Blast From The Past: The Fascinating History Of Pacific Science Center’s Architecture

In 1962 the Seattle World’s Fair made headlines and millions came to explore the wonders of science at the United States Science Exhibit – known today as Seattle’s Pacific Science Center. Little did they know this creation would spawn a historic landmark and a famous local architect. Last month Pacific Science Center made the headlines again when we were named one of Seattle’s most beautiful buildings in a Pacific NW Magazine article. In honor of this and our 55th birthday on October 22, 2017, we’ve gathered some facts about our architecture that you may find surprising.

The U.S. Science exhibit building was supposed to be temporary.

When planning for the Seattle World’s Fair, the authorization law had required the buildings to be used for governmental purposes once the Fair concluded. The U.S. Science Exhibit was intended to double as a warehouse for the General Services administration, and later be torn down.

When interviewing for the building’s architect position, local architect Minoru Yamasaki was asked by the United States Commissioner, Phillip Evans, to design a science exhibit building which could eventually be used as a warehouse. Yamasaki told him the two concepts were incompatible; he would design a science pavilion with no regard to warehouse utilization. Commissioner Evans liked the notion of building a first-rate science pavilion, and chose Yamasaki for the job.

Construction site before PacSci was created
One of the pre-cast concrete slabs lifted into place during construction. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Item 77334.
Yamasaki and others
Minoru Yamasaki (center) with Dr. Dixy Lee Ray (standing) and others, circa 1962.

Yamasaki worked with one of the nations’ best concrete engineers to bring his designs to life.

Because Yamasaki was taking a chance on a structure that was originally intended to be temporary, he had to design it to be built quickly. John “Jack” Christiansen, a local structural engineer, made this possible.

The six exhibit buildings were designed as windowless, concrete boxes of various sizes. The vertical wall panels, which are all five feet wide and either 32 or 52 feet tall, were precast and pre-stressed offsite by Christiansen. A total of 475 wall panels, equaling 109,000 square feet of wall area, were transported 25 miles to the site where we now stand; incredibly, only one panel was damaged during transit. At the time it was constructed, the U.S. Science Exhibit was believed to represent the largest single-use of precast and pre-stressed concrete structural components in the United States.

PacSci arches under construction
Arches under construction.
Floor plan for PacSci
Original floor plan of U.S. Science Exhibit.

The arches stem from a projected conflict with the Space Needle in Yamasaki’s original plans.

Yamasaki originally planned a single 110-foot tower instead of the now-iconic set of arches. Upon learning of the plans for the Space Needle, he quickly changed his design as not to be dwarfed by the incoming 650-foot structure. He morphed his plans into five 100-foot illuminated towers topped by graceful, open-ribbed “space gothic” arches. These arches are situated on the primary north-south axis of Seattle Center, and created a visual anchor for fair-goers.

Early construction from the Seattle Engineering Department.
Early construction from the Seattle Engineering Department. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Item 167456
Aerial view of the Seattle Center construction site
Aerial view of construction from the Seattle Engineering Department. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Item 167507

At the time, Yamasaki was criticized for his embellished detail.

Yamasaki found inspiration in Gothic cathedrals, Islamic temples, and Japanese gardens at a time when functionalism and “less is more” was all the rage. While he, like most architects of the time, embraced Mid-century Modernism, he also sought to humanize his buildings. He believed a building “must be like a human being. It must have a wholeness about it.” While the U.S. Science Exhibit was popular with the public, some architecture critics called it a “wedding cake” and dismissed Yamasaki as nothing more than an “exterior decorator.”

Renowned architect I.M. Pei, known for the Louvre Pyramid in Paris, stated “the water in the courtyard is fine, very successful, but the building is not. Yama [his nickname] mass-produced a façade in the Gothic idiom but without the Gothic logic. At best, this building is mere artistic caprice.”

Today, Pacific Science Center’s architecture is well-known and beloved by many. In the Pacific NW Magazine article mentioned above, Amy Janof of Janof Architecture praised “the fountain court, with its floating terraces and iconic arches, sends my imagination soaring today just as much as it did decades ago on elementary-school field trips. It’s civic architecture at its best — emotional, inspiring and poetic.”

PacSci opening ceremony
Ceremony announcing the opening of Pacific Science Center on October 22, 1962.
PacSci construction
Construction from the Seattle Engineering Department. Photo courtesy of the Seattle Municipal Archives, Item 77333

Despite his critics, the U.S. Science Exhibit was well-liked by many, and Yamasaki is now revered as one of the most prominent architects of the 20th Century.

The general public, along with many other art and architecture critics, looked upon the U.S. Science Exhibit favorably. Journalist Alistair Cooke described it “as if Venice had just been rebuilt,” while Time Magazine stated “it looked as if it could have been the setting from a poem by Coleridge. From any angle, it cast a spell.”

Yamasaki went on to be known for many of his buildings. His design for the 1956 Lambert-St. Louis Municipal Air Terminal in St. Louis, with its groin-vaulted ceiling and massive expanses of glass, became the new standard in air terminal design, creating a visual language that many Americans would instantly recognize as “airport.”

In September 1962 following his work on the U.S. Science Exhibit, Yamasaki was selected as lead architect for the World Trade Center. When he received the letter from the New York Port Authority, he humbly presumed the estimated $280,000,000 project had an extra zero at the end, as surely his 55-person company would not be considered for a project that large. He was chosen over 40 different architects, including his critic I.M. Pei.

Pacific Science Center is now a historic landmark of the City of Seattle.

On July 22, 2010, Pacific Science Center was awarded landmark status by the City of Seattle. The City of Seattle’s Landmarks Preservation Board unanimously voted for the designation, and we are currently one of only three Seattle buildings that meet all six designation criteria; the others being the Space Needle and Key Arena.

Groundbreaking ceremony
Groundbreaking ceremony for the U.S. Science Exhibit, February 21, 1961. Warren Magnuson bounced a radio signal off the moon and it was received in Seattle as the ceremonial signal to break ground.

Pacific Science Center strives to be a steward of maintaining the original structure.

Our facilities team has the important task of maintaining and preserving our buildings. The benches, fountains and flower bowls that reside in our courtyard are all original pieces picked out or designed by Yamasaki himself. The terrazzo is also carefully taken care of, as it is no longer made the way it was in 1962 and is hard to come by.

The original lights that used to illuminate the arches used a high amount of electricity at a time when there seemed to be an endless supply. Eight 500-watt floodlights went into each arch, and the up-lights required another four 400-watt bulbs each. We have since replaced them with LED lights, reducing our energy usage by more than 80%.

The original ponds, like the rest of the building, were not designed for longevity. They were sealed with native cedar, which over time deteriorated and leaked. In 2011 the pools were refurbished and resealed. We are working toward a long-term goal of net-zero water and energy use. Since 2004 our water use has dropped by 52%, due in part to the resealed pools.

One of our guiding principles is to run a smart and responsible business. We invest to sustain and grow our long-term impact and pride ourselves on being leaders in socially and ecologically responsible behavior.