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Place-Making in the Pacific Northwest

Posted On March 26, 2021 | 12:16 pm | by mayw | Permalink
Marianna Davison studies how early landscape design in Seattle contributed to the erasure of the region’s Indigenous place-histories

Marianna Davison, PhD candidate in visual studies at the University of California, Irvine, is a junior fellow in Garden and Landscape Studies. Her research report, “Sculpting Nature, Making Place: Designing Seattle’s Reclaimed Landscapes,” examined the aesthetics and ethics of the material and visual culture of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909.


Q&A with Marianna Davison

What was the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and its significance in the Pacific Northwest?

The Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 was Seattle’s first world’s fair. In the context of the colonial settlement of the American West, Seattle was still a relatively young city at that point and was undergoing major transformations. Beginning in the 1850s, European-American settlers founded Seattle on the timber industry and, for the first several decades, the city was populated primarily by loggers and miners. With the Klondike Gold Rush in the 1890s, Seattle successfully advertised itself as a hub for getting north to Alaska. Business elites—banking and timber tycoons—saw the moment as an opportunity to modernize and urbanize the city. 

At that time, there was a surge of world’s fairs throughout the United States: between 1876 and 1916 there were twelve expositions. Unlike preceding world’s fairs that commemorated specific events, such as Philadelphia’s exposition of 1876 that celebrated the centennial of the Declaration of Independence, Seattle’s exposition disavowed any “historical sentiment.” It was instead adamantly future-facing, emphasizing the potential development of industry, commerce, and global trade routes. The Seattle fair commissioners wanted to show Seattle’s transition from a pioneer town to a modern urban hub, emphasizing the opening of trade routes with Canada, Alaska, and countries along the Pacific Rim. They also wanted to depict Seattle’s relationship with its surroundings as distinct from East Coast cities’ relationships with theirs. The landscape design and visual culture of the exposition, which my analysis focuses on, framed an idealized image of seemingly well-managed hinterlands and pristine forest, which contrasted with the deforestation and industrial degradation of the East Coast.


How were these aspirations expressed in the visual and material culture of the fair?

The landscape architecture of the fair was the most significant divergence from prior expositions; it was organized around an outward-facing mountain view that blended formal design with picturesque and sublime landscapes. The fair was designed by John C. Olmsted of the Olmsted Brothers landscape architecture firm of Brookline, Massachusetts. The distinct geography of the Seattle region guided Olmsted’s spatial reorientation of the typical fair layout. Whereas previous world’s fairs had created enclosed worlds with exposition buildings facing central water features, the Seattle exposition directed attention outward, to vistas of the region’s mountains, forests, and waterways.

The central axis and main sightline of the fair, Rainier Vista, framed a view of its namesake, Mount Rainier, and enfolded the region’s natural environment into the formal design of the fair. Photographs, architectural elements, and exhibits then integrated elements of the region’s forest and mountain landscape aesthetics into every aspect of the exposition. For example, the Forestry Building, one of the most notable exhibition buildings at the fair, was in the form of a classical Greek temple in Doric style, but made of giant fir logs still covered with bark. The material and visual aspects of the fair shaped an idealized image of the region’s natural environment as controlled, ordered, and abundant, and thus made ready for the “sustainable” exploitation of its natural resources.


How does your project enrich our understanding of the intertwined histories of this region?

It’s crucial to recognize that Seattle is built on the traditional lands of the Coast Salish people, specifically the Duwamish, Suquamish, Stillaguamish, and Muckleshoot Tribes. The site of the exposition of 1909 was near important Indigenous trade routes and had been the site of a large Indigenous village. Despite the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott and subsequent ordinances that attempted to remove all Indigenous residents from the city, many of the First People of this place resisted and continue to steward its lands. Seattle’s Indigenous residents and place-histories, however, were not represented at the fair. 

The design and visual culture of Seattle’s exposition put forth a narrative of a well-managed natural landscape, implying the successful resource management practices of European-American settlers. The fair’s commissioners and designers, however, were not the first to recognize the significance of the site’s location in relation to trade routes, or its remarkable nature and sublime character. By presenting an idealized and pristine image of the region’s natural environment that integrated the forest and mountains of the Pacific Northwest into formal Western aesthetics, the site and the region were claimed, once again, by and for the settler-colonial nation.

I’m extremely grateful to be able to work with [Resident Program Director of Garden and Landscape Studies] Thaïsa Way on this project. She has not only helped me advance my dissertation, but has also fostered the development of a strong community among the Garden and Landscape Studies fellows. Even over Zoom, engaging with this year’s cohort has been such an enriching and productive experience.


May Wang is postgraduate writing and reporting fellow at Dumbarton Oaks. Photo by Richard Tong, postgraduate digital media fellow.