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A $100 Million Renovation Reveals The Space Needle’s Long-Lost Design

The beloved landmark’s renovation will bring its original vision to life–and preserve it for generations to come.

The Space Needle has defined Seattle’s skyline since opening in 1962. But like many structures approaching middle age, the 55-year-old tower and observation deck is in need of TLC–and it’s about to receive it.

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Last month, the Space Needle announced a $100 million renovation effort spearheaded by the local architecture firm Olson Kundig. (The Space Needle is privately owned and the renovation is privately funded.) At its core, the project, which is expected to begin construction in September 2017 and wrap up in summer 2018, is about returning the structure to its roots so it remains a beloved destination for generations to come.

The renovation involves replacing aging mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems; redesigning the interior and exterior observation decks and revolving restaurant; and improving circulation throughout the structure.

“From a distance, it will appear as if the Space Needle is unchanged, but in fact, it will have changed significantly,” Alan Maskin, a partner at Olson Kundig, tells Co.Design via email. To achieve this balancing act, the architects are mining the Space Needle’s past. Here’s how.

Uncovering The Space Needle’s True History

For Maskin, working on the structure has brought his architectural career full circle. During his first structural engineering class as a student at the University of Washington, he was instructed to pick a building and create a 3D model of it; he chose the Space Needle. “Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that several decades later I would be studying that structure again,” he writes.

That the Space Needle is a landmark, a powerful public symbol, and a beloved element of Seattle’s skyline compounds the complexity of renovating an experimental structure. Moreover, it was designated a historic landmark in 1998, which means that alterations must pass review by the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. For these reasons, Olson Kundig dove deep into the historical ledger to distil what the original architects, John Graham and Victor Steinbrueck, intended.

Built in conjunction with the 1962 World’s Fair–whose futuristic theme also initiated the Monorail’s construction–the Space Needle was inspired by a telecommunications tower in Stuttgart, Germany, which spoke to Seattle’s ambition to frame itself as a hub of aerospace science and technology. The building’s purpose was to offer visitors a bird’s eye view of a growing metropolis and express the most advanced architectural engineering.

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But over the decades, walls and security cages were added to the structure, impeding views. The interiors were also renovated in ways that Maskin and his team thought contradicted Graham and Steinbrueck’s intent. But when the building was designated a landmark, the rule preserved the building as it stood–which meant that all of these additions were protected.

Working with historians and architectural preservation experts at the University of Washington, Historic Seattle, and the Museum of History and Industry, Olson Kundig gathered evidence in the form of original drawings, renderings, and models; correspondence; and news stories to support their plan, which called for replacing opaque elements with glass.

“This will provide a new sense of transparency and help break down the lines that demarcate inside and outside, bringing emphasis back to the Space Needle’s original guiding principle: providing unparalleled views of the city,” Maskin writes.

In essence, the Space Needle is engaging in a dialog with its own history as Olson Kundig and its team of engineers and builders restore Graham and Steinbrueck’s original vision. “It’s so intriguing to think of a building having one foot in the past and one foot in the future,” Maskin writes.

Over the course of a year, and six meetings with the Landmarks Board, their concept was approved.

Technology Catches Up To Design

Olson Kundig’s concept involves peeling back all of the elements that distract from the view–and creating new views.

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“If there is one material that defines this renovation, it’s glass” Maskin writes.

Gone are the steel safety walls and the steel nets, which were added in the 1980s. When visitors stand outside, they’ll feel like there’s nothing between them and the skyline. They’ll be safely enclosed in what is essentially a glass box that’s positioned at an angle mirroring the structure’s. Glass benches play up the vertigo-inducing transparency. The wall between the interior and exterior observation areas was originally only glass for the top half. The new design specifies floor-to-ceiling glazing. The engineering firm Front–which specializes in glass facades and consulted on OMA’s CCTV headquarters in Beijing, the NBBJ-designed Amazon Spheres, and REX’s 5 Manhattan West renovation–is working with Olson Kundig on the technically challenging design.

“We started to compare [Graham and Steinbrueck’s] early drawings, renderings and models with what was actually built,” Maskin writes. “We were surprised to discover that many of our ideas were, in fact, sketched and drawn by the original architects. Things like floor-to-ceiling glass, a structural glass wall on the outside of the observation deck–these are two of our design ideas that we came to find out we shared with the original architects. But for some reason–and it isn’t clear why–they weren’t built in 1962. We have theories, though.”

In the early 1960s, Seattle was growing rapidly and Olson Kundig found news reports from the time that mentioned glass shortages and manufacturers’ inability to meet demand. Maskin and his team speculate that Graham and Steinbrueck may have scrapped the idea to use glass because they weren’t able to obtain the materials they wanted. Additionally, technology and engineering may not have been advanced enough in the ’60s to make their original designs possible.

Olson Kundig wants to take those original designs one step further–and actually make them part of the attraction. The architects–who have a history of designing kinetic structures–are replacing the floor in the Space Needle’s revolving restaurant with glass so that diners will be able to see the all of the machinery that makes the room move, as well as the building’s substructure. (The restaurant’s interiors will be done by Tihany Design.) They’re also adding a new staircase–capped by a glass oculus–that lets visitors move between floors by foot in elegant surroundings; now they have to either use a fire stair or an elevator.

“I’m excited to see the new ways that people will engage with the revised structure and develop a deeper understanding of it,” Maskin writes. “I’m hoping this will be a place where visitors and Seattleites convene to do what they were always intended to do: observe the growing city of Seattle below them.”

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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