Seattle Reboots Its Future

The leaders of the city that Bill Boeing and Bill Gates built are asking what it will take to thrive in the 21st century.


Read the Sidebar: Seattle’s Real Aftershocks

Cities that aspire to be hubs of the new global economy need to be a little lucky and a lot smart.Since it was first settled in the mid-1800s, Seattle has enjoyed a run of amazing luck. First the California gold rush and the accompanying building boom in San Francisco created a massive market for Seattle timber. Then Seattle itself became an important point of departure for miners heading to and from the Klondike gold fields. One successful miner, Swiftwater Bill Gates, did so well in Alaska that he returned to Seattle and became legendary for showering gold nuggets from the window of his hotel room onto pedestrians below.


Seattle’s good luck continued in the late 20th century, when another Bill Gates arrived and, along with fellow Seattleite Paul Allen, brought his fledgling software company to the area. Now Gates and Allen, along with other technology billionaires like Craig McCaw, are showering the city with their riches.

Today, Seattle’s leaders are reckoning with a question that the leaders of many once-lucky — and now-forgotten — urban centers never managed to answer: How does a place transform itself from being fortunate to being smart? Seattle’s answer: Don’t focus as much on technology as on culture. If you become a place where talented people move to find a job and then end up staying for the rest of their careers, then you’ve secured your future.

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell, a 63-year-old former real-estate developer, historic preservationist, and dean of the University of Washington’s School of Architecture and Urban Planning, says that his job is to turn the city into a “platform for the creative experience”: “You have telecommunications, biotech, software, and the Web all coming together with great music, architecture, and art. It’s at the intersections of disciplines where sparks fly. That’s where ideas come from. We are creating a place where the creative experience can flourish.”


The most vivid evidence of this strategy is the building boom that has gripped Seattle. Schell’s city has more cultural construction projects in motion than any other urban area in the United States.

Under way are a new Seattle Public Library being designed by Pritzker Prize-winning Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and a new Museum of History & Industry that will delve deep into the city’s gold-rush origins while exploring the national influence of Seattle companies such as Eddie Bauer, Nordstrom, and Starbucks. The Fuse Foundation, a nonprofit organization designed to help emerging artists gain a stable financial footing, will give out its first grants in June. And this past January, the art museum in neighboring Bellevue moved into a new $23 million home designed by architect Steven Holl.

Also in the works are a renovated opera hall and a ballet theater, both funded in part by Craig McCaw; a new aquarium; a waterfront sculpture park being built by the Seattle Art Museum on a former fuel-storage site; a new city hall; and a new stadium for Paul Allen’s pro-football team, the Seattle Seahawks. Not to mention the relatively new Benaroya Hall, where the Seattle Symphony plays, and the Experience Music Project, Allen’s $240 million shrine to rock and roll that opened last summer. Between 1991 and 2001, $1.2 billion worth of arts-related building projects were begun or completed in Seattle — more than the National Endowment for the Arts’s budget over the course of the same decade.


Mayor Schell, who was elected in 1998 and is up for reelection later this year, isn’t worried that change is coming too quickly. “Some citizens want things to go more slowly,” he says. “But I’m a change agent. I think of myself as a kamikaze mayor. Why waste time worrying about the next election?”

There’s a seize-the-day spirit at play here. Seattle wants to put its potent economy to work building museums, civic buildings, and public spaces, so that in the likely event that the good times don’t last forever, the city will be left with more than just empty buildings.

“Plenty of cities have gotten rich without having this kind of creative renaissance,” says Alex Steffen, executive director of the Fuse Foundation and former president of Allied Arts of Seattle, the urban-design group that helped preserve Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. “Look at Dallas in the 1980s, or Silicon Valley in the 1990s. Here the combination of young, smart-money and young, smart-cultural folks is setting off all kinds of reactions.”


The organizing principle behind the city’s plans — the vision that most of the players seem to be working toward — is best expressed by the mayor. “We want to be the Geneva of the Pacific, where international ideas can be exchanged,” he says. “We want to be the place where the most choices bang against each other, where sparks fly.”

Even, Schell continues, if those sparks ignite controversy, as they did when the World Trade Organization met in Seattle in 1999. “This city has a long tradition of allowing protest,” the mayor explains, acknowledging that his job is “still in jeopardy” as a result of disputes over how the city handled the protests. “The government’s responsibility is to let the debate rage. A city is a celebration of ideas. You need to let people express themselves.”

