Eye of the Needle: “Spacelift” for Seattle’s Expo icon

Interview with Knute Berger, Seattle-based writer and consulting historian for the Space Needle

The Space Needle. Courtesy of Chad Copeland

Bureau International des Expositions

Seattle’s iconic Space Needle – built as the centrepiece of World Expo 1962 – recently unveiled a dramatic $100 million “spacelift”, notably featuring a revamped observation deck and the world’s first revolving glass floor. On this occasion, the BIE interviewed Knute Berger, consulting historian at the Space Needle and Seattle-based author, journalist and commentator.

 

Can you tell us about your personal connection with the Space Needle and how you became its official historian?

Knute Berger: When I was a young boy in the winter of 1961, my Cub Scout group went to the top of Seattle’s Smith Tower, then the tallest building west of the Mississippi. We could look across town and see the Space Needle under construction for the Seattle World’s Fair of 1962 – the Century 21 Exposition. It was like we could see the future being built on the horizon. The following year, I attended the Expo and went up the Space Needle. This was a memorable experience for an 8-year-old boy.

Years later, I attended Expo 2010 Shanghai and saw that images of the Space Needle – and a model of it – were used in an exhibit on the history of Expos to represent the concept to the Chinese people. The Needle was a symbol of Seattle, but also a symbol of what Expos were all about. That renewed my interest in what the Needle meant. In 2011, I was then asked to write the 50th anniversary history of the tower, which I did (Space Needle: Spirit of Seattle, Documentary Books, 2012). I was named ‘Writer-in-Residence’ at the Space Needle and given a desk on the 500-foot (152-metre) observation deck where I would write, do interviews and blog. I got to experience the daily life of the icon.

Since then, I have continued as the Needle’s consulting historian, helping with a permanent exhibit installed at the Needle’s base detailing its history, finding historic resources, and advising on the Needle’s $100 million renovation. The Needle is an official Seattle landmark and any changes to it must be carefully planned and executed to preserve its historic profile.

Before telling us about the renovation of the Space Needle, let’s go back to its origins. Where did the idea of building such an iconic landmark come from?

Knute Berger: The organisers knew they needed and architectural symbol of the city and the Expo. The Eiffel Tower was an inspiration - a legacy Expo symbol. The immediate inspiration for the Needle in 1958 was the Stuttgart Tower which gave them the idea that a view platform with a restaurant could be successful. The concept was doodled on a napkin and the architects went to work. It was decided by chief architect John Graham, Jr. that the top should resemble a flying saucer – what could match the Seattle Expo’s Space Age theme better than that?

"The Space Needle was designed to capture the spirit of aspiration"

Architect Victor Steinbrueck came up with the idea for the graceful, hour-glass-shaped tower from an abstract sculpture of a dancer reaching for the sky. At the time, Seattle was an obscure port city in the far northwest corner of America, yet because of companies like Boeing was transitioning to a high-tech, aerospace hub. The Space Needle was designed to capture the spirit of aspiration. It was also built at precisely the time the Berlin Wall was being built and Americans were building bomb shelters. It contrasted these two views of the future. Were we to be a country that built walls, or one that created global vistas? The Needle went up in less than a year.

The Space Needle is undoutedbly the most iconic symbol of Expo 1962, but what else did the Century 21 Exposition bring to Seattle?

Knute Berger: Expo 1962 taught the world how to pronounce Seattle! It gave the city one of the most recognisable skyline symbols in the world. It gave the city confidence in a high-tech future. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the headquarters of Amazon, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Paul Allen’s brain research institute and his Sci-fi museum are literally in the shadow of the Needle, as if it were a magnet for these things. Both Gates and Allen attended the Expo and have said they were influenced by it. Allen has said he was deeply impacted by the U.S. Science Pavilion, now the permanent Pacific Science Center.

"The Expo gave the city one of the most recognisable skyline symbols in the world. It gave the city confidence in a high-tech future"

That is also one of the main benefits: the Expo was supposed to leave Seattle with a civic and arts center. The site is now called Seattle Center with the major structures of the fair still intact. In addition to the Science Center, the Needle, and Century 21’s Alweg Monorail, it is home to theatre groups, Seattle Opera, non-profit arts organisations, public television and radio stations, and the Paul Thiry-designed Key Arena, which is undergoing a $600-million renovation to turn it into a state of the art basketball, hockey and concert facility.

And what is the impact of the Space Needle in particular?

Knute Berger: The Space Needle symbolised optimism for the future. It inspired TV shows like The Jetsons which offered a generation a view of a fun, high-tech future. It is a beloved structure by folks in Seattle, and has been much imitated around the world. The addition of a lower “Skyline” level back in the early 1980s created an event space for conferences, anniversaries, reunions, weddings, etc. and has bonded many people to it, being part of their lives and a measure of time. It is literally a landmark – a navigational aid to people finding their way around a rapidly growing, rapidly changing city.

Following the recent renovation, what is the future of the Space Needle?

Knute Berger: Most people don’t know it, but the Space Needle is owned by a single family, the Wrights, whose patriarch, Howard S. Wright, was one of the original group of five private partners who built the Needle (his company was the general contractor). The chairman is his son Jeff Wright, who told me the renovation was all about keeping the Needle healthy and viable for the next 50 years.

The renovation includes the installation of the first revolving glass floor in the world. Views from the observation deck have been enhanced with the installation of glass panels all around. The restaurant will be upgraded with a design by Adam Tihany. New elevators will eventually be installed. The Needle’s utilities and kitchen have been upgraded, and improvements to the structure have been made (seismic upgrading, for example).

The visitor experience is really taken to a new level – better views, dramatic perspectives (the glass floor allows people to see down the structure and watch the elevators come and go). In short, the Space Needle has made upgrades to the visitor experience and used concepts that were thought of by the original designers, but time and technology made it impossible for them to execute them at the time.

Someone recently raised this idea with me: should Seattle think about hosting an Expo in 2062 to mark the 100th anniversary of Century 21? It’s not too early to start planning, right?

For more information on Knute Berger, visit his profile on Crosscut as well as his 'Mossback's Northwest' series:

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