Westlake Park and Center is an urban park in the heart of Seattle’s downtown core, and has been a popular place to hold rallies, protests, marches, sports and musical events since before it was opened in 1988. The goal in proposing to use this dense urban area was to build upon Seattle’s rich history, and design a relevant and useful interactive element to give additional depth and meaning to a public space. It might be as simple as providing regular park users an opportunity to learn more about the park and their environment, or it could be an interactive element that help give citizens a voice in the park.
The park is only one tenth of an acre, a small, triangle-shaped park maintained by Seattle Parks & Recreation, bordered on the west by Fourth Avenue, by Pine Street to the north and Pike Street to the south. It’s surrounded by buildings of all eras, from the 1910 Seaboard Building (now mostly residential condos) to skyscrapers and retail buildings built in recent decades. These buildings provide a rich texture and backdrop to the patterned brick and trees of the park.
This tiny park is home to a surprising number of permanent and temporary artworks. The original 1988 design by Robert Maki and landscape architect Robert Hanna include a majestic 24 foot tall arch, a 64 foot long interactive play fountain, and a series of seven iconic stone sculptures. Titled “Westlake Star Axis/Seven Hills”, the permanent and functional art structures unite the triangular space of Westlake Park and are intended evoke a civic forum from Roman times. The unusual pattern of the granite pavers echo the angular designs of a Salish Indian basket weave pattern, and include bronze embossed tiles that tell stories of Seattle.
Temporary Artwork, i.e. Blue Trees and Gold Men
In 2012, Australian artist Konstantin Dimopoulos, painted the 24 central tree trunks a bright blue, part of an international art project to raise awareness of deforestation and it’s impact on the environment. A number of Seattle residents were originally outraged by the art project, but many survey participants stated that they missed the blue trees and the ambiance that they radiated in the park.
Another project that I found that users remembered fondly were the gold and silver statues from the temporary exhibition by Steinunn Thórarinsdóttir called Borders (2012). The installation featured androgynous human-sized statues that sat on park benches, stood by the transit stop and mingled with park users.
Image by Victoria Schoenburg, Center City Parks Initiative Manager
I contacted Kim Baldwin, a project manager with Seattle Parks, to get site drawings to help us analyze and design for the space. Since the drawings for the park and Westlake Center were hand drawn in 1986 before computer CAD programs were common, I ended up calling Mithun, the landscape architects who worked on the Children’s Play Area in 2013, who had turned the hand drawn plan into CAD files for the south part of the park. Using satellite photos and good old fashioned measuring tape, I drew up a fairly accurate scaled drawing of the current Westlake Park site plan. This will be useful for calculating exact placement of prototypes and for estimating technology needs for the physical space.
Spaces of Opportunity
1. Buildings—permanent cityscape
The dozen or so buildings that surround Westlake Park add a lot of urban texture to the park. In some cases they add design opportunities for interactive elements. One of the most obvious and enticing to the research team was the unobstructed angled surface of the Nordstrom Building above the distinctive round window that once offered a peek into Nordstrom’s famous shoe department. It now is viewable directly behind the Children’s Play Area and from the event area of the park, and may be a prime display space.
Activity zones based on observations. Blue indicates organized play areas.
2. Fountain/Arch/Sculptures/Paving—permanent park hardscape
According to the Seattle Parks and Recreation website, “For Maki, the precise angles created by the sculptural elements, running either parallel or perpendicular to the adjacent streets, are important to the meaning of the overall design. Depending on where visitors to the park stand, their relationship to the multiple sight lines and angles creates a shifting field of vision, allowing for new configurations of the park’s sculptural elements and the surrounding cityscape.” These sculptures present areas where interactive elements would be easily seen and accessed by park users, and are iconic and robust enough to withstand simple messaging.
3. Trees, plants—permanent natural softscape
The honey locust trees of Westlake Park are not only an important sculptural part of the original park design, but also provide shade and a natural element, softening the hard edged urban park. The only other natural plantings are flowers in circular concrete planters, designed by Maki to work with the designs on the fountain and arch.
We could never compete with the Blue Trees installation (referred to elsewhere in this report), but the tree branches could provide a place to install sensor and/or projection equipment.
4. Artwork – temporary hard/softscape
Seattle Parks has a few strategies to create engagement by adding temporary visual art installations, such as the summer programs in conjunction with Seattle’s Office of Art and Culture, and the busker program, which pays musicians to play in Seattle city parks for $50 day.
Read my preliminary user research report as a PDF here: Westlake Park User Research Report – 2014