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Dreaming in Color

A New Art Commission at Seattle's Marion Oliver McCaw Hall Brings the Drama of Opera Outdoors

By Jodie Carter, regional editor

Seattle’s Marion Oliver McCaw Hall expands the dream of a 19th century ale entrepreneur. Back in 1881, saloon owner James Osborne left his hefty $20,000 personal fortune (an amount equal to the Seattle’s entire budget) to the pioneer city of Seattle to create a community space as a forum for civic and art events with one requirement—the city had to match his contribution.


Copyright 2003 Archiphoto/Eduard Hueber

In 1886 David and Louisa Denny donated land, the current site of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, to the city of Seattle for “public use forever.” But the land stood vacant and Osborne’s money sat in a bank gathering interest for 41 more years until a $900,000 bond issue passed by Seattle citizens in 1927 made it possible to build the “House That Suds Built,” a civic auditorium that included an ice rink, baseball track and football field. The city ushered in the new auditorium with this promise—“It would forever enable high or low, rich or poor to gather here to nourish their souls with the best of music and the wonder of pageantry." In 1959 construction began to transform the auditorium into the Seattle Center Opera House, and was completed just in time for the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair. Then in 2001, that opera house began a $127 million transformation into what is now Marion Oliver McCaw Hall, a world-class venue for ballet, opera and other amazing productions. These latest improvements included major seismic upgrades, a new 2,890-seat auditorium (made in the original opera house space), new building systems (HVAC system, lighting, staging and backstage areas), a taller fly loft and, most dramatically, a five-story grand lobby and outdoor promenade including a lighting artwork, “Dreaming in Color,” completed by June 2003 for the grand opening.

Architecturally, the hub of this amazing venue is the lobby, surrounded by a 130-ft-long, 68-ft-tall serpentine, glass curtain wall. Outside that wall is the promenade connecting McCaw Hall with a walkway leading from Mercer Street to the International Fountain at the heart of Seattle Center. Thanks to the “Dreaming in Color” artwork commissioned by the Seattle Art Commission, visitors to the Seattle Center Campus walk under a glowing “ceiling” implied by a series of translucent metal scrims floating overhead in the 300-foot-long Kreielsheimer Promenade leading to the Center.


This graphic plan of the Kreielsheimer Promenade and South Terrace illustrates the context of the project site and the relationship between the building and open space. Prominent design elements include: Three thin sheets of water (covering three tilted panels of stone paving) held by a stainless steel grille, four square plant areas, the 130-ft-long, 68-ft-tall serpentine glass curtain wall outside the Hall lobby, the 300-foot-long Promenade and the subtly tilted lawn of the South Terrace. Photography Credit: G. Loveridge / GGN

Heavy Design Collaboration

The landscape design of Marion Oliver McCaw Hall was a uniquely collaborative project involving numerous design professionals; Mark Reddington, LMN Architects; Kathryn Gustafson, Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd., a landscape design firm; Robert Israel, theater/opera designer; and Leni Schwendinger, lighting artist and owner of Light Projects Ltd., were among those involved.

“Dreaming in Color” originated as a technical analysis of Seattle’s LMN Archtiects’ goal to illuminate multiple, oversized, nearly transparent wire scrims—from there the concept evolved into an art commission. Robert Israel, theater/opera designer, worked with GGN and LMN Architects to create the initial design concept. “The outcome of having light in the space came out of those meetings: What is theater? What is the ‘specialness’ of it? From that the scrims happened, the paving happened, the water, the reflection,” asserts Gustafson. “Recognizing that the Seattle center has millions of people every day, and millions of kids, we wanted a daytime feel that was very family oriented and urban, but doesn’t make you feel like you missed the show.”

Artist Leni Schwendinger was hired to fine-tune the architects’ goal—to bring the drama of the opera outside into the Promenade. At that time the concept involved projecting video onto the scrims, but Schwendinger came up with a better solution—to project lights onto the scrims, in changing colors like a musical score. The final design called for nine, 30-foot-tall metal scrims, up to 60 feet in length, to be staggered 20 feet apart as they hang 12 feet above the walkway, creating a vibrant virtual ceiling implied by different hues of projected lighting.

