Buildings are relatively simple to write about. They are objects within the landscape and as such are easy to quantitatively define easing the path to a qualitative assessment. Landscapes, on the other hand, can be more challenging as they are often composed of a seemingly infinite number of parts. The relative position between landscape and viewer can present challenges as well. Buildings typically has a front, back, and sides. The main facade, often where the entry is, usually grabs the most attention and is the view seen in glossy magazines. Landscape lacks such frontal qualities. What tree, hill, river, or plaza has a defined front (or back, for that matter)? While there are certainly advantageous views that elicit feelings of lesser or greater satisfaction, landscape’s ensemble of vegetation, geography, geology, buildings, and other characteristics make it more challenging to succinctly describe; yet, it is these very qualities that also make it more satisfying and emotionally evocative than most buildings. It is these multifaceted and often elusive qualities that keep me writing about what I enjoy most about Capitol Hill, the amazing variety of landscapes both architectural and otherwise. Landscape is all encompassing, yet hard to distill to key points that are succinctly shared.
With landscapes as diverse as Pike|Pine and Volunteer Park, one would have to put conditions on what constitutes one's favorite Capitol Hill landscape, such as: which is my favorite commercial street, distant view, or verdant park? Despite this inexorable taxonomical quandary, Bellevue, Bellevue, and Bellevue, on the northwest corner of the Hill, certainly presents opportunities to engage landscapes that are among the Hill's finest. Its charms are many -- too many for just one post -- so I start with with that quality which I think is the most noteworthy: the combination of both close-in and distant vistas as well as the variety of both natural and created landscapes that are all available for enjoyment within a two or three block area.
The first landscape considered is one to the northwest of the Hill, as framed by Belmont Avenue. It proves an excellent example of both near-in and distant landscape: lush foliage in the foreground, Lake Union in the mid-ground, and the handsome Aurora Bridge with Ballard/Fremont in the background. Any of these landscapes in and of itself deserves at least passing attention -- combine all and you really have something special .The Japanese have a term for the conscious layering of near and distant views --shakkei -- or, borrowed scenery. It is hard to know if city planners had scenic views in mind when the street-grid was mapped, but I would not be surprised if capturing these views was a conscious decision. A more compressed view immediately to the south of the first is one of Queen Anne, again with Lake Union in the foreground. It lacks the distant spatial layering of the first image, but consequently allows more detailed views of the boats and shoreline buildings.
A block to the west offers mostly mid and distant views, including one containing Seattle's most famous built landmark; the cacophony of cranes a reminder that landscapes are constantly changing. Beyond Paul Allen's domain, there is a glimpse of the southern peaks of the distance Olympic Mountains. This overall landscape exhibits the ingredients that many of us cherish about living in Seattle -- a dynamic urban realm set in a spectacular natural setting.
Equally compelling is a sequence of landscape views quite different from the previous, and conveniently nested between them. They are more compact and do not rely on distant vistas to lend them their richness, yet Capitol Hill's diverse topography remains a vital ingredient. Capitol Hill streets often traverse at rather oblique, off-grid angles in order to negotiate the abrupt changes in elevation. The combination of steepness and off-grid leads to juxtapositions between building and landscape. The first image of the pair above is a Capitol Hill favorite, with the angle of the Ben Lomond and its position down hill of Bellevue Avenue lending a bit of serendipity to our normally orthogonal streetscape. The second image is looking from the front of the Ben Lomond further down to Belmont, where the stair-stepping of the garages in the background are evidence of the street's steepness. What I really treasure about this landscape is that the floors of the apartments they serve are actually aligned -- even as the garages step -- offering a dynamic visual contrast.
The down the hill view of the previous image captures all of the above and adds to the story. This time the cobblestone slope of Bellevue Court dominates the view, especially as it gently conceals the entrance of the Ben Lomond. A bit of hide and seek, as it were, and lending a rare sense of mystery to our otherwise relentless street grid. Being at the base of such a steep and short hill places one below objects normally seen at a higher vantage; the apparent size of the pair of trees is dramatically increased due to one's vantage point being below the base of the tree, giving a sense that the street is dominated by green.
Next time: the flat lands of Belmont, Belmont, and Belmont.