Grey Matters: Statues of Limitations

Knute Berger on some Seattle icons he could do without.
Knute Berger  |   March 2011   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION

There has been much debate in recent months about the proposal to allow giant, illuminated corporate signs atop some of Seattle’s skyscrapers. Proponents have argued that it’s no big deal. Seattle is a commercial center, so why hide it? Opponents have said the skyline is a precious resource, why tart it up with glowing logos against the backdrop of Mount Rainier?

You would think something as iconic as the city skyline would be, well, iconic, meaning it has transcended debate to become a thing unto itself, something we take for granted, as natural as rain. But people see it differently. Some see a forest of high rises set prettily against a backdrop of snowy mountains. Others see an urban cityscape where change is the restless norm.

The argument that a giant sign on the former WaMu Building touting Russell Investments, the new tenant, will allow the company free advertising on every postcard sold in the future has been a compelling one against high-rise signage—until you remember how irrelevant that is in the era of Photoshop. Go down to any tourist trap on the waterfront and you’ll find postcards that show orcas jumping over the Space Needle and sunsets digitally enhanced to spectacular effect. Unpleasant images can be easily altered.

In other words, just because something exists doesn’t mean it will become iconic. And just because something is iconic doesn’t mean it will persist, or should. We are always editing the landscape.

I’d like to do a little editing myself, because my love of landmarks is not pure. There are a number of Seattle icons that bug me. I’m not arguing for their removal, but if I were in charge of the City Photoshop Department, I might be tempted to remove them from the picture.

Jonathan Borofsky’s “Hammering Man,” for example, which seems to me a flat, cheerless drudge who is not even doing anything constructive, like chipping away at the facade of the ugly Robert Venturi entrance to the Seattle Art Museum downtown. “Hammering Man” looks like something out of an old 1960s headache commercial, and watching him makes me reach for an Anacin.

Fremont is a trove of questionable local icons. The Fremont Troll is ugly and charmless. I say this as someone who grew up on Scandinavian folk stories and learned that trolls are not cuddly forest denizens but creepy serial killers who lie in wait. The Fremont Troll is a bearded Ted Bundy. And I’d put Fremont’s Lenin statue in the same category. We’re supposed to be amused by this relic of the old Soviet Union being adopted by the People’s Republic of Fremont, known for hippie whimsy. Perhaps the Lenin statue is in town to champion Hammering Man’s worker’s rights, but I can’t help but think of the murderous repressions Lenin inspired.

To some degree, the Lenin statue is the opposite of what it appears. It could also be viewed as a trophy of Western triumphalism. It would not be here save for the fall of another icon, the Berlin Wall.

Seattle has other monuments like this. Totem poles, for instance. The Pioneer Square pole is a good example. Puget Sound Indians did not make totem poles; local businessmen snitched the original pole from a Tlingit village up north in 1899 and erected it in the square (the current version is a replica). It is a work of art, but not our art; it is a souvenir of empire that sits in an urban park built by men who took as much as they could from the Indians and the land. It has become an icon, but if you know the story, a complicated one.

My least favorite icon on the skyline is Columbia Center. If the retro Dr. Evil of Austin Powers fame was supposed to live in the Space Needle, the Columbia tower is the skyscraper Darth Vader built. Sleek and tall, yes, and not the ugliest tower ever raised. But to me, it will always seem like an alien landing, an invasive species, the antithesis of sustainable, sensible Seattle. It looks best when it’s least conspicuous, seen from across Puget Sound, cut down to size against the Cascades. Or buried in clouds, Photoshopped by nature.

Write editor-at-large Knute Berger at  knute.berger@seattlemag.com. His Mossback column is at crosscut.com

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