The scrims were constructed with a delicate intertwined cork-screw design, similar to the coil drapes originally invented for fireplace screens and are held by tensioned cables securing the top and bottom, preventing more than modest movement in case of heavy winds. Schwendinger collaborated with the other designers to specify everything, from the gauge of steel and the openness of the weave in the scrims to the brightness, hue and matte of the paving on the Promenade, to achieve the right affect of light between the vertical scrim planes and the horizontal path plane below.

Seeking the most effective way to transpose the drama of performance and stagecraft from within the auditorium onto an outdoor promenade, Schwendinger studied the size and serial positioning of the screens. “We arrived at a solution consisting of two or three lights per 900 to 1,800-square-foot-scrim. We used the musical score structure as a tool to orchestrate the colors and timing of the colors; where you have music on the vertical axis, and time on the horizontal axis, the scrims become our musical instruments,” states Schwendinger. The visual score is designated in bars with changing colors based on thematic motifs that specify chroma, contrast and pacing—as in musical composition.

To test and pre-visualize spatial characteristics, a digital diagram was created to represent elevation and perspective. Utilizing these tools, time and color were mapped for every second into the perspective and elevation views.


At night the Promenade transforms into a mystical passageway. Opera may be going on inside, but the dramatic performance continues outside the hall’s 130-ft-long, 68-ft-tall serpentine, glass curtain wall with four distinct color compositions that play out like music. Dreaming in Color. Copyright 2003 Archiphoto/Eduard Hueber

The four resulting color compositions—“Aquamarine, A Beguiling Song,” “Sleepwalk Into Primary Red-Blue-Green,” “Within the Northern Lights” and “Of Rothko, Section and Plane”—were programmed over a week of all-night sessions and after hundreds of hours of development through modeling and mock-ups. At the conclusion of the on-site focus and programming, “Dreaming in Color” shimmered, with planes of light hovering above the ground as passersby and cars stopped and applauded.

The result is the perfect urban portal, bringing the drama of the theater outdoors by transporting visitors down an illuminated walkway playing dynamic visual “music,” changing in range and tone—much like the opera playing inside. The difference is—you don’t need a ticket to see this show. In creating that transition space, says Schwendinger, “Our mandate was to bring the drama to the public and non-ticketed realm—so that the public could enjoy something wonderfully dramatic and wonderfully grand—whether they bought tickets to the various ballet or opera events or not.”

The artwork consists of four distinct compositions of color, light and time.The 2,500-square-foot water feature is designed to reflect the sky, the metal scrims and lighting effects at night. Thin sheets of water cover three tilted panels of quartzite stone paving. Each tilted stone panel is 48-feet-long and is subtly sloped toward the interior lobby as it flows into a stainless steel grille in the paving, creating a calming sound within the space. The entire water feature is universally accessible and allows for pedestrians of all ages and abilities to move across the water and interact with the reflected light from the scrims and the sky. A series of stone benches along the west edge of the water feature provide quiet places to rest and “people watch” across the shimmering water, as pedestrians move through the interior lobby, walk through the Promenade and play in the water.


At night the Promenade transforms into a mystical passageway. Opera may be going on inside, but the dramatic performance continues outside the hall’s 130-ft-long, 68-ft-tall serpentine, glass curtain wall with four distinct color compositions that play out like music. “White-on-White” transitional sequence. Copyright 2003 Archiphoto/Eduard Hueber

“The vision that drove “Dreaming in Color” from its conception to its actualization was that of offering a theatrical experience to all visitors of Seattle Center and McCaw Hall—whether ticket holders or not,” says Schwendinger. “This follows my intent as a public artist—to transport a building’s meaning from inside to outside for all to experience.”

The Landscape -- Kreielsheimer Promenade and South Terrace

The Kreielsheimer Promenade is a dramatic and unique meeting place for opera patrons and visitors to McCaw Hall that also creates a bright, dynamic, and welcoming public passage for the city, into the heart of the Seattle Center Campus. An extraordinary collaboration between disciplines can be seen in the landscape’s elegant integration of architecture, landscape, lighting, and theater.


