the Stranger

December 22-28, 2005 -



I-5 Colonnade: A Park or a Theme Park Beneath the Elevated Interstate?


By Charles Mudede


When I-5 was completed in the late '60s, it established in the heart of our civilized city a wild area. This wild area runs directly beneath the freeway, and unlike the wildlife refuge in Alaska, it requires no legal protection from human interests and designs. These sites, called "orphaned spaces" by local architect Jeffrey Boone, thrive like nobody's business. No amount of enforcement can regulate them and return them to the value system that organizes the city into a powerful capitalist machine. In the orphaned spaces produced by the elevated bulk of the freeway, the plant life is harsh, the air is filled with noise pollution, rodents breed and feed, and the homeless find shelter from civil society.


The Department of Transportation owns orphaned spaces in theory, but in reality no one owns them. The wilderness beneath the freeway (or "public wilderness," as it is manmade and open to everyone) represents the negative of the city and its ideals. This is why they are so disturbing, and why the city government, community organizations, and developers spend a great deal of time and energy trying to find a solution, trying to find something (anything!) that can penetrate and naturalize them. But orphaned spaces so far have resisted every challenge posed by city power. They are as tough as weeds, these spaces, that are neither city property nor the property of a city prince, but public in the most radical and exciting way.


The latest attempt to bring order to orphaned spaces has been to turn them into parks. This is a soft approach, one that was initiated when all other ideas had been exhausted. The latest idea is this: Let the public tame public wilderness. The Pro Parks Levy that was passed in 2000 gave the city $1.8 million to transform this negative land into a positive one for the surrounding homeowners and others who bank on property. The motives behind the park, which is called I-5 Colonnade, are bad—but the results have, for the most part, turned out good.


The dusky light that characterizes orphaned spaces is still here, and so is the dreamy hum of traffic. It is a peaceful place without any of the elements that we instantly recognize as peaceful. Rubble and dust still dominate the park, the grass is trying its best to survive, and some rocks have been caged into hedges by an artist named John Roloff—he was commissioned by the Seattle Art Commission to "design and build public art on the site." (He is not, however, required to operate or maintain it.) Like the decision to hire landscape architect Lawrence Halprin for the wonderful Freeway Park, the decision to hire Roloff to provide art for I-5 Colonnade was inspired. A marine geologist by education, Roloff makes sculptures and environments that examine big masses of time, geography, architecture, and the points at which the urban and the natural intersect. From Roloff's artist statement: "The interest in architecture in my work is largely informed by the concept of 'anthroturbation' where cities, architecture, roads, and other construction produced by mankind of earth materials (during our epoch—the Holocene) are considered in a geologic context. This term describes the disturbance, dislocation, and restructuring of geologic formations and materials by human agencies into new forms."


Instead of taming the orphaned space, Roloff conspired with it by adding such mad features as four trees (all from remote parts of the East) that were "planted as one," and the crazy moon lights that after dusk transform the site into something out of the haunting and floating worlds of traditional Japanese fiction. Then there is the "year-long simulation of Seattle pre-freeway, 1960, precipitation." Utterly unbelievable, utterly wild, utterly marvelous—the weather underneath the freeway is the weather of 1960.


Of the five project titles that were under consideration, Paradise Reconsidered is the most accurate. (I-5 Colonnade was not on the original list; it was concocted by the rather dull minds that compose the Eastlake Community Council.) If 1960 was the year before the fall, then 2005 is the year paradise is resurrected—but it is a godless paradise, a paradise that is fundamentally human. For now, orphaned spaces can claim another victory from capital: The city park did not absorb the wild site; the wild site has absorbed the city park.