As a hub of innovation in the life sciences and technology sectors, South Lake Union (SLU) is often known for high-rise, state-of-the-art labs and office spaces that house leading research institutions and tech companies. However, residents and visitors to SLU will also notice many pieces of public art, including sculptures, murals, intricate glasswork and modern, street-level window displays by artists from across the region and around the world. This concentration of artwork is largely the result of Vulcan Real Estate’s (VRE) approach to development, in which half of one percent of the construction budget of a new project is devoted to art in order to build projects that add vibrancy to the surrounding neighborhood. To date, VRE has incorporated 23 artworks within its SLU development projects.
Public art is designed to connect the community to the built environment and promote engagement with public spaces
Greg Bell, chief curator for Vulcan Inc., has spearheaded the art selection process for VRE’s developments for over a decade. While the medium and artistic style of SLU’s public art varies widely, the unifying philosophy of the collection has remained consistent.
“Public art is designed to connect the community to the built environment and promote engagement with public spaces,” said Bell. “To achieve this goal, Vulcan Real Estate works with diverse artists using a myriad of mediums to source artworks that are site-specific, integrate into the surrounding built environment and engage the viewer.”
The results of this effort are immediately visible in SLU. Whether travelling on-foot, using public transportation or via car, visitors will observe several large-scale sculptures positioned in highly visible locations.
One prominently placed example is Mirall, named for the Catalan word for mirror. Located near the corner of Mercer Street and Westlake Avenue North at the Allen Institute headquarters, the stainless-steel sculpture is positioned to be seen by thousands of passersby daily. Composed of two meditative, mirror-image figures, the hollow design and larger-than-life scale allow viewers to step inside the sculpture and view the intricate letterforms that create the larger figures.
While this artwork is unique, artist Jaume Plensa created several pieces in a similar style that are currently exhibited across the world, from Virginia to Hong Kong. At the Allen Institute, which has the mission of unlocking the complexities of bioscience and advancing our knowledge to improve human health, the meditative nature of the artwork, along with the emphasis on language and communication, reflects the setting perfectly.
Another large-scale sculpture along Westlake Avenue North is Three Women by Akio Takamori. Located at the nexus of SLU and the Denny Triangle in a bustling plaza outside the entrance of Whole Foods Market, the cast aluminum, larger-than-life sculptures depict a girl, a young woman, and a mother with her baby. The relatively equal size of each figure suggests their equal importance while the family-oriented subject matter is a perfect fit for the nearby market.
While both of these works command immediate attention due to their size and location, South Lake Union is also home to many sculptures that only reveal themselves over time.
Integrating Artworks into the Built Environment
“Public art is often viewed repeatedly by commuters or residents that frequent the neighborhood daily, and South Lake Union’s collection of artworks has been chosen with that in mind,” says Bell. “In addition to anchor pieces, there are also smaller works, often integrated into the surrounding built environment, that may only be discovered upon several viewings and continually engage viewers, visit after visit.”
One example of these more subtle sculptures is Woodpile by Seattle-based artist Jenny Heishman. Located at Amazon’s headquarters, the sculpture is so well integrated into the surrounding development that many viewers initially miss its complex design. The fabricated stainless-steel cylinders resemble a perfectly arranged woodpile, stacked along the sloping hill of Boren Avenue between John and Thomas Street. Upon closer examination, the details of the artwork become clear.
Another illustration of integrating sculpture into the surrounding built environment can be found at the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) Building on Terry Avenue. Ping Pong Plaza, by Buster Simpson, first appears to be a public seating area with a large ping pong table. Upon closer examination, viewers may notice that the legs of the table are actually the profiles of prominent scientists facing, as if bouncing ideas off of one another like ping pong balls. Again, the subject matter of the piece perfectly reflects the location, referencing the important research conducted at the ISB.
“Every artwork displayed in South Lake Union has a connection to its location, each is site-specific and designed to elevate the public use of the space,” Bell notes. “When you begin to explore the collection as a whole, the meaning of each piece in the context of its setting in SLU becomes even more clear.”
In addition to commissioning artworks, VRE engaged arts organization Shunpike as a part of the Storefronts Seattle initiative. Shunpike’s team worked with community stakeholders and artists to feature several artworks in street-level storefronts throughout the neighborhood. By utilizing these spaces to display art, otherwise blank canvases are transformed into engaging visual installations.
When you begin to explore the collection as a whole, the meaning of each piece in the context of its setting in SLU becomes even more clear.
Investing in the Future
While South Lake Union’s collection of public artworks is still growing, VRE’s public art program is also expanding as new projects are built in other neighborhoods. In addition to recently installed pieces in Yesler, a series of artworks is set to be unveiled in the Central Area later this year and, in the future, the public arts program may expand to Bellevue, where VRE is building 2 million square feet of office space.
While the scope of this effort expands, the mission remains the same: to build projects that humanize the built environment, add vibrancy to neighborhoods and connect our past, present and future. As SLU demonstrates, public art is a powerful tool in that effort.
To learn more about our public artworks in South Lake Union and Yesler, visit our Virtual Artwalk.