Seattle's new waterfront

World-class art meets the great outdoors at the Olympic Sculpture Park

Kimberly Brown Seely

Online bonus: Take a photo tour through the sculpture park

It's hard to overstate the effect Alexander Calder's Eagle has had since landing in Seattle.

The Eagle, a 39-foot-tall, bright red steel stabile, is one of 21 monumental sculptures gracing the city's sparkling new Olympic Sculpture Park, which officially opened to the public in January after eight years and $85 million in the making. But as you approach the park's nine grassy acres, stretched along the downtown waterfront, the Calder is the first thing you see. (Is that red swerve of steel a beak? Are those wings?) Whatever it is, it's wonderful ― and somehow exuberant, whether you catch it against a sea of gray clouds or a rare blue Seattle sky.

With the sun making more frequent appearances, temps warming, and thousands of landscaped native plants budding for their very first season, now is the perfect time to visit. Especially with the park's founder, the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), reopening this month after an $86 million expansion and facelift of its own.

Not your ordinary urban park

Already, locals like me have woven the sculpture park into our everyday lives. On an early spring afternoon, two women lounge outside in bright red cafe chairs, sipping lattes, faces turned toward the sun. Young couples stroll hand in hand or push strollers along gravel paths. Small dogs on leashes prance about, as awestruck as their human companions taking in the scene that has truly transformed their city.

Situated on a former fuel storage and transfer site for the Union Oil Company, the sculpture park was a generous gift, paid for mostly by private donations and designed by Weiss/Manfredi Architects of New York. The tricky topography includes a zigzag series of open meadows, incorporating valleys, forest groves, train tracks, a major street, a bike path, and the curving shore of Elliott Bay. It all connects downtown Seattle to the waterfront, visually linking the Space Needle to Puget Sound.

There are few more spectacular settings in which to stroll among major sculptures by some of the top names in 20th-century art. (Free of charge, no less.) Most sculptures of this quality are in remote destinations or enclosed within monolithic, windowless buildings. "We took art outside the museum walls," says Mimi Gardner Gates, director of SAM.

Outside, indeed. Wandering around the sculpture park, which sits at the waterfront's north end, you see a 360° panorama of the Sound, the Olympic Mountains, and, when the weather cooperates, snow white Mt. Rainier presiding over the surrounding city.

The sculptures are so well placed here, it's a shame to think that anyone should ever settle for experiencing art like this indoors.

YOUR PERFECT DAY IN THE PARK

Pick up a map (and a latte) at the sleek steel-and-glass pavilion; take in the views, and be sure to admire Ellsworth Kelly's Curve XXIV on your way out. The rusted-steel fan shape is mounted on a raw concrete wall just outside the pavilion entrance and is a masterpiece of understated precision.

Linger in the valley, bushy with waxberry and western hemlock, at Richard Serra's Wake sculptures ― five towering, curved-steel forms undulate in inverted relation to one another. Although the sculptures are massive and heavy, they're also fluid, suggesting rusty ships' hulls. Wander through and around them, and you'll find it hard to resist tapping your knuckles lightly against them (as I observed one delinquent do, listening for reverberations).

Stop in your tracks where Mark di Suvero's Bunyon's Chess, an iconoclastic, kinetic work constructed of logs and thick chain, seems at home overlooking the railroad.

Detour down a bark-strewn path that winds through a grove of quaking aspen and lush fern, to Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen's zany Typewriter Eraser, Scale X, a colossal pop-art rendition of a completely retro office tool, sitting slightly askew on an embankment.

Don't miss Tony Smith's Wandering Rocks, and, at the park's southernmost entrance, a spiritual fountain designed for the park by 95-year-old sculptor Louise Bourgeois.

At the trail's end you'll be walking right alongside the water. Stop and sit by Seattle artist Roy McMakin's cheeky Love & Loss installation with its nod to Seattle's vintage neon, or continue to the small driftwood-strewn beach on Elliott Bay. Remarkably, there is sand. Big flat boulders to sit upon. Even small flat stones to skip. A perfect place to ponder where the boundaries between art and nature lie.

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GETTING THERE

The Olympic Sculpture Park is at the north end of the downtown waterfront. Pair your visit with a tour of the newly expanded Seattle Art Museum (SAM), which reopens on May 5. INFO: Free; 2901 Western Ave.; Seattle Art Museum; 206/654-3100.

WHERE TO EAT

SAM Taste Café Panini and fresh-squeezed lemonade, to enjoy indoors or out. INFO: $; 2901 Western; 206/654-3100.

Macrina Bakery & Cafe A short stroll from the park. House-baked breads and pizzettas. INFO: $; 2408 First Ave.; 206/448-4032.

WHERE TO STAY

WHERE TO STAY

The Edgewater Seattle's only waterfront hotel, steps from the park. INFO: From $259; The Edgewater; 800/624-0670.

Hotel 1000 High-tech new digs with 40-inch LCD screens that double as digital art galleries. INFO: From $300; Hotel 1000; 206/957-1000.