The Promenade water feature is universally accessible and allows for pedestrians of all ages and abilities to move across the thin sheets of water and interact with the reflected light from the scrims and the sky. Photography Credit: G. Loveridge / GGN

The Promenade is a subtly undulating, brightly lit open space between McCaw Hall and the neighboring Phelps Center building extending from Mercer Street at its north end to the lawn of the International Fountain at its south end. Though it is not apparent from looking at the finished landscape, a portion of the Promenade is a rooftop plaza, built over mechanical rooms below. “The whole design was very hard to do because of the existing basement underneath,” remembers Gustafson who adds that the quartzite pavers that make up the water feature walkway were tilted at about a 2 percent slant. “Getting water to flow is all about hydraulics and grading,” asserts Gustafson. “There were weight limitations—getting a design that worked with that but met a horizontal edge with the opera house—the geometry of getting it to work was very difficult.” The result of their calculated grading plan is that as visitors approach the slightly tilted stone water feature magically appears into view. “If you tilted the plane much higher it becomes an evident gesture—instead it’s very subtle and that’s the intent; that’s part of theater.”

The other technical challenge—keeping skateboarders from thrashing the quartzite bench seating surfaces—involved grooving the top and side bench surfaces with a notch the width of a skate wheel. After the benches were constructed, GGN consulted with actual skateboarders—the verdict, it works; the notches grab skate wheels, knocking boards off the benches.


The Promenade becomes an exterior lobby space where patrons gather before an event. Thin sheets of water cover three slightly sloped, 48-foot-long panels of quartzite stone paving. The two percent slope guides the quarter-inch deep water toward a curving, stainless steel grille in the paving. The same quartzite stone tops the benches along the west edge of the water feature. Photography Credit: G. Loveridge / GGN

Landscape Design -- The South Terrace and Boeing Plaza

As visitors walk south along the Promenade, the space transitions from the monumental, urban scale of the Mercer Street entry into a serene and vibrantly planted landscape adjoining the park-like campus. The South Terrace extends the contemporary forms of McCaw Hall into strong, simple landscape features that classically frame “garden views” of the Space Needle and International Fountain. The sunlit elements of the South Terrace are visible from the Promenade as a band of bold green color. A subtly rising plane of lawn, the Terrace finishes the Promenade with a sunny refuge that faces back into the central Promenade. The Terrace offers to lift people above the passing crowds, cool them with green and fragrant flowers, and embrace them with a crisp, low enclosure of boxwood hedges. Stone benches are integrated into the hedges to “float” on the boxwood. A 16-foot-high wall of fragrant and colorful vines encloses the east side of the Terrace.


Getting water to flow perfectly is all about hydraulics and grading. GGN designed the water feature with around a two percent slope, which guides the water into a stainless steel grille in the paving, creating a calming sound. If the paved plane were tilted much higher it would become an evident gesture. Instead the water feature magically appears into view, ”It’s very subtle and that’s the intent; that’s part of theater,” says Gustafson. Photography Credit: G. Loveridge / GGN

Landscape Design -- The South Terrace and Boeing Plaza

As visitors walk south along the Promenade, the space transitions from the monumental, urban scale of the Mercer Street entry into a serene and vibrantly planted landscape adjoining the park-like campus. The South Terrace extends the contemporary forms of McCaw Hall into strong, simple landscape features that classically frame “garden views” of the Space Needle and International Fountain. The sunlit elements of the South Terrace are visible from the Promenade as a band of bold green color. A subtly rising plane of lawn, the Terrace finishes the Promenade with a sunny refuge that faces back into the central Promenade. The Terrace offers to lift people above the passing crowds, cool them with green and fragrant flowers, and embrace them with a crisp, low enclosure of boxwood hedges. Stone benches are integrated into the hedges to “float” on the boxwood. A 16-foot-high wall of fragrant and colorful vines encloses the east side of the Terrace.

