The Seattle Art Museum presented its design for the upgrades and expansion of Volunteer Park’s Asian Art Museum in a community meeting held in the International District on Saturday morning. The design makes major changes to the east-facing “back” of the landmark 1933 building in Volunteer Park, featuring some floor-to-ceiling windows in levels one and two and a striking glass “park lobby” on level three of the extension.
The park lobby would allow people inside the museum a park view that includes an impressive beech tree, and allow people outside to look up at art displays inside the museum. Architect Sam Miller of LMN architects, the firm designing the upgrade and extension, explained the design goal of integrating the park on both sides with the museum space itself.
The rather sophisticated design is a complete change from the grey, utilitarian back of the museum as it is now, which looks unfinished and harsh in contrast to the pink stone and
Beaux Arts Art Deco style of the front of the building. The upgrade could, as Miller suggested, achieve an added bonus of making the space behind the museum safer in that would be overlooked and less cutoff from the rest of the park.
As he talked through a slide show of the design (the full presentation is below), Miller stressed that it had been modified in keeping with feedback from the public — there were community meetings in July and August and future meetings are scheduled for October, November and December. The external stairway in an earlier draft is now inside of the building, and an extruding elevator is now tucked in and hiding behind a tree.
Community response reveals that some want to keep the museum and park space the way it is now. Jonathan Mark lives in Capitol Hill and has circulated a petition against the museum expansion that has so far gathered about 150 signatures. The only thing he found reassuring in the presentation at Saturday’s meeting, he said, was that the latest plan shows landscaping and plants at the back of the building.
“I still feel that this structure will greatly change the character of east Volunteer Park for the worse,” wrote Mark in an email.
“I don’t know if the petition will make any difference or not,” Mark said. “Either way, the point I wanted to make is that no one has yet asked the community for permission to build this big thing in Volunteer Park, and I wanted to publicize that it was happening and give a voice to people who think they should be asked, and would like to answer ‘no.’”
Protectvolunteerpark.org is a blog set up by Mark and others concerned about the expansion of the museum.
Among the obvious benefits of the renovations would be an enhanced ability for the museum to do the business of conserving and showing art — the plan includes a new conservation room in Level 1, and a covered loading dock and the elevator for bringing artworks in and out of the building. The mechanics of the building — the control of heating, cooling, and humidity — would be brought up to modern museum standards, and the building would be insulated, making it more sustainable and less expensive to run. Miller included photos in his presentation of elements in need of updating — one was the mechanical control board for the building, more a funky collection of antique gauges than the controls for a modern museum. Then there are seismic updates for the museum’s 4” hollow-tile walls, a hazard to both art and humans in the event of a serious earthquake.
There are further arguments for the renovations. The art museum was not part of the original Olmstead design of Volunteer Park and was added in 1933, with a landscaping plan for the east side that was never completed. Additions to the building were added five times between 1947 and 2007, a history that puts the expansion and renovation in the light of something like a creative correction rather than another unnecessary change to old Seattle.
Adding a footprint of about 4,000 square feet and 12,000-13,000 square feet in total to the building at a cost of about $49 million, the extension and upgrade is a major project that will give the Asian Art Museum the potential to show its important collection, continue its educational and cultural activities in linking Seattle to Asia through art, and to be more of a contender in the art world. CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, we flubbed this paragraph re: total square footage of the project. It has been updated with correct totals.
Nevertheless, the large-scale plans to upgrade the building haven’t escaped community criticism. SAM has not started from scratch with its public consultation over the past few months, but not everyone at the meeting was aware that the museum’s upgrade was agreed on with the city and the parks department back in 2008, but was put on hold during the recession.
The process of shutting and building and reopening will close the museum for two years, beginning spring 2017. The project will be part of a busy time for this corner of the park. Construction on a new amphitheater and bandshell is planned to also begin in 2017. UPDATE: We heard a representative at the meeting that that construction of the amphitheater may be delayed, and will be taking place after the renovations to the museum. We’ll check in on this with the organizations involved. Here is the current timeline for the amphitheater.
Future meetings about how the building will impact the community will be held at the Seattle Asian Art Museum on October 15, November 19, and December 10, from 1:00 to 2.30 PM. See vistsam.org/inspire for more information.