Seattle shines with creativity in myriad ways.
While flying over Western Washington, I looked down at the green landscape and scribbled something in my notebook about how “verdant” it all was. There was an immense flourishing below that I needed to document. With my first breaths of the air outside the terminal, I began to draw the clarity and inspiration of Seattle into my lungs.
With Trevor, the photographer for this story, behind the wheel as we drove along the I-5 from Sea-Tac Airport, I had to restrain myself from sticking my head out the window, all that oxygen fresh from the source. The gloomy morning gave way to a blue dome of a sky dominated by cumulus giants ringing the downtown skyline with an impossibly photogenic quality. Trevor’s challenge wouldn’t be getting beautiful shots of the city and its inhabitants but rather culling thousands of beautiful images to tell our story. As we pulled into the city and dropped our bags at the hotel, Trevor noted the constantly changing pools of light on puddles and sidewalks, an aesthetic side effect of the moody weather. The sun and the clouds would be his gaffer while we were here.
Marketplace of ideas
First things first: We walked to the Pike Place Market so I could take a selfie—err, experience the iconic marketplace up close. Trevor snapped a clichéd portrait to send to my family, complete with a complex background of distinctive neon signage and the Puget Sound, with its myriad islands expanding to the horizon. We walked down the cobblestone street and took in all the colors of the flowers and produce and fish and people, shopping, tasting, smelling, enjoying the daily spectacle.
When a likely out-of-towner turned down the street accidentally, I realized this was a mixed-use street. With people and cyclists taking their right-of-way, the car crawled for the 200 feet or so until it could turn. When we spoke later with Shannon Nichol of GGN (Gustafson Guthrie Nichol), a landscape architecture firm based just on the edge of the market, she said she thought of the thoroughfare as an example of “the street of the future.”
“It’s ridiculous that we have so little use of our streets for anything other than [cars] right now,” Nichol said while we sat in a light-filled conference room in the 1910 reinforced concrete building that has housed everything from bakeries to famous record labels over the years. “I think that it’s the most important thing that’s broken about our cities right now that we can fix. And the significance in a place like Seattle is that if we can fix that, the city becomes more desirable, more livable, more efficient.”
Growing up in the foothills of Mt. Baker on a logging road, Nichol was raised with a series of Audi quattro® all-wheel drive vehicles and she didn’t always have a taste for the designed landscape. While studying abroad in Europe, she discovered “that the designed landscape can be a beautiful thing and can be tuned very precisely to the human body.” It wasn’t anything special that changed her outlook, she said. It was “the most regular spaces, just the way that streets and curbs were scaled and designed, the way the curbs were crafted, the tight radius of the corners...” When she came back to the U.S., Nichol was motivated to undo the decidedly un-ergonomic, “thoughtless” design of much of our public space.
Another founding partner at GGN, Jennifer Guthrie, mirrored the sentiment. She said most of the projects GGN takes on seek to “bring people to the streets…sizing the streets correctly to what’s needed to give the pedestrian realm back to the pedestrians.”
A great example of their pedestrian-first philosophy appears in their recent work for the Pike/Pine district of Seattle. In responding to the city’s request for proposal to improve the pavement aesthetics on two important parallel one-ways and make the area more desirable, GGN countered with a more comprehensive proposal that emphasized “walkability and streetlife.” Instead of focusing on just the sidewalks, the firm raised the intersections to try to make Pike/Pine “the most walkable downtown corridor in America, because it should be.” Nichol hopes that innovations like autonomous vehicles will continue to improve city life for everyone, explaining, “Autonomous cars are welcomed by people who are trying to deal with the systems on the streets because it will make...the largest, fastest, most potentially dangerous element in the street...more predictable and attentive...”
How the streets of the future will look is yet to be seen, but for Nichol and Guthrie, the future is paved for the pedestrian. “Since we’ve opened the office,” Nichol noted, “one of the shifts we’ve seen is that cities are no longer consciously looking to create an iconic project. They’re not going after this ‘star-chitecture’ thing that you can understand from a photograph.”
“They actually want to create this space that feels like they have the best neighborhood ever, the most vibrant streetlife. When we design a space, we design it to reflect the urban culture of the area, to be totally wired in to the way that people are walking on the sidewalk and the flow of people on the streets.”
This type of human-centric design does more than just look nice and invite commerce, Guthrie said. The spaces GGN creates do things like reduce water use, saving water costs for property owners and improve property values. An additional win, for Nichol, is that “then the places that we care about that are outside of the city are less likely to get destroyed as quickly.” For GGN’s work designing and building roads and pedestrian spaces, “so much of that cycles back to the allocation of street space and the way it’s engineered and how it’s working, so when we’re designing an open space, we’re thinking about how does this fit into people’s daily lives.”
All the while we were talking, thousands of gulls orchestrated the sound of the port just outside the window. Ferries, barges and sailboats, all coming and going. The entire cloudy sky illuminating this elegant room like a giant China ball diffusing light. Trevor snapped some photos, and we asked Nichol and Guthrie for lunch recommendations.
“Cities actually want to create this space that feels like they have the best neighborhood ever, the most vibrant streetlife.”
Grounded in creativity
With Trevor and I both still full the next morning, we opted for a spartan coffee and a hike for breakfast in the stunning and expansive Discovery Park, just minutes from downtown. While we walked through the park, a mist was pulled over the wooded space. There is a moving stillness in the urban forests of Seattle. The sight of the green on gray was overwhelming.
