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The architecture of the Space Needle: embodying Space Age aspirations
By organising World Expo 1962 – which opened to the public 60 years ago this month – Seattle, then a small, globally obscure port city in the far northwest corner of the continental United States, sought to put itself on the map as an ambitious, tech-oriented city with its eye on the future. It wanted to brand itself as a “launch pad” for the Space Age and provide hope in the Cold War era. The Century 21 Exposition was architecturally ambitious, seeking to create a permanent landmark that would, like the Eiffel Tower, create an instantly recognisable symbol. The result was the Space Needle, a futuristic 184-metre-tall observation tower. The goal was to showcase the scenic beauty of the region, symbolise and dramatise Space Age architecture with its “flying saucer” motif, and prove commercially viable with the first free-standing revolving restaurant in the world.
Originally, the city sought to put on an Expo on the 50th anniversary of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, which Seattle hosted in 1909. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik in 1957 started a Cold War “space race” and the U.S. government sought to promote science and technology. Seattle was assured that if it hosted a future-oriented, science Expo, it could get federal financial support for the project. This fit with the city’s aerospace industry, led by Boeing. Thus, Expo organisers adopted a science orientation and sought to put on an Expo featuring “Man in the 21st Century” to showcase positive, peaceful technological innovation related to space, communications, computers, and consumer products.
It was understood that the architecture of the Expo should reflect its theme and that some of the Expo’s structures would become permanent additions to the city and anchor a long-awaited civic center that had been first planned shortly after the 1909 exhibition. Modern architecture would be key to the Expo’s messaging and legacy.
"The Expo site needed a showcase project that would symbolise the event and embody futuristic thinking"
In 1958, Paul Thiry, the Pacific Northwest region’s leading modern architect, was selected to oversee the planning of the Expo site, located in a relatively undeveloped 74-acre (30 ha) section of the city a mile from the downtown retail and business core. Thiry said that he planned to make the Expo’s architecture as modern as possible and that “When we know a little more about the exact fair plans, I’d like to consider a modern theme building that would stand out from the remaining construction.”
Thiry, born of French parents in Nome, Alaska in 1904, was trained at the University of Washington and Ecole des Beaux-Arts at Fontainebleau. He was already known in the northwest for his designs of modern residences, churches, libraries, and other public structures. He was experienced with advising on the layout of both the state of Washington’s Capitol Campus in Olympia and advising on the U.S. Capitol plan in Washington, DC. He has been described as “among Washington’s most illustrious architects of his generation [who] exerted a major influence in the emergence of the ‘Northwest style’ of architecture [and] as an early proponent of modernist design, while also advancing urban ideals.” The Northwest style included combining mid-century modern design with Pacific Rim and Indigenous influences and connecting the inside of structures with the outdoors.
Thiry knew that the Expo site needed a showcase project that would symbolise the event, the city’s aspirations, and embody futuristic thinking. Another need was a structure that could showcase the spectacular natural setting of the city sitting between two mountain ranges and located on Puget Sound. Thiry toured former Expo sites in Europe, attended Expo 1958 in Brussels, and had been inspired by the innovative modern architecture of the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago in 1933-4 which he later described as “a museum of new architectural styles and construction techniques….”
A few months after his appointment, Thiry revealed a concept for his “modern theme” building. It was a geometric 20-sided, 300-foot (91-metre) high “crystal” that he later called the “Cosmodrome.” He envisioned it would be placed on the Expo site rising out of a manmade lagoon symbolising the origin of life on earth and housing a major science exhibit.
The U.S. government, however, gave the commission for a U.S. Science Pavilion on the highest ground of the Expo site to architect Minoru Yamasaki, a University of Washington graduate from Seattle, who instead chose to design a contemplative compound of six buildings housing science exhibits around shallow pools, a kind of cloistered space overlooked by giant steel “space gothic” arches. Yamasaki said he wanted to create a space of “serenity” within the busy Expo site. From an architectural standpoint, Yamasaki’s pavilion was considered the architectural star of the Expo, made the cover of Time magazine, and got Yamasaki the commission to design the World Trade Center towers in New York. The pavilion became a permanent feature of the post-Expo civic campus, the Pacific Science Center. But Yamasaki’s design left the Expo without a signature landmark that would thrill visitors and showcase Seattle and the surrounding area, frustrating Thiry.