Back to the Future

Housed in a beige International Style building in the shadow of the University of Washington’s football stadium, Seattle’s Museum of History & Industry is not the kind of place you would stumble across. It’s on the outskirts of the city. Cramped spaces and low ceilings make it difficult to display large objects, such as the first commercial airplane that Bill Boeing produced, the city’s first neon sign, or a sleek hydroplane that made high-speed boat races popular on Lake Washington in the 1950s.


It’s hard to tell stories about the city’s history in such small quarters, explains Leonard Garfield, 47, executive director of the museum, known as MOHAI to Seattleites. It’s even harder, given the out-of-the-way location, to make history seem relevant to the city.

That will change in a few years, when MOHAI opens in its new home, now being built as part of an expansion of the Washington State Convention and Trade Center. Wearing a white hard hat and standing just inside the entrance amidst hydraulic scissor lifts and wood pallets, Garfield points out the pluses of the new location. One block over is the new home of A Contemporary Theatre. The Paramount Theatre, whose renovation was funded almost entirely by Ida Cole, a former Microsoft executive, is nearby.

If the old museum felt like a warehouse jammed full of artifacts, Garfield wants the new museum to be like a Web portal, with links to information about the past, present, and future of the city and strong connections to the region’s other museums. “We have the first commercial plane that Boeing ever made and lots of materials about the impact of Asian immigration, but if you want to know the whole story of aviation in the area, or to really understand Asian culture, we’ll hook you up with the Museum of Flight or the Wing Luke Asian Museum,” Garfield says. “We’re thinking about a bus or trolley route that would take you to those places. The idea is to reinforce the smaller, local neighborhood museums and cultural centers.”


Inside the new MOHAI, Garfield plans to celebrate many of the business innovations that came from Seattle, including the near-obsessive customer-service ideology that the Nordstrom family introduced to American retail. The museum’s collection includes some of the earliest outdoor gear manufactured by Eddie Bauer, which Garfield wants to showcase, along with merchandise from Recreational Equipment Inc. (REI), in an exhibit about the tension between the Northwest’s passion for the outdoors and extractive industries such as timber and salmon fishing. He’s exploring a deal with a large international coffee chain to turn the museum’s coffee shop into “an exhibit in itself about the coffee culture that was born in Seattle.”

“Seattle is a city that has always been about the future,” Garfield says. “People come here to reinvent themselves, to start a new enterprise. Jeff Bezos came here to start Amazon. The result is that we don’t attract people who are interested in the past. Now we’re at a turning point, and it’s important to look at how we got here and to look for clues about where we’re going.”

A Building Dedicated to the Book

One day in late 1997, Deborah Jacobs stood atop the Olympic Parking Garage in downtown Seattle, surveyed the landscape, and decided that “there’s no place like home.” For several years, Seattle Public Library (SPL) administrators, city officials, and citizens had been sparring over the location of a new central library that would replace the existing building — a structure built in the late 1950s that looks like a transplanted Bulgarian Agricultural Ministry. Jacobs, the city librarian, had taken the job only a few months earlier. She had been to visit all of the proposed sites for the new library. Conventional wisdom said that it didn’t make sense to build a new library on the site of the old one, because that would require the library to relocate twice — once to a temporary location and then again to the new building.


Jacobs concluded that moving twice wasn’t out of the question if it allowed the SPL to stay in a location that was an easy walk or bus ride from most neighborhoods, where Seattleites were accustomed to finding it. (Seattle residents are some of the most avid library users in the country: Eighty percent have library cards.) “There’s no place like home” became an internal rallying cry.

Once Jacobs and her colleagues decided where the library would be, the next question they confronted was who would design it. They selected Rem Koolhaas, a boundary-breaking Dutch architect whose firm, the Office for Modern Architecture (OMA), has not yet done many buildings in the United States. His design for the new library is angular and jagged — much like a hastily assembled stack of books. Several facets of the glass exterior reveal crisscrossing structural trusses, and parts of the outside are sheathed in copper. When completed in 2003, the 355,000-square-foot building will have 11 floors and an underground parking garage, and will cost $159 million. Jacobs has managed to avoid having the citizenry reject an engaging design by a non-Seattle-based architect by making the process as transparent as possible and by practicing what she calls “open-hearted listening.”

About 1,000 people attended two events in December 1999 where Koolhaas laid out his initial concepts. After that, 10 groups of library users representing various segments of the population developed lists of recommendations for Koolhaas and OMA. Jacobs also assembled 37 different groups of library staffers to create similar lists based on their experiences working in the existing central library.