But even more engaged were my other senses: the feeling of the loose sandy soil under my feet; the smell of the four-story pines; the sound of the rain on the canopy; the birds and the woods’ subtle creaking. Just one of the hundreds of parks in Seattle, we took in the centuries-old pines, bushes of yellow pom-pom flowers all bobbing in the wind and, most stunning of all, the view of the Sound from atop the hundred-foot cliffs, the sound of the wildlife muted little by a constant drizzle as we looked out at the Cascade and Olympic mountains. Getting us lost on our hike back gave us a chance to explore the expansive 534-acre woods and work off some of that late-night milk fat.
We eventually found the car in time and drove less than 10 minutes to meet artist Margaret Watson at her Ballard studio. Her paintings and other “constructions,” as she calls them, I heard were reminiscent of the landscape. We parked next to Watson’s Audi A3 and ran through the rain into the labyrinthine artist studios, my notebook already soaked from two days of mercurial Seattle weather. Once inside, we got an inside look at Watson’s process, and she got a chance to correct a common misconception about her work.
“I call them landscape-based,” Watson informed me of her abstract oil and acrylic works. “I follow the age-old grid of the horizon and gravity, and my interest comes from that land that I relate to that I see, outside of windows, outside of doors…my photographs…and bringing that outside in.” For Watson, her paintings frame an alternate landscape through the structure of the canvas, “but I don’t depict a landscape,” she insisted, sitting in front of some unstretched canvases ejected from their mount, pieces she had given up on but now was giving a second chance.
“That’s what I enjoy more than anything—seeing where a chance can take me, and how I can then use that, without having an endpoint in mind.”
Second chances seem to be a theme with Watson, herself an art student turned pediatrician. She is grateful to have returned to her artistic expression after many years away from the easel, from time to time “walk[ing] into art stores just to smell them.” Now many years into her second career, she finds solace and inspiration in chance operations, like the drip of a watercolor along the edge of the canvas or making her shape compositions out of lines in an uncontrolled kind of way. There is something deeply satisfying about the fractal quality of her lines, some more rigid, others like a collage of torn pieces of paper.
For Watson, chance operations are important “because it makes coming to the studio exciting.” As an artist, she claims she has “never been able to plan,” instead relying on the inspiration that comes when her materials surprise her. “That’s what I enjoy more than anything—seeing where a chance can take me, and how I can then use that, without having an endpoint in mind.”
She likes to use thin media for this reason, embracing drips and washes instead of big blocks of pigment. Ever inspired by color, for Watson, “it was the green that did it” for her when she decided to move to Seattle during her college years. She never left.
After our inspiring studio visit, I was finally ready to eat again. It was a good thing, too, because we had arranged to meet with one of Seattle’s premier chefs, Rachel Yang, at her restaurant Joule, just ten minutes away in Fremont. Recently nominated as “Best Chef: Northwest” by the James Beard Foundation, Yang attributes her success to her Korean upbringing and “not being easy on yourself, and not settling.”
For Yang, opening a restaurant of her own was the ultimate goal, but she admits, “It’s very rarely being done.” After coming to Seattle to open a restaurant for someone else, she and her husband, Seif Chirichi, opened a small 40-seat turnkey of an old Syrian restaurant. They wanted to make food that was fun for them and true to them. Naturally, this meant Korean fusion. For her, “owning a restaurant and cooking is a never-ending process. You’re always learning something new as well as dealing with the restaurant and employees.”
The spirit of learning and relentless curiosity continues to pay dividends for Yang but even more for her customers. “Always surround yourself with good people to do better,” she said. “So long as we’re never in a position to settle, it makes for a tiring life, but it is incredibly rewarding.” This transfers into her mentorship of younger cooks and staff, which she considers the most gratifying thing she’s doing. But as she said, “It’s not an easy job,” especially with four restaurants now and two kids at home.
The menu at Joule reads like a cross between a last-meal wish list and lyric poetry. The tables are intimate and the décor understated and tasteful, but for me, sitting at the chef’s table adjacent to the open kitchen is the only way to dine. The use of fermented foods yields a depth of flavor that takes every dish to a level high above the description on the page.
To Yang, “Shrimp Cocktail” means perfectly cooked prawns in a ginger beer-based broth that I kept sipping from my spoon long after I finished the course. Beef tartare isn’t just a twist on the classic crudo but instead is a taste of Korean beef marinade without the caramelization, balanced with a unique pine nut and Asian pear crunch. On this menu, the egg component of tartare is swapped for a fish roe aioli, a fun twist and a unique route to the umami, which is omnipresent in Yang’s cookery. I could literally write pages on the meal Trevor and I consumed at Joule, but I will say that I might be planning a return trip just to taste the Spicy Rice Cake again. I have never tasted such a perfect Korean rice cake: crunchy on the outside with a soft pillowy center, with crispy chorizo and a delicate yet unctuous kimchi.
After one of the most diverse—and filling—meals of my lifetime, Trevor and I rolled out of the restaurant and into the drizzling evening, the soft light still illuminating the mist while our trip came to a close.
There’s definitely something in the air in Seattle. Prospering here is all manner of creativity, from art and food, to city planning and place making. Clearly the flora loves it, but Seattle is thriving in more ways than one. A centuries-old pioneering spirit still resides here.
It’s described in online encyclopedias and travel guides as “The Emerald City.” While I never heard any locals use the alias, Seattle is a gem with many faces, so I’m going to roll with it. Seattle is transforming quickly to accommodate new paradigms, and it just might be the city on the hill that we all look to when it’s time to remake our cities for the future.