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Cover Feature - June 2007

All About Relationships

Seattle Art Museum Expansion Connects Art to Life

by Cecilia Matta

The Seattle Art Museum opened its expanded and renovated space in downtown Seattle to the public on May 5 with a festivity-filled, 35-hour celebration.

Situated on a prominent site on First Avenue just south of Pike Place Market, the Museum shares a city block with Washington Mutual Bank. SAM’s relationship with WaMu, as neighbors and business partners, leads an extensive list of complex and evolving relationships that define the growing stature of this civic and cultural icon of Seattle.

Commerce + Art:

From concept to construction, a sequence of creative collaborations has characterized the execution of the museum. In 2001, Washington Mutual approached SAM to create a mixed-use project and to share the parcel that the museum owned at First and Union, adjacent to SAM’s Venturi/Scott Brown-designed building that opened in 1991.

With the participation of developer Matt Griffin, the Pine Street Group LLC and Seneca Real Estate Group, a development agreement was struck: WaMu built and owns its new world headquarters, a $160 million, 42-story tower known as WaMu Center, on the eastern half facing Second Avenue; SAM has just completed its new 16-story museum on the western half of the parcel, facing First Avenue and Elliott Bay. 

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The $86 million museum, designed by Allied Works Architecture of Portland and New York, increases the museum’s gallery and public space from 150,000 to 268,000 sq ft, double its previous size.

SAM owns the lower 12 floors of its new 16-story tower and initially occupies the first four floors. WaMu owns the top four floors of the SAM tower, featuring a “green roof” and garden that’s connected to its 42-story tower, and currently leases the remaining eight floors from SAM. Future plans call for the museum to occupy the middle eight floors in phases as its audience, collections and financial resources grow, eventually extending its total space to 450,000 sq ft.

Art + Architecture

Early on, SAM officials decided that the architecture of the building should serve the art more than itself.

Brad Cloepfil, a Northwest native, and project architect with Allied Works, described his primary goal for the museum design in his Architect’s Statement of the project as “the creation of beautiful, serene and diverse spaces for the wide-ranging SAM collection.”  With galleries of varying height, size, orientation and light levels, the design serves as “an open frame for vertical growth that provides a shifting series of relationships over time.”

Allied Works organized SAM’s new vertical space with a series of double-height, interlocking “volumes.” As visitors travel across each floor, they reach a place where they can always look back (down) to see where they’ve been and they can look up to glimpse where they’re headed.

This avoids visitors’ relating just to the elevator for orientation – “You know, ‘Permanent Collection on three, housewares on four,’” Cloepfil says.

Allied Works’ design concept had to merge with specific curatorial needs for the museum’s collection and exhibits. SAM teams, led by chief conservator Nick Dorman, worked with LMN Architects of Seattle, Wash, Arup of New York, NY and Garrison/Lull of Princeton Junction, NJ, to distill such requirements as art conservation, engineering, daylighting, IT and security into a master plan. 

Jennifer Hing, LMN architect, documented the many design elements for the museum’s growth into a master plan report that makes provisions for future expansion.

Construction + Art

The series of relationships that began with the development concept and agreement grew more complex and detailed with the design and construction of the two adjacent towers.

David Yuan, principal at NBBJ, the architect for the WaMu tower and for the shell and core of the SAM building, says, “We affectionately called this ‘a big hairy project.’” The combination of two owners, four architects, 15 consultants and dozens of subcontractors would test any project team, but Yuan says “the people-side was all great. We mitigated and addressed everyone’s goals, ambitions and desires.”

Though the museum closed during construction, the artwork stayed in the existing museum, at First and University. Project staff referred to the original, renovated section of the building as the “Venturi” after its designer, Robert Venturi. Construction crews connected the Venturi building seamlessly with the new space, and the museum now designates the former structure as the “South building.” This added another layer to stringent environmental needs that included maintaining 50% relative humidity, 70 temperatures, excellent air quality and the use of archival materials that would not hurt the art.

Seattle-based Sellen Construction, already well-experienced at building environmentally sensitive facilities such as hospitals, led its subs in adapting construction practices to SAM’s requirements.

Mike Morris, Sellen’s senior project manager for the downtown expansion, said his firm’s “practices were not dissimilar to hospital projects, but temperature and humidity criteria, plus strict VOC requirements, made this a lot different than the typical construction project. We were always remembering and reminding all the craftsmen of those requirements for museum quality.” 

To meet the museum’s immediate construction as well as future needs for preserving and showcasing the art collections, Sellen, SAM’s staff and consultants developed a “Conservation Criteria Work Plan” that covered all aspects of construction, from controlling dust, dirt and moisture to planning responses to a variety of “what-if” situations. 

“Sellen was always aware there were art assets in the house and respectful of their unique demands,” chief conservator Dorman says.

Sellen’s team, at construction peak, included 39 employees and 150 subs from 18 different subcontractors.

Office Space + Art Space

Among the goals that drove the expansion and renovation was the museum’s desire to have a flexible framework to expand upward over decades.

As Allied Works focused on creating volumes of space in which the museum could engage visitors with an eclectic and growing collection, LMN Architects grappled with another shifting relationship: How to execute a building where the majority of space would start out as office space and then transform to art space.

“This change of use was a simple matter,” says Sam Miller, LMN’s project architect. “It was complicated from a design and construction standpoint, but it will pay off as the expansion proceeds.”

From floor plate changes to curtain wall changes, accommodations were built into the  middle eight floors to transform them from today’s 10-ft office floors to eventual double-height, staggered museum volumes. Besides juggling immediate and future space usage, LMN also met design parameters, from moveable and demolishable walls to ceiling structures that bear the load of Cai Guo-Qiang’s installation of nine full-sized cars suspended across the museum’s two-story “Forum” entry hall.

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