Tacoma's Glass Act

The West Coast city is rich in cultural offerings, from Dale Chihuly's artistry to the many attractions in the Museum District and beyond

April 23, 2006|By ROBERT CROSS

TACOMA, Wash. -- If you've never heard of Dale Chihuly, you must not know Tacoma.

That's understandable, because the city is easily overlooked and underestimated, nestled as it is south of Seattle and bordered on three sides by extensions of Puget Sound.

On some maps of "Seattle and Vicinity," Tacoma is part of the "Vicinity."

But it has that native son named Dale Chihuly, the man who turns out startling art made entirely of glass or glasslike substances. Exhibits of his work -- enormous flowers, gaily colored vases, abstract sculptures -- have been permanently installed or temporarily exhibited all over the world.

Remember that lobby ceiling at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, the one that looks like an upside-down garden with over-fertilized blooms? Chihuly did that.

Still, it surprised me as I drove up Interstate Highway 705 and into downtown Tacoma that one overpass would sport two enormous crystal towers, jagged, transparent and as blue as the front of an Alaskan glacier. Chihuly made those, too.

For a newcomer, the towers almost constitute a traffic hazard. They make it hard to shift the eyes back onto the road.

In Tacoma, the art is hard to miss and culture abounds: symphony, theater, opera, higher education, historic landmarks.

I managed to spend a few days here without ever feeling drawn to Seattle and its charms, even though Latte Land (as it's sometimes called) is only 31 miles up the road. Seattle will stay awake for another time. Tacoma commands full attention.

Consider the glass. Chihuly's Crystal Towers are best contemplated by walking across the pedestrians-only Bridge of Glass, which crosses the freeway and Dock Street. The bridge's infrastructure is made of ordinary bridge stuff, but overhead and along the sides are scores of fantastic and rainbow-dipped forms that might be exotic plants, or containers holding psychedelic potions, or magic lanterns holding wild and crazy genies.

I crossed the Bridge of Glass slowly, because it offers so much to see: 500 feet of wonders along the sides and overhead, every piece protected by plates of ... what else? Well, maybe some sort of plastic.

Not surprisingly, my stroll led to the Museum of Glass, a low-slung building distinguished by what appears to be an enormous smokestack similar to the ones that ocean liners carry on their backs. I considered the stack an interesting architectural feature, contrasting with the nearby Crystal Towers and echoing the modernistic 21st Street suspension bridge that spans Thea Foss Waterway.

I soon learned the smokestack has more than a decorative purpose. A few feet inside the Museum of Glass entrance, I found the Hot Shop and the broad interior of the smokestack. It really is a smokestack, and it's large enough to hold an amphitheater with a grandstand facing six open furnaces. There, a small band of glass-blowers and shapers were forming molten glass into beautifully colored shoots of bamboo, each one 8 feet tall.

Visiting artist Jean-Pierre Canlis led the project, and a museum docent explained to the 20 people in the audience what the team was doing. Her words bounced around the vast chimney, and the furnaces roared.

Some 90 feet above her head, I could see an opening and a circle of sky.

Art for everyone

Anyone who thinks artistic creation is somewhat effete should visit the Hot Shop and see the sweating, goggle-wearing glass workers turning red-hot blobs into aesthetically pleasing objects.

On the other side of the Bridge of Glass, Tacoma offers a lot of attractions in a 21st-century downtown that seems to be busting out from whatever was there before.

My brand-new hotel, the Marriott, still had vestiges of construction scrap around its lower regions. Behind it, the glass-and-stainless-steel convention center appeared to be fresh from the wrapper.

Across Pacific Avenue, the Beaux Arts-style Union Station certainly appeared old-fashioned with its imposing glassed-in arches and sturdy brick walls. But inside, it's a federal courthouse, festooned with more Chihuly glass.

Next door, the Washington State History Museum all but mirrors the Union Station architecture - arches, bricks, etc. - and then plays all the delightful tricks that an up-to-date museum should. Almost everything is hands-on and interactive, life-size or outsize.

Washington has a lot of trees. An unimaginative curator could put that on a label under a photo of Douglas firs. Instead, far more dramatically, this museum commissioned a full-sized, free-standing tree, its branches laden with almost any object made from wood - tools, toys, chairs, chests, toilet seats. ...

A cutaway depicts the ups and downs of the Columbia River, and a caption mentions that its basalts are 6 million to 15.6 million years old. Huge photos show World War II fighting ships and airplanes under construction. Crates of lifelike (but plastic) Pacific salmon stand near a filleting machine. Indian costumes, ceremonial and everyday, are hung with artistic flair.

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