A Harmony of Elements -- Materials and Plantings

The landscape and building materials work in harmony to create a magical environment of light during both day and night. The paving materials selected for the Promenade accentuate the nature of the Northwest environment. The soft green color of the quartzite stone and the adjacent tinted concrete paving create depth to the space in the rain and offer contrast in the sunlight. The reflective nature of the stone, covered with a thin sheet of water, sparkles with silvery light during the day and become a canvas for the bold color and light projected on the scrims at night.

The quartzite stone pavers used were purposely dark, the reason? “Once you put water on top of dark [substances] you get reflection,” emphasizes Gustafson. “A pool of water can be four inches deep and will reflect the sky if it has a dark bottom.” The quartzite stone has a shimmering grey green feel to it, reflecting the natural environment of the Seattle bay. Adjacent to the water-covered stone pavers, the paved concrete (stained to match the quartzite stone) Promenade walkway seems to flow seamlessly through the glass lobby wall, where inside it turns into terrazzo—“so that the inside and outside are indistinguishable,” says Gustafson.

The Promenade is planted in a series of nooks, with a palette of traditional Northwest-Asian landscape plants, such as azaleas, Japanese maples, and violets. To complement the soft greens and silvers of the Promenade and building, these plants share cool-green foliage tones and blue flower colors. The blue flowers compliment the reflections of sky from the building and water feature. The Terrace is planted with strong, bright greens and warm flower colors.

A flamboyant mix of orange, magenta, and coral flowers echo the rich, exotic palette inside the performance hall and contrast with the cool blues of the Promenade. A centerpiece of the Terrace is a 16-foot-high wall of flowering and fragrant vines including climbing America roses, climbing westerland, zephirine drouhin and the tangerine-flowered trumpet vine. The vibrant green lawn and hedges of boxwood and Japanese holly, glowing with inserts of brightly colored plants, provide a combined focal point at the end of the Promenade. A glowing orange insert of livin’ easy roses punctuates a slot in one hedge of boxwood, and the neon-coral colored twigs of Japanese maple, Sango Kaku, emerge from another.


As visitors walk south along the Promenade, the space transitions from the monumental, urban scale of the Mercer Street entry, rising subtly into the serene and vibrantly planted landscape of the South Terrace. The Terrace’s plane of grass was purposely tilted to lift people above the passing crowds, cool them with green and fragrant flowers and embrace them with a crisp, low enclosure of boxwood hedges.” Photography Credit: G. Loveridge / GGN

Hails From an Adoring Public

“Walking on water—bathed in light” were the fervent sentiments from opera gala devotees attending the August 2003 Seattle Opera premiere of Parsifal. Ever-transforming luminous colors immersed opera patrons as some—barefoot—strolled through a sheet of reflective water on the Promenade.

But the Seattle Center is much more than a formal passageway for opera-goers, it’s a place for everyone. “People have become very playful in the environment: It’s a destination as a passageway,” asserts a fervent Schwendinger. “The other night we were taking photographs and saw people walking up with a basket to have a picnic in the evening light—and we knew we had done the right thing.”


“Dreaming in Color” Project Team
Commissioning Agency: Seattle Arts Commission
Owner: Seattle Center
Art Design, Light Projects Ltd
Leni Schwendinger, artist
Ted Sullivan, lighting designer
Charles Cameron, project manager
Paul Hudson, associate lighting designer/programmer
Gwen Grossman, assistant lighting designer
Severn Clay, assistant lighting designer
Anna Souvorov, artist assistant
Landscape Project Team
Gustafson Guthrie Nichol:
Kathryn Gustafson, senior design partner
Shannon Nichol, design partner
Marcia West, project manager
Gareth Loveridge, project designer
Architects, LMN Architects
Mark Reddington, architect
Interior design
Sussman/Prejza & Company Inc.
Initial conceptual design
Robert Israel, theater/opera designer
Systems engineering and integration
Ron Fogel and Associates
Lighting Manufacturers
Coemar Panoramic Cyc Power
ETC Express 192
LPC and DMX distribution

Older Comments
Name: Leni SchwendingerWrote in with general comment
Comment: Thanks for the in-depth coverage of "Dreaming in Color". The article covered the integration of landscape, architecture, art and lighting both in words and visuals.

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October 21, 2014, 6:15 am EST

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