In 1959, the Expo’s chairman, a Seattle hotelier, Edward Carlson, vacationed with friends in Stuttgart, Germany where he was taken to a local broadcast tower that had a restaurant near the top. Inspired, Carlson sketched a tower with a saucer-shaped top and called it the “Space Needle.” Carlson visited other European towers, including the Eiffel Tower. He realised if the Century 21 structure were to be permanent, it would need to be financially self-supporting.
Nearly a year before Carlson’s visit, a local newspaper had run an article also suggesting that the Stuttgart Tower could be a useful concept for Expo 1962 Seattle if it needed “an Eiffel Tower.” As a hospitality executive, Carlson believed that the Needle should feature a fine restaurant as well as being a 360-degree observation tower. The view in Seattle, he thought, was much better than Stuttgart’s.
On his return home, Carlson got in touch with Seattle architect, John “Jack” Graham, Jr. His architectural firm, John Graham & Company, had been looking for a signature project connected with the Expo, and he seized on Carlson’s idea. Graham set his architects to work on ideas that could be a permanent legacy landmark. A temporary structure was never seriously considered, in part because much of the Expo infrastructure would remain in place for a permanent district, Seattle Center. Models considered for the post-Expo civic center included Rockefeller Center in New York City and Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. Existing buildings on the site were adaptively reused, for example turning an auditorium into an opera house and an old military armory into a food court and retail facility.
The Graham firm’s claim to fame was building large international retail projects including some of the world’s first major auto-centric shopping malls, such as the Northgate Shopping Center in Seattle. In 1962, Graham’s firm had offices in New York, Toronto, and Honolulu, and was working on projects in England, Singapore, Malaysia, Canada, and Australia.
Graham’s approach was highly pragmatic. At the time the Needle was being designed, the firm was developing a turntable technology for a rotating restaurant, La Ronde, in a shopping complex in Hawaii. The idea for a freestanding, rotating restaurant atop the Needle – which would be the first such restaurant of its kind – fit with the idea of a disc-shaped structure at the top of the tower. Graham received a U.S. patent for his turntable technology which could smoothly rotate a dining floor with low power.
Graham’s overall objectives for the signature tower were simply stated. “Graham said the Space Needle was designed to satisfy three objectives: to symbolise ‘Man in the Space Age,’ to provide ‘gate appeal,’ and to produce a permanent profit-making attraction.”
"The Needle would literally point the way to the Space Age"
The saucer shape of the Needle, enthusiastically pushed by Graham, was highly suggestive of an event that had occurred near Seattle involving the primary geographic feature that made the view from the city so spectacular: the massive, 14,400-foot (4,392-metre) Mt. Rainier volcano. In 1947, a pilot said he had observed a number of silver objects speeding and dodging through the Cascade mountains near Rainier. He described them as looking like saucers skipping across a pond. They were perceived as clearly an advanced technology, and so was born the term “flying saucer.”
They became an instant worldwide phenomenon. Graham was adamant about the shape. For one thing, while studying architecture at Yale, Graham was familiar with Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House, a circular home with a pointed mast surrounded by windows. According to Edward Carlson, Graham told his team, “You have to make the top house flatter, more like a flying saucer, like this - more disky.” Shaping the Needle’s “top house” like a saucer suggested Earth’s future technology might become like that of the extraterrestrial visitors we imagined. The Needle would literally point the way to the Space Age.
The Space Needle’s architecture was, in a sense, done by committee, with Graham as the final arbiter. Graham credited his in-house architects John Ridley and Arthur Edwards with the ideas for a wasp-waisted tower with a saucer top, but he was unsatisfied with the tower design itself. An early publicity photo displayed a version that showed what appeared to be a single, tapered concrete shaft. Graham, however, said he wanted a “tower unique and inspiring.” Staff ran through hundreds of sketches, concepts, and renderings.
