The genesis of the Seattle Art Museum expansion and renovation was a complex and visionary public-private partnership between the museum and Washington Mutual Bank, on a prominent site in downtown Seattle. Therefore, the building must be many things: a flexible framework that allows the museum to expand and transform over 20 years, a vibrant public institution that contributes to the life of the city, and finally, a cultural institution comprised of galleries of diverse scale, proportion and lighting.
The creative collaboration that resulted in the SAM expansion project established a matrix of existing conditions that define the new design; the new building’s height, setbacks, floor areas, overall area and floor-to-floor heights were fixed conditions. Furthermore, as an expansion, the new building had to add 300,000 square feet of museum space to the original five-story Robert Venturi/Denise Scott Brown museum building, completed in 1991. Perhaps the most compelling part of the development agreement was the mandate for growth and change over time; from the onset, the building had to be designed to transform—it will grow vertically in stages, opening with four full floors in May 2007, and ultimately expanding to occupy twelve stories of the sixteen-story building.
The building site—at the juncture of the city and the natural landscape of Elliott Bay—mandated a scheme that would contribute fully to the life of downtown Seattle. The design establishes an immediate connection to the street, rising from the sidewalk without setback to the maximum height of 180 ft. Transparent public spaces engage the life of the city with an immediacy that joins street and lobby, sidewalk and gallery. The design establishes an immediate and constant connection between the user and the landscape beyond by maximizing transparency: physically, through the glass walls of the new public spaces, where pedestrians can see into the heart of the galleries while passing by, and spatially, in the series of interconnected, double-height galleries that unify and energize the vertical experience, creating continual points of orientation that allow visitors to clearly see where they are going and where they have been.
Landscape and Natural Light
The building skin is a steel-and-glass curtain wall system designed to capture and refract Seattle’s ever-changing weather and daylight. It is conceived as four articulated L-shaped “shells,” which rise uninterrupted from street level to parapet, pin-wheel around the corners of the building’s floor plates and bind the building together while allowing continual visual connections to the surrounding city of Seattle, Elliott Bay and the Olympic Mountains. Each shell segment engages natural light in a different way. The North-facing shell is floor-to-ceiling glass to flood galleries on that side with natural light; the Northwest side is mostly opaque except to provide select moments of visual connection to the city and bay; the Southwest side has ever-changing light from an ingenious, operable brise soleil system; and the South face allows light in through a scrim to illuminate the future south galleries. The brise soleil employs a system of sliding stainless-steel shutters that can be used to control the amount of light admitted into the galleries, making the building skin changeable over time—responsive to weather conditions, seasonally changing exhibitions, and future growth. At the intersections of the four shells, clear vertical windows run uninterrupted from bottom to top, allowing targeted views from the city streets into art space, and conversely, views from art space to the surrounding landscape.
Curation: Diversity, Scale and Proportion
The primary goal of the project is the creation of beautiful, serene and diverse spaces for the wide-ranging SAM collection. Galleries of varying height and size create intimate rooms for small objects and grander spaces for monumental works of contemporary art. Variety of scale is achieved with a mix of ceiling heights, gallery orientation, and gallery depths that vary from floor to floor. The scale mix establishes a ratio of gallery types suitable to small-, medium- or large-format works of art, as well as a range of conservation zones, with lower and higher light levels. Flexibility is achieved with specific features that include demountable art walls arranged in conjunction with the regular gallery openings, gallery doorways that can be seamlessly in-filled based on exhibition requirements, and sliding art walls that can be used to increase wall area or block out daylight. Because of the variety of spaces created by the range of natural light provided by the skin and the vertical gallery organization, SAM’s curators have the opportunity to explore different ways of displaying the collection.
“Space for art should provide moments of intimacy, calm and immediacy. Museum buildings can challenge and provoke, but ultimately must allow for the art to speak. In this era of noise and novelty, the museum experience provides a ground, a clearing, in which we can open up to new ideas: a moment of repose that allows us to risk seeing something for the very first time.
"The design of the Seattle Art Museum expansion began with the desire to create introspective galleries that immediately connect to one of the most powerful landscapes in the world; to create a diverse range of rooms in natural light which provide a broad palette for the curators and the collection; and, above all, to make spaces that move people to question what they see and inspire them to return again.
"This new building is an open frame for vertical growth that provides a shifting series of relationships over time. It is an experience altered by the forces of nature, the seasons, the range of light. A vessel for the forces of change.”