Wednesday, March 08, 2017

Where It All Begins

Completed in 1985, the Columbia Center stands as the tallest building in the Seattle. When people think of our city's skyline, the Space Needle typically leaps to mind, but this building dwarfs it. Indeed, at 76 floors it has more stories than any other building west of the Mississippi River. It was completed shortly after I first moved to Seattle and it's sheer size contributed to the passage of what was called the "Citizens Alternative Plan" in 1989, placing a cap on building heights, one that can only be over-ridden by including public accommodations, artwork, childcare, and other amenities, which is part of the reason why the tower has not been surpassed in the intervening two decades.

The reason I'm telling you about this is that last week our 4-5's class caught the bus downtown to take in the views from the public viewing level on the 74th floor. The last time I was up there was 1985 when the Columbia Center was twice as tall as anything else, and while the rest of the city has grown up around it, the view from the top of the black tower (which often reminds me of the sort of place a terrestrial Darth Vader might reside) is unimpeded in all directions.

As we approached the building, we craned our necks to take it in, enthusing over the adventure ahead. We were met in the lobby by the father of one of our classmates who works in the building and escorted up a pair of escalators before breaking up into two groups for elevator rides halfway up the building. We then transferred to a second set of elevators that took us the rest of the way to the top. Our ears popped as we moved into the atmosphere, a feeling that some of the kids recalled from their experience with air travel. 

If you look carefully, you might be able to make out the Space Needle in the distance.

Most of the kids pressed themselves against the windows. It was fun to stand with them as they slowly began to recognize familiar sights from this height.

"I see the ferry boat!"

"There's the Space Needle! It's so small!"

"Is that really the ferris wheel?"

"The cars look like toys!"

I stood with a pair of kids looking down on the Duwamish Waterway where we saw the giant Port of Seattle cranes lifting containers from the vessels and stacking them on the docks. Behind the stacks we spied a queue of trucks awaiting their loads. We found Lake Union and the bridges that are near our school. The observation deck provided a fascinating view of many construction sites, including several buildings that are just being topped-off.

Several of the kids, as they tired of the view, turned to the maps, models and other displays that decorate what is essentially a functional space. Maps and models can sometimes confuse young children, but here, in context, they seemed to make sense as kids traced the roads with their fingers and drew connections between the real world they saw from nearly 1000 feet in the air and the abstractions humans have developed to make sense of them.

There was a time when the Smith Tower (lower left corner of this photo) was the tallest building west of the Mississippi.

As spectacular and interesting as that view was, however, it could only hold our interest for so long because there was something far more spectacular and interesting commanding our attention. By the end of our hour there, few of the children were standing before the windows. Instead, they had turned their attentions back toward one another, using sentences that began with the creative invitation of "Let's . . ."

"Let's play super heroes!"

"Let's pretend this sofa is our house."

"Let's play hide-and-seek."

It was time for us to go.

I'm prone to feeling inspired by feats of engineering like the Columbia Center. Humans are amazing. We are capable of so much and yet, when it comes right down to it, there is nothing more spectacular than what the children were doing: turning toward one another in inspiration and saying, "Let's . . ." That's where it all begins.

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