In the summer of 1960, late in the day for a project that had to be completed by April 1962, Graham turned to an outsider, architect Victor Steinbrueck, to come in as a consultant to develop and refine Needle tower concepts. Steinbrueck was a well-known figure in the architectural community and taught at the University of Washington. The breakthrough came in August when Steinbrueck took note of a small, graceful wooden sculpture he owned, created by a friend and artist, David Lemon, called “The Feminine One.” It was an abstract inspired by a dancer reaching skyward. This gave Steinbrueck the idea of a steel tripod suggestive of long pairs of “legs” and “arms” holding up the saucer top.
In a sense, the structure would be an inversion of the Eiffel Tower, flaring out at the top rather than at the base, yet like the Eiffel Tower, it would reveal its structure by having its beams and steel exposed and creating visual drama with its shape. Its wasp-waisted look was likened to many things, including a mushroom, a flower, a “Martian” wheat sheaf, and an atomic mushroom cloud.
The tower was announced to the public in the fall of 1960. When it was unveiled, there was no location for it on the Expo site, no funding, no permits, and the design and engineering were not complete. Most public sources of financing were committed elsewhere. The city of Seattle was approached, but the building superintendent predicted it could become a “white elephant,” meaning an expensive and useless object.
However, the need for a unique, iconic architectural legacy structure was widely recognised as essential to the Expo’s success. A piece of city property adjacent to the Expo site on which a fire station sat was found to be the most likely spot for the Needle. In rapid succession, a private partnership of local millionaires committed funds for construction and acquired the land from the city. The partners included John Graham himself and the general contractor for the project, Howard S. Wright, and both received part ownership for their contributions to designing and building the Needle. The Wright family are the sole owners today.
Building rules were bent to ram the project through. For example, the 600-foot (184-metre) tower was to be built on property zoned with a 60-foot height limit. Arguments were made to make a permanent exception for the Needle in March of 1961, a mere month before ground was supposed to be broken. Thiry compared the Needle to the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, telling the city’s Planning Commission that this was “a singular situation.” It was urgent to get approval so structural steel could be ordered in time to construct the tower. It was also pointed out that the Eiffel Tower was built in a low-rise area of Paris. The Commission declined to grant permission, but the elected City Council did approve the project. Construction commenced without final permits in place.
A tower engineering expert, John Minasian of Pasadena, California, was retained to vet the project. He recommended more steel and a stronger foundation and wind-tunnel tests. The Needle was built to twice the current earthquake standard and designed to withstand high winds. He ordered structural steel for the project from U.S. Steel in Chicago out of their catalogue. The beams would be modified, bent and assembled as needed, and the tower erected by ironworkers for the Seattle-based Pacific Car and Foundry’s Structural Steel Division.
"The Needle’s image was captured on TV, magazines, and newspapers around the world"
For a Space Age monument, the Needle’s construction was very state-of-the-art, and to some degree, seat-of-the-pants. While it reflected the future and space, the only one on the project who had anything to do with the space program was Minasian who had built rocket gantries for the Saturn V rockets at Cape Canaveral. He was also an expert in tower failure. The builders were experienced in tower construction by traditional means using steel and bolts. Ground was broken in April, the massive foundation poured in May, and the first above-ground steel section of the interior core of the tower was set in place in late June. Construction took place over roughly 400 days, from May 1961 to April 1962.
The Space Needle took centre stage as a symbol for the Expo and the Space Age. It was just over 600 feet (184 metres) tall and featured a revolving restaurant and observation deck. To top it off, a natural gas “tiki” torch lit up to point a fiery finger skyward. The effect was novel, and stunning. The Needle’s image was captured on TV, magazines, and newspapers around the world. British journalist Alistair Cooke extolled its “god-like view.” Elvis Presley was bowled over by its height while making a movie there. Astronaut John Glenn went up and exclaimed that the Needle was “really something.” Expo visitor Walt Disney, scouting the Century 21 Exposition for ideas for future theme parks and pavilions, predicted “there will be Space Needles cropping up all over after the success of this one.”
