Seattle, Washington


Howard Adelman

We traveled from Victoria via the Victorian Clipper to Seattle on Sunday. Unfortunately, the windows were so salt encrusted that it was hard to discern what we were passing or to see the pod of Orcas that we passed en route – unless you went outside and braced yourself against the cold. I did for a short time, but my timing was not right for, at best, all I saw was the flip of a tail. Nevertheless, the sail was very smooth. There was what was regarded as a spectacular sunset by our fellow passengers, but given our experience with Georgian Bay sunsets, we were not equally overwhelmed.

Monday morning we spent in Seattle’s famous Pike Place Market and Nancy resisted buying any more spices. Pike Place Chowder lived up to its famous reputation; the clam chowder we had for lunch was the best I have had ever tasted, including my fondest memories of eating chowder in Halifax. We spent the afternoon in the Seattle aquarium which is superb and should not be missed by any visitor who loves fish, colourful coral or watching otters being fed very expensive shrimp – they eat 25% of their weight. We just love a top notch aquarium, and the Seattle aquarium ranks among the best. We topped the day with a great Italian dinner at the Assaggio right next to the hotel where we were staying. My veal chop was tender and cooked to perfection. The vegetables were steamed just enough to retain their texture and flavour. Though I usually do not like gravy, the mashed potatoes with gravy from the veal were great. I am a confirmed meat and potatoes man.

Tuesday was a day for architecture and artisans. We began with a visit to a glass-blowing gallery. The most fortunate part of the visit is that the beautiful vases, bowls and other glass objects – including many gorgeous Christmas tree decorations that I usually dislike – were all made of glass. That meant that we could not purchase any glass artifacts because we could not take them with us given their fragility and the various changes of venue on our trip. But the visit was terrific and a great start to a day that would end with a visit to the Chihuly Garden and Glass exhibition.

Our next stop was the Rem Koolhaas-designed Seattle public reference library that was opened just over ten years ago. From both the outside and the inside, the shell is a futurist placing of geometrical diamond-shaped glass panes in a steel mesh in blocks each at odd angles that makes brutalism suddenly suave. Strength and playfulness are successfully combined. The structure reminded me of how a two-year-old plays with building blocks. The interior is really cool in the modernist sense of the term, but also very functional as you circle the central elevator shaft and watch readers, people working on their computers and even sleepers. Brutalist modern plywood impressed concrete is more or less restricted to the core.

What use is a library in a computer age? This structure shows how modern technology and our age-old reverence for hard copy books can be integrated as well as private study, meeting rooms and an auditorium with an excellent series of talks. The details speak for themselves. On the first floor, I could not figure out how they made the floor of slightly raised wooden letters from a multiplicity of alphabets – I assumed they were carved out of the wood, but, if so, that was very labour intensive. I loved the aluminum walkways, the polished concrete floors and the sense of space viewed from almost any angle. I also appreciated the way sound was kept from boomeranging, from the use of what looked like large silver-coloured puffy cushions on the ceiling to another ceiling with a surface that looked like an array of egg cartons.

We went from the library to the Northwest Woodworker’s Gallery in Belltown in Seattle, an area well on the way to complete gentrification. That was a great visit but I wished we were there with my son Daniel who has such an intimate knowledge of various woods and artisan techniques. The show was called the Box and Vessel s Since the featured artifact was a very playful and complex carving of a fantasy Noah’s ark, I assumed the show would be about carved boxes and ships. But the vessels referred to liquid containers of various sorts. There were very few of the beautifully made pieces that I would not have loved to have in our home.

The most exciting part of the day was the one I least expected. After a lunch at a restaurant, the Tilicum Place Café two blocks from the Space Needle, celebrated for its use of local produce and healthy food, that I had to admit was excellent – the spicy butternut squash soup was as good as Nancy’s – we went to the EMP Museum. This is a Frank Gehry designed structure. The Experience Music Project (EMP) design was evidently inspired by Gehry cutting up a guitar and the various parts influenced the shapes he used in creating the forms and shapes of the museum. I would not have recognized that had I not read the brochure and then saw a sky-view picture of the building revealing what was unmistakably akin to one of those broken guitars that rockers like to smash up in their performances.

Funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen as a modern cathedral to his personal love of both rock and roll and science fiction movies, the EMP building is clad in coloured sheets of either aluminum or stainless steel. It certainly conveys fluidity, but not the beat of music. And certainly not the fear that is so celebrated in the section of the museum on horror film – concentrating almost exclusively on horror film of the gore variety. The building is a sculptured shell that reminded me, viewing from the ground, of the broken shell of a mollusk rather than of pieces of a broken guitar.

I thought the museum would be a nostalgic visit for Nancy to relive her experience of music as she grew up. However, the experience was surprisingly different. The monumental mountain of guitars as the sculpture at the centre of the building, with the guitars actually programmed to play various types of music – folk, country, bluegrass, blues as well as various varieties of rock – I did not listen to the latter – was really impressive. As it turned out, we did not spend much time in the galleries dedicated to Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, but instead explored in detail the gallery on horror films even though the exhbits overwhelmingly featured gore rather than psychological horror film makers. Even if I abhor such films, the history of the genre was interesting to follow, though the rationales the film makers gave for their love for that type of film was superficial and simplistic. But what can you expect from a genre that celebrates superficiality and simplicity in complex masquerades.

The science fiction section was far more into science fantasy films, with the greatest stress on fantasy and virtually none on science. Monsters, aliens, superhuman powers – all came to the fore. Nevertheless, it was a fascinating, informative and well-presented exploration. But the key reward was the section on music videos. I learned so much. I was surprised to find out that music videos went back to the origins of film, even earlier than The Jazz Singer. And some of the music videos we saw blew our minds (using pop cultural lingo). They were fascinating creations. Even though we sidestepped the galleries dedicated to video games, the three hours or so we spent in the museum were terrific, perhaps more so because I had been expecting only to endure the visit.

The Chihuly Garden and Glass building was far more exciting even than our visit to his installation at the King David Citadel and Tower in the Old City of Jerusalem that we saw in 2000. What a show! What a display of artistry using glass, though I must admit that after a few hours when I walked through the garden I had become overloaded and bored by the repetition that, in spite of claims to resemble nature, was different. Nature is never boring. My favourites were not the magnificent chandeliers and the glass forest and gardens, or even the magnificent Persian ceiling, but Macchia Forest and the exquisite bowls. It is so impressive how one artist can have such a profound and widespread effect on one artistic form. I never knew Chihuly came from Washington State.

We never took a ride on the Flash Gordon monorail since the hotel was halfway between the Space Needle and the next station. We also only walked around the Space Needle.

This morning we head further south along the Pacific Coast by car.