The Space Needle’s Views Are About To Get Next-Level

ARCHITECTURE + DESIGN | BY | August 14, 2017
Space Needle
Photo courtesy of Olson Kundig

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Seattle? For us, it’s the Space Needle, and in case you haven’t heard, its latest redesign is about to give the landmark a futuristic facelift.

This summer, the Space Needle announced the Century Project — a $100 million privately funded preservation and renovation endeavor — that will begin Sept. 5 and be completed in September 2018.

Alan Maskin (principal and owner of Olson Kundig) and Adam D. Tihany (principal and founder of Tihany Design) were tapped to take the original vision of the tower into the 21st century — a mission that’s been 55 years in the making.

Here’s a brief history lesson (the SparkNotes version, if you will) to get you up to speed: The Space Needle was built in 1962 for the World’s Fair, the theme of which was the “Century 21.” The original architects of the project, Edward E. Carlson and John Graham Jr., had grand ideas for the construction of this sky-defining structure. Key to their vision were the windows on the observation deck. However, the materials and technology of the ’60s limited their ability to execute their vision to the fullest.

Space Needle
Before (left) and and after rendering by Olson Kundig
Space Needle
Before (left) and after rendering by Olson Kundig

Fast-forward to today, and the redesign includes new glass barriers that will replace the current wire “caging” on the observation deck to create a more seamless sightline. An estimated 176 tons of glass (10 different types of it, in fact!) will also be used to create floor-to-ceiling windows, benches that will give visitors the feeling that they’re dangling above the city, and a dramatic new circular stairway that will wind down from the observation deck to the restaurant level.

But here’s the real showstopper: a rotating floor made of glass. That’s right; the existing floor will be replaced with a glass floor that exposes the engines, wheels and gears that drive the observation deck’s rotation.

Additionally, the deck and restaurant will boast uninhibited 360 degree views of Puget Sound, and Tihany will focus on creating a streamlined restaurant and lounge that will showcase the improved views.

The project — which, by the way, won’t close off the landmark to tourists — is an undertaking the team doesn’t take for granted.

“In 1962, the area surrounding the Seattle Center was under development — it was an industrial area, certainly not what it looks like today,” Maskin explains. “Many people believe that the Space Needle actually inspired some of Seattle’s urban planning because it allowed an entirely new view of the city. Once people were perched up above the city and viewed it from that great height, they realized Seattle could grow and change, and that it could be doing better.”

He adds: “That concept is still alive for us today, and every move we have made on this project has been about taking away many of the things that obscure the views of the growing city 520 feet below the Space Needle. It has been about opening up those views in ways that we came to find out were some of the original designers’ ideas, but that did not get built.”

We discussed the renovation with Alan Maskin and Adam D. Tihany and asked them about some of their insider secrets about Seattle, below.

Tell us what it was like learning you would be working on this project. What was your immediate reaction?

Adam D. Tihany: Shaping the next chapter in the life of a national landmark is an indescribable thrill. It’s as if we were asked to redesign the Eiffel Tower; it’s an international icon. We’ve been all in from the very beginning and cannot wait to see this project come together.

Is there a place in the city that inspires your design work?

Alan Maskin: I commute across Elliott Bay by ferry at the beginning and end of each day. The proximity to the water and the Cascade Mountains have been a constant reference point for Northwest Regional modernists for decades.

Has the team discovered anything unexpected from collaborating with the structural engineer who worked on the original design?

AM: We had the opportunity to meet with Gary Noble Curtis, who was one of the original team engineers under [engineer] John K. Minasian. He shared with us that when he drew each stair run, he realized that the stairs did not terminate where the design team anticipated. It forced them to rotate the Space Needle upper levels by 120 degrees.

Can you give us a hint to what we can expect about the design of the restaurant? Will it be a specific style?

AT: The restaurant will be contemporary and airy with a hint to the future.

What are your favorite Seattle spots? What other places should tourists interested in design and architecture visit?

AT: I love Peter Miller Books, an architecture and design bookstore. I nearly cleaned him out during my last trip.

AM: Peter Miller Books, Oxbow, Mariane Ibrahim Gallery.

Favorite restaurants and dishes?

AT: My favorite restaurants in the city are Mamnoon and How to Cook a Wolf. I also love a good grilled salmon sandwich with coleslaw at Pike Place.

AM: On a day like today, when its 90 degrees outside in Seattle, Kurt Farm Shop is the best place to go for homemade ice cream (and homemade cheese). The cream comes from Kurt’s farm on Vashon Island, as do the herbs and fruits for the various flavors.

There are some great Seattle chefs that have multiple restaurant options. My favorites are Matt Dillon’s Sitka & Spruce, Renee Erickson’s The Whale Wins, and Tatsu Nishino’s sushi at Nishino is masterful.

Favorite cocktail?

AM: A Boulevardier or a classic Old Fashioned at Damn the Weather.

Describe the Seattle design scene with 3 adjectives:

AT: Young, experimental, environmentally-conscientious.

Favorite hotel in town?

AM: Seattle was the home of the very first Ace Hotel, the founders of which – Alex Calderwood, Wade Weigel and Doug Herrick – lived in Seattle and were a powerful design presence in the ’90s. The first Ace Hotel has many of the original ideas and concepts that the brand was founded upon. When I was stuck in Seattle during a blizzard years ago, when the city shutdown, my stay at the Ace Hotel was like a dream.

Video: Olson Kundig and Brooklyn Digital Foundry. Photos: courtesy of Olson Kundig

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