The Needle did not remain static after the Expo. Its colour scheme has changed over time, for example, its original “Galaxy Gold” red-orange top - a colour Prince Philip of Great Britain disliked - is now a neutral white. The gas tiki torch was removed years ago, but a replacement tripod mast flies flags that capture community spirit, from the LGBTQI+ rights rainbow flag to a “Mask Up Washington” flag during the recent pandemic to a banner for Seattle’s brand new National Hockey League franchise, the Kraken, that play in the Thiry-designed Coliseum (now called Climate Pledge Arena under Amazon sponsorship) near the Needle’s base following a 1 billion USD renovation of the former Expo facility.
In the late 1970s, the Needle’s owners sought to put a new structure at the 100-foot (30-metre) level, a platform that had originally been designed to be an open observation deck. The new structure would add a second restaurant to the tower. A battle ensued between Space Needle designers, Jack Graham and Victor Steinbrueck. Steinbrueck had credited Graham with the overall Needle, but others believed Steinbrueck deserved more credit, and Graham sought to downplay Steinbrueck’s role in the design. A quiet feud broke into a nasty public fight over the proposed addition.
Graham’s firm designed what is known as the Needle’s Skyline level, Steinbrueck claimed it desecrated the Needle’s sleek profile. A local columnist outlined the debate: “There are those in this city who believe fervently that the Space Needle is a piece of architectural poetry and that to embellish any of its lines is a travesty to art and form and society. There are others to whom it is a leggy novelty, a leftover curiosity from a lesser exposition and a fair model for a paperweight.”
The Needle won the right to build the addition in 1981. It has served as a deli, a banquet facility, a meeting space, and a prep kitchen. Yet the fight also highlighted the fact that fewer than 20 years after its construction, Seattle’s people were passionate about the Needle’s historic significance to the city and valued its architectural integrity. It was privately owned, but the public felt it had a strong say in protecting it. In 1999, the Needle’s exterior profile received city landmark protections. A number of view corridors to the Needle from public parks were protected by city ordinance so they cannot be obstructed by development.
"The new, renovated design of the Space Needle includes the world's first rotating glass floor"
In addition to the Skyline level, a so-called Space Base structure was built around the Needle’s base containing a gift shop and a spiral ramp to access the elevators to the restaurant and observation deck. Some early architectural renderings of the tower showed such a ramp, though not enclosed. A gallery of artifacts and images line the ramp to inform visitors of the conception, design and construction of the “400-day wonder.”
Another feature was added adjacent to the Needle base. In 2012, Chihuly Garden and Glass, a museum, exhibit, event space, and restaurant were added to showcase the glass sculptures of artist Dale Chihuly. It is owned by the Space Needle’s parent company and managed by its staff. While most of the Needle’s visitors are from outside of Seattle, these facilities are used by locals for weddings, anniversaries, reunions and marking special occasions.
The Needle underwent a major renovation, preparing it for the next century. Olson Kundig, a Seattle-based international architectural firm was hired to do the work. The goal was to revitalize the visitor experience. Architects Alan Maskin and Blair Payson were assigned the task: “The new design includes the world's first rotating glass floor, new glass barriers with integral glass benches on the observation deck, a new steel and glass stairway and glass-floored oculus connecting all three floors, and revised interiors throughout this ‘top house’ area of the Needle. The new additions echo the conceptual ambitions of the original design architects from 60 years ago, some of which were unachievable due to their condensed timeline and the technological limitations of that era.” For example, an early architectural model from John Graham & Co. showed tall glass encircling the observation deck, but neither the glass nor the technology were available in 1962. Now large glass panels surround the deck which is still open at the top.
A major goal was the “transformation of the monument… focused on revealing the beauty and ingenuity of the original structure.” The finished Olson Kundig work was unveiled in 2018. The restaurant has been replaced by a flexible cocktail bar called The Loupe Lounge. Wire caging that had been put up around the exterior observation deck to prevent people jumping from the structure (unauthorized base jumpers and, in the 1970s, a spate of suicides) has been replaced with large panes of clear glass canted outward that open up the view dramatically and allows visitors an exciting downward perspective. Access to the Needle for those with reduced mobility was improved. The exterior profile of the Needle was protected. A second phase will replace the Needle’s three capsule-style elevators with new double-decker ones and upgrade the elevator system. This echoes another early-but-unbuilt idea the Needle’s designers had for stacked elevators, visible on some early drawings. The first phase of the renovation cost 120 million USD.
