TAM Designs: More Voices, Bigger Picture

The conversation continues over the design of the Tacoma Art Museum new wing.

Last week The News Tribune’s The Nose

weighed in on the side of the critics of the proposed design, with a characteristically irreverent look at the design plans. Comparing them to a Mattress Ranch store, The Nose pokes fun at the idea of a western art collection in Tacoma, and at the dark, boxy exterior design.

The bland, saddle-brown, double-wide trailer of a building says nothing about the free-spirited, open-range artwork that’ll go inside.

It’s a sarcastic take on the real criticisms we’ve heard of the design as dark and unwelcoming. But not everyone’s a critic.

Today over at the TNT Peter Callaghan added a voice of support for the boxcar-inspired plans (or if not outright support, he suggests another focus). Callaghan asks you to give the design a second chance. First of all, what may appear in renderings to be a black box is in fact bronze, and not as dark as it may appear.

He makes a larger vision argument as well. A lot of money is being invested in that stretch of downtown, and most of it isn’t City dollars. We’re getting a lot (new Pacific Avenue streetscape and Prairie Line Trail upgrades courtesy of state and federal dollars, a new museum wing funded largely by private contributions and a few grants), so maybe we can make a little investment in the future look of the prominent intersection. Callaghan points to the narrowness of the swath of “land relinquished by BNSF for the Prairie Line Trail”: that will run by TAM. Instead of settling for the 20-foot strip, the City should push for the full 80-foot width to be turned into park and bike path: into public space.

This is an interesting idea. Should the City make acquiring the full width of the historic railroad path a priority? Does that have any bearing on the design of the new wing?

Are the TAM designs worth complaining about, or are there more worthwhile fish to fry?

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Erik B.

Nice to see an expansion of <span class=“caps”>TAM</span>.  However, unless a better urban design is employed, the deadness in this 4 block area of Pacific Avenue is going to continue.  Successive poor design decisions downtown has been draining the vibrancy and life out of the area.

The meaningful historical component in this area of downtown, were turn of the century buildings with windows permeable edges and good urban design.

That is the standard that the new wing of the Art Museum should be required to meet.

Trying to build a blank wall to resemble a boxcar or “ bland, saddle-brown, double-wide trailer of a building” as the Tribune described is not complying with a meaningful historical standard at all.

Yes, <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> is making an investment in Tacoma.  However, so did <span class=“caps”>UWT</span>, Multi-Care, Safeway in Proctor and the Washington State History Museum.  Yet, Tacomans still pushed, with much success to require them to build their buildings with good urban design.

Here is the letter I sent to Landmark Preservation Commission along with some pictures of other museum entrances and the alternative <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> entrance design by Ko Wibowo.


The Historic Preservation Office

Planning and Development Services

747 Market Street, 3rd Floor

Tacoma, WA 98402-3793

RE:    Tacoma Art Museum Addition Remodel

Dear Commissioners,

  Please accept my comments and suggestions for the proposed renovation and proposed additions to the Tacoma Art Museum.

History of Buildings in the area

  The original, and many of the remaining, buildings in the area of the art museum were built in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

  The buildings were designed with skill in a manner to give vibrancy to the street.  They did so by employing a number of well established urban design elements:

1) Built to the edge of the sidewalk

2) Employed frequent and visually significant entrances facing the street

3) Contained a great amount of large windows so that pedestrians could see into the buildings and people within buildings could see life on the street.

It is very important that the Tacoma Art Museum follow this historical practices as well as it is located on Tacoma’s Main Street of the city in the middle of downtown Tacoma.

The City of Tacoma’s failure to observe these historical urban design elements has resulted in many areas of Pacific Avenue becoming dead zones.

The city has razed many of the buildings on Pacific Avenue, constructed lifeless plazas and has allowed many buildings and structures (such as endless blank walls and parking lots) to be erected which have destroyed much of the vibrancy in multi block sections of Pacific Avenue.

In order to try to remedy the notorious problem in this section of Pacific Avenue, one expert after another has been brought in to try to analyze the situation and made suggestions to try to bring life into the area or “activate” this section of downtown with no avail.

Thus, it is important that the renovations and expansion of the Tacoma Art Museum be performed in a manner which restores some of the historical street vibrancy in the area and historical good urban design.  Otherwise, the Tacoma Art Museum will contribute to the lifeless street life in the area around Tollefson Plaza where one design mishap after another has deadened much of Pacific Avenue.

Proposal for the expansion of the Tacoma Art Museum

Now the expansion for the Tacoma Museum expansion threatens to build another long lifeless blank wall on Pacific Avenue.  Although the <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> expansion will have some windows on Pacific Avenue they will be covered with a screen severing the connection between the street and pedestrians.

Walking on Pacific Avenue near the insular dark Haub expansion will be a harsh lonely experience for pedestrians notwithstanding the “artist rendition” pedestrians drawn into the drawings to try to make them look them look more vibrant than they will be,

Better Museum Design: Seattle Art Museum:

Large unobstructed windows and a large grand entrance contributes to the success of the Seattle Art Museum and adds vibrancy to the street.

Tacoma should not try to be Seattle or any other city.  However, the following changes to the proposed <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> expansion to improve the urban design of the building could greatly benefit the museum as well as and people who live, work and visit Tacoma.

By building the <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> expansion with good urban design principles, <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> would be doing it’s part to contribute to a vibrant downtown rather than creating yet another dead zone in the city.

1) The screens over the windows should be removed so pedestrians can see inside as they would any other building and connect people with the building. The screens are a deliberate attempt to cut off the building from the street yet still make it look like the “glazing” or window requirements are being met.  This is equivalent to placing windows in a building and then covering them up with posters.

2) The color on the addition should be greatly lightened up.  The dark brown color make the <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> expansion look uninviting at the least and possibly even scary and foreboding.

3) The entrance to the Tacoma Art Museum should be much larger and taller so that it is obvious to visitors and makes a statement without having to install “way-finding” red arrows and signs all over the place.

Originally, the Tacoma Art Museum hid the entrance around a corner so no one could see people enter or exit.  Although the proposed design has not brought the entrance out to make it visible, it is far too small and obscured for a building of this type.

4) The wind swept plaza needs to have a significant piece of art in it, the Tacoma equivalent of Hammering Man. One problem with the <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> expansion is that it look utilitarian and boring.  Not everyone likes Hammering Man.  However, at least it make a statement.

Examples and Design Alternative for <span class=“caps”>TAM</span>

Enclosed area number of examples of art museums with more appropriate entrances which are far larger than the proposal.

For instance, the Seattle Art museum has many more windows on the sides of the building which are completely open and functional. The building has significant and grand entrance. In contrast, the proposed <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> renovations tries to isolate the new wing by making it dark, with slated windows. 

Also enclosed is a proposal for a renovation of the Tacoma Art Museum by Tacoma architect Ko Wibowo, former president of the Southwest Washington Division of the American Institute for Architects.

This design made as a suggestion to improve the entrance to <span class=“caps”>TAM</span> without considering the new wing that is to be built.  Nevertheless, the proposal is still completely relevant to how it creates a far larger entrance which will connect pedestrians, enhance street life and create natural “wayfinding” just as historical buildings in the area did.


By employing the best practices and established examples of good urban design, the Tacoma Art Museum can follow the example of historical buildings in the area by adding vibrancy to the area rather than being an isolated box which extinguishes the street life on Tacoma’s Main Street in the city.

April 30, 2013 at 10:54 am / Reply / Quote and reply

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