Jacobs, 49, seems a quietly effective coalition builder. She relies on persistence, rather than on strong-arming. Mayor Schell talks excitedly about Seattle, one of the centers of the Information Age, finally getting the central library that it deserves. Dick Brass, the point man for Microsoft’s e-books initiative, is a loyal supporter of Jacobs, and he personally donated money in support of a bond measure that paved the way for the construction of a new library. A goal to raise $60 million in private funds for the Libraries for All program, which includes the construction of the central library, as well as the construction or renovation of 22 neighborhood libraries, was easily met — and then raised to $75 million. Paul Allen, whose father worked as a librarian at the University of Washington, gave $22.5 million. Bill Gates, who as a child was a competitor in summer reading competitions at the library’s North East branch, gave $20 million.

“There are times when the planets align,” Jacobs says of Seattle’s current prosperity. “And during those times, it’s good when you’re able to move projects forward quickly.”

Jacobs thought that it would be helpful to look at other West Coast libraries for inspiration, so she scheduled a tour for architects from OMA and some of her staff. But Jacobs and her team felt that “none of the libraries worked in the way that we wanted ours to work.” So they organized blank-sheet-of-paper brainstorms. One idea that they came up with is something that Koolhaas calls “the mixing chamber,” which will be situated at the entrance to the library’s nonfiction area.


“The mixing chamber,” Jacobs explains, “is all about interdisciplinary study and learning. Say you want to learn about Aaron Copland. That’s not just music. There’s a million topics that you could study: music, dance, Brooklyn, homosexuality, Judaism. If you come to the library, you may not know what direction you want to take. So the mixing chamber is the first place you arrive. Our incredibly talented and skilled librarians will be there, and they’ll help you look for things in an interdisciplinary way.”

The mixing chamber will lead to a four-story, Guggenheim-esque spiral that will contain all of the library’s nonfiction materials in what Jacobs refers to as “an uninterrupted Dewey run” — Dewey referring to the grand old Dewey decimal system, of course.

“The spiral,” she continues, “is the big idea for this building. There will be a sense of being in this brain-candy store, where everything’s available to you.” The spiral will also give library users access to more books in fewer steps, according to calculations done by the architects. They found that if you travel 500 feet on flat floors, you can have access to 1,400 bookcases, but if you travel 500 feet on the spiral, you have access to 2,500 bookcases.


Jacobs says that while the new library will be “wired to the max,” the building will “honor the book.” “I’m willing to bet on the existence of the book, at least through my children’s lifetime,” she says. “The book will be around. Even Bill Gates has a library in his house.”

Feeding a Cultural Ecosystem

Alex Steffen ducks through an Alice in Wonderland-sized doorway slightly below street level, skirts the workout floor of a boxing gym, and enters into a small art gallery called Soil. The small, subterranean room houses a show called “Abstraction Construction,” edgy abstract works by young artists.

A few blocks away, Steffen, who runs Seattle’s Fuse Foundation, drops in on Susan Robb and Jeff Miller, who have just brought their “Golden Tower Project” back from the Burning Man festival. It’s a cylinder composed of specimen jars filled with, yes, urine solicited from other artists. While you might think that such a sculpture was designed solely to be confrontational, the “Golden Tower Project” can also be looked at as an object of beauty. Before you know what it is, it resembles a multihued stained-glass window.


Like the artwork or hate it, these are, as Steffen puts it, “the R&D labs of the art world.” And these are the artists that the Fuse Foundation focuses on. “We’re trying to get people who have an extraordinary amount of potential but who are just starting out,” says Steffen, 33. “A Fuse fellowship lets them quit their day job. We give them health care, Net access, office support, and networking opportunities. And we teach them survival skills.”

After just three months, Fuse has already raised $130,000 (Steffen’s goal is $500,000). The first group of 10 grant recipients will soon be named, and Steffen says that he hopes to give out 15 grants in 2002. “We’re looking for cultural innovators, artists who are likely to succeed, whose success will be important,” he says. “And we want to provide not just money but also a program that leaves them in a different position at the end of the year than they were in at the beginning. We want to teach them how to see themselves as businesses.”

Fuse fellows attend weekly workshops that let them follow one another’s progress and teach them about managing financial planning, working with galleries and representatives, and writing grant proposals. Guest speakers address legal issues, marketing, and tax planning. “Artists are really small businesses, but most just don’t have that mind-set,” says Steffen, who adds that the Fuse fellows will spend the bulk of their year creating, not listening to lectures by accountants.


Steffen has established himself, and Fuse, as a link between the older, more established institutions in the city, and the bubbling and burgeoning underground art scene. “We’ve got really wonderful arts institutions here,” he says, “and great emerging artists. Fuse is the missing piece. It’s taking individual creative innovators and moving their careers forward to the point where their work will belong in the city’s best galleries and museums.”

