perfectly balanced to best show off the treasures.
Exploring the galleries one becomes aware of the thematic elements the architects choose to both distinguish and unify the galleries. The elements of unification are at a detail level, and include door trim in stone to match that of the wall base, as well a wainscot with cleverly integrates the heating and cooling grilles. The elements of distinction are the ceilings, that provide the greatest variety of expression from coved and luminous to gently arched, morphing as one progresses deeper in the museum. Being overhead and in one’s peripheral vision, the ceiling’s strong charter in any given room takes a background role and does not compete with the artwork, yet has enough presence to reinforce the building’s design aesthetic as well as lending each gallery a unique character. My favorite ceiling expression occurs in the gallery deepest in the back, where the arches align with large windows that provide a splendid view to Volunteer Park.
It is of course not unusual for museums to incorporate the level of detail as shown in SAAM; patrons for such buildings have the developed sensibilities that allow architects greater freedom of design than in a typical commission. And though relatively luxurious by today’s restrained architectural tastes, SAAM’s compact size allows for a leisurely visit that not only affords experiencing of all the building and art work with our getting fatigued.
Commanding the summit of Capitol Hill, the SAAM boasts a world class collection of art that is thoughtfully displayed in one of Seattle’s most captivating buildings and greatest parks. And given that admission is free on the first Thursday and the first Saturday of every month, there is absolutely no excuse not to enjoy it soon.
The Seattle Asian Art Museum is located at 1400 E Prospect inside Volunteer Park and is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10a-5p, and Thursday, 10a-9p. SAAM is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Visit the SAAM site for more information.
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