The Newcomer's Guide to Seattle: The Space Needle

The Newcomer's Guide to Seattle: The Space Needle

When I look at the Space Needle, I see a lot of things. Mostly I see a gaudy, pointless structure designed with tourists in mind, but there are a lot of other things that absurd, unmistakable building represents. For better or worse, it's a landmark, a symbol, an object of personality, inasmuch as a piece of garish jewelry is an object of personality. But really, we can't ask the Space Needle to be any more than this. Its origin, after all, is an event built on shameless consumerism, naive futurism and maybe just a little genuine culture: The 1962 World's Fair.

When England's Prince Albert conceived of the first World's Fair in 1851, it was a dramatically different undertaking. Britain had its empire and its revolutionary industrial complex. The original World's Fair was an exhibition of all the nation had conquered and accomplished. It introduced people to animals, cultures, foods and concepts they had never even imagined. Subsequent World's Fairs would be centers of innovation and intrigue. This was all well and good for societies prior to the invention of mass media and the solidification of multinational commerce. By the time Seattle had its World's Fair, the concept had lost all meaning. The 1962 Fair was always intended to be a gigantic shill for consumer products, but it mostly failed at that because the original plan for the Fair was formulated in 1955. Society, technology and life in general had changed considerably by that point, or at least enough to make exercises like "The House of Tomorrow" seem quaint and pandering, especially with the socially conservative tone of their projections.

The Space Needle itself was the intended centerpiece of the 1962 Expo and, in all fairness, it was technically an accomplishment at the time. It was briefly the tallest building in the Western United States and its structural engineering allowed for rather significant protection from wind and earthquakes. It's rated as safe for hurricane-force winds and 9.0 seismic activity, which is impressive for 1962. Never mind that the building itself is mostly pointless. It has always been an overpriced restaurant on top of a very long elevator, rotating as if that's something people look for in a dining experience ("oh, sure, the food is good and the service is attentive, but does it move?").

So, what's the Space Needle to modern-day Seattle? Well, it's the reason we have Seattle Center which, for all its tourist-baiting silliness, is still a place dotted with vestiges of actual culture. There are theaters, museums, educational facilities and festival grounds, all of which get used for worthwhile exhibits on a regular basis. It's not the only place in Seattle for ballet, foreign film and concerts, but it's also not the worst place to find varied entertainment in the city. Seattle Center has also fostered some urban development in the region where Belltown and Lower Queen Anne meet. I'm not embarrassed to say that some of my favorite bars and restaurants are mere blocks from the Space Needle, a neighborhood that was literally nothing before 1962.

The Space Needle is also, for better or worse, an icon of the city. It's not as noble as the Empire State Building, Hancock Center, Big Ben or the Eiffel Tower (well, maybe it's on par with the Eiffel Tower, tourism pap being the same regardless of culture or century), but it's what we've got. I'd rather the world knew Seattle by the sleek, black ziggurat of business that is Columbia Center, but corporate spires aren't exactly rare or easily distinguishable from one another in the modern world. As it stands, the Space Needle works just fine as a landmark. Like the city it represents, it's a little weird and its place in the world is hard to pin down. Also like Seattle, the Space Needle has more potential than it's currently pursuing. Ironically, the incredibly stupid idea of a flying saucer on top of a spiral staircase has become the futurist symbol it was originally supposed to be. Maybe one day the Space Needle will be more than a gaudy tourist trap just like one day Seattle might be the global, cosmopolitan metropolis quietly brewing in its present-day Northwestern city of liberal progress.