A Museum on the “Bleeding Edge”

Brian Wallace is surveying the still-unfinished loading dock of the Bellevue Art Museum (BAM) and thinking like a teenager. The museum’s 40-year-old curator is wearing a shiny knee-length olive-colored raincoat that sets off his spiky squash-colored hair. It’s two months before the museum opens to the public (it opened in January), and Wallace can barely contain his excitement about all of his plans.

“Loading dock, to me, is just another name for stage,” he says. “We’re gonna have all-ages concerts here, in the loading dock. That should be a no-fucking-brainer. It’s perfect: It’s secure, you can close the doors, you can smoke butts outside.” Inside, the walls, floor, and ceiling are all concrete. Rock concerts in the loading dock will be excruciatingly loud — exactly the right volume for Bellevue’s teenagers, who don’t really have a weekend hangout.

If most established art museums revolve around the geriatric types who can serve on the ladies’ auxiliary and attend mid-morning gallery talks, Wallace wants BAM to be the complete opposite: a museum that revolves around young parents, young artists, and teenagers. He and Diane Douglas, BAM’s director, have nothing against blue hair, but they deeply believe that BAM needs to cultivate young members and supporters — even if their only visit to the museum is for Saturday-night rock shows.

“There’s only one funeral parlor in Bellevue,” Wallace says. “There aren’t a lot of old people. So we have to figure out how to connect with young people. We’ve got to engage the people who are moving to this region.” Situated across Lake Washington from downtown Seattle, Bellevue is a ritzy suburb right next door to Redmond. The area is home to Microsoft’s main campus and dozens of startups that have spun off from the giant software company. Before BAM raised $23 million for its new building — the biggest fundraising campaign on the East Side, as this area to the east of Seattle proper is called — the upscale Bellevue Square Mall was the social center of town.

Wallace wants to steal that mantle from the mall. Wearing a white hard hat decorated with an assortment of stickers — sparkly pink lips, a Hello Kitty icon, the words “Panic Now” — Wallace teams up with Barbara Jirsa, the museum’s public- and community-relations officer, to lead a tour of the new building, directly across Bellevue Way from the mall. It’s three stories tall and contains 36,000 square feet of interior space. The exterior is a dramatic fusion of glass, hand-sanded aluminum, and pomegranate-colored textured concrete.

“The idea is to make this a very nimble, very community-based institution,” Wallace explains, standing just outside the main entrance to the new building. Artwork will be projected onto the overhang above, onto the large front window facing Bellevue Way and a two-story section of wall that faces south. Wallace wants the museum to extend into the public realm, to be seen from the street — not sealed inside a sterile box. BAM will radiate art.

The building itself — as well as the museum’s programs — is designed to forge strong ties to the community. There is an atrium, dubbed the Forum by architect Steven Holl, that can be rented out for weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Rotary Club meetings. An artists-in-residence studio on the second floor will offer a chance for patrons to see — and perhaps participate in — the creative process.

BAM will offer 60 art classes each 10-week term. “The classrooms are designed to be dirty, practical, art-making spaces,” Wallace explains. “One of them is dedicated solely to ceramics. And we’ll have some classes that will be geared specifically to families who want to work together.”

One factor in BAM’s successful expansion is that its mission doesn’t overlap or compete with those of other area art institutions. “We’re positioning ourselves as the museum that is closest to the bleeding edge, the one that shows art by people who don’t even have gallery representation yet,” Wallace says. He hopes that the area’s high-tech workforce — whose careers thrive or flounder based on proximity to the bleeding edge — will gravitate to BAM as a result.

Already, galleries are opening up in Bellevue to be close to the new museum, which will help invigorate the city’s core. And Wallace is reaching out to successful local techies as potential donors and members. On an evening last October, Wallace co-led a tour of Microsoft’s art collection with Michael Klein, the company’s in-house curator (and a member of BAM’s board). The tour attracted a group of about 40 Microsoft employees and museum supporters from outside Microsoft, and the group spent a half-hour after the tour schmoozing over drinks with Wallace, Klein, and Douglas.

“This is a de Medici moment,” says Douglas, 44. “Who knows how long it will last? We have a group of successful people growing up with this institution and other cultural institutions around Puget Sound. It’s wonderful.”

Read the Sidebar: Seattle’s Real Aftershocks

Scott Kirsner (, a Fast Company contributing editor, is based in Boston’s historic North End.