With the Covid-19 pandemic, the Needle upgraded its air circulation and purification systems. Fortunately, the elevators are exterior ones that ride up and down the Needle’s structural core with air turnover on each trip in addition to added UV lights. Having the elevators on the exterior of the structure with doors facing the outside provided a dramatic ride in 1962 mimicking the kind of thrill of an imaginary rocket ride, albeit at slower speed.
The architectural legacy of the Needle has been significant. Walt Disney was right about the proliferation of skyline towers and revolving restaurants in cities around the world. When it was first built, not everyone in Seattle embraced it. One local citizen wrote to the newspaper to complain about the design in November of 1960, shortly after the tower design was unveiled, saying it “will appear top-heavy and resemble an atomic blast cloud” and compared it unfavourably with the Eiffel Tower, saying it was a “modern day ‘little sister’ having no interest as a scientific achievement or as an object of beauty….” Art critic Katharine Kuh, writing in Saturday Review, called the Needle a “monstrosity.”
A group of visiting foreign architects and critics thought the Expo was colourful and compact, but Alastair Cooke found it a “tasteless, disorganized conglomeration of clashing colors.” As to the Needle, Cooke and others loved the view. Sir William Graham Holford, president of the Royal Institute of British Architecture, said the Needle afforded him “the most breathtaking view I have ever seen.” Many subsequent visitors have agreed.
"The Space Needle has come to represent not only the city but also its rise and prosperity... It is America’s Eiffel Tower"
Still, the Needle has won praise from some critics. Architectural critic Wolf Von Eckardt of the Washington Post wrote after the Expo, “The Space Needle is impressive and yet somehow cozy – just this side of kitsch and I love it.” Architectural historian Alan Hess, an expert on mid-century and “Googie” architecture, has said that the Needle reflects “the exuberance and structural exploration of the times….I think the comparison to the Eiffel Tower is completely appropriate. Both were efforts to using daring engineering in an expressive manner, with the intent of taking peoples’ breath away.” He calls the Needle’s scale, proportion and anthropomorphic design “elegant.”
In his survey of expositions, Fair World: A History of World’s Fairs and Expositions, author Paul Greenhalgh concludes that “the Space Needle, the symbol of the fair, has come to represent not only the city but also its rise and prosperity. Debatably, it is the most impressive American monument that remains from the exposition tradition: It is America’s Eiffel Tower.”
For sixty years, the Space Needle has fulfilled its original mission. It still symbolises 21st Century aspirations, its “gate appeal” continues with over 1 million visitors per year and some 60 million since it opened in 1962, and it has been financially self-sustaining.
The city and the region it overlooks have flourished, albeit with all the major problems of modern American cities. The science and technology sector has grown. Expo 1962 visitors Bill Gates and the late Paul Allen, founders of Microsoft, a cornerstone of the Silicon Forest, have built facilities at the Needle’s base: The Gates Foundation devoted to world health is across the street, and MOPOP, Allen’s museum of music, science fiction and pop culture, is at the foot of the Needle and a Seattle Center attraction. Allen’s Vulcan real estate arm has developed the adjacent South Lake Union neighbourhood for companies like Amazon, Google, and bio-tech research. Blue Origin, the Jeff Bezos space company, is nearby in Kent, where Boeing developed rockets and the Moon buggies for NASA and continues to work on aerospace projects. The growth of Seattle since 1962 is, overall, what Century 21’s creators and city boosters hoped for. The Needle continues to be a powerful and permanent statement about the possibilities the future holds, and the potential of modern Expo architecture to have long-term legacies.
Knute Berger is a Seattle-based author, journalist and commentator. Writer-in-Residence at the Space Needle in 2011-12, he has written "Space Needle: The Spirit of Seattle". He is the award-winning "Mossback" columnist for the Cascade Public Media news site Crosscut.com.
This article was first published in the 2021-22 edition of the BIE Bulletin entitled "World Expos: Architectural Labs".