Okay, a packed morning with lots of new discoveries about Seattle, what makes it famous and what we can learn from it.
After one of the worst breakfasts I have ever had in a hotel anywhere in the world, we set off to travel the Space Needle. Seattle’s landmark since it opened in 1962 for the World fair.
But back to the breakfast for a second. Have you ever heard of Sausage Gravy? Well if you see it, don’t rush to eat it. It’s a sort of sausage porridge and is so close to what I would imagine gruel to have been like in Oliver’s days it’s unbelievable. The breakfast was complementary from the hotel, the first we have seen so far. They shouldn’t have bothered. Serving vile regurgitated porridge, does far more damage to a brand than the goodwill of a free meal creates. It was Best Western by the way and everything else about the place had been fine. It’s an inappropriate use of porridge thing.
So onto the Space Needle. Reading the background to it, it’s clearly a project that nearly never happened. They seemed to miss every deadline they set themselves in order to get it built in time for the World’s Fair, but yet it still happened in time and is just as popular today as in the weeks it opened. Perhaps the world Cup bid for Nottingham could be the same sort of catalyst for the city if we were lucky enough to win the chance to bid with the country and then the country be lucky enough in turn to win the hosting.
We keep coming back to this thing about iconic or landmark buildings. The numbers are staggering. It cost $4m to build in 1962 (which was when the $ was at a 4-1 ratio to the £) so it cost about £1m. It’s 520ft tall (159M) and costs $16 (9.50) for an adult to go on it. Going on it, entails queuing for a lift that whizzes you to the top in 41 seconds. Very quick by today’s standards, lightning in the 60’s I would presume. It too 467 trucks full of concrete weighing 5850 tons, just to build the 30’ deep foundations (which doesn’t sound that deep for something 520 ft tall to me)
During the queuing, they nab you for a picture again. I didn’t fancy a picture against another printed background, so I took a picture of this family who had come from Texas as part of their holiday on a cruise and wanted to see the ‘Needle’.
At least this time it was fully digital, so they weren’t wasting print after print on non buying visitors. It’s not really a surprise if they didn’t buy it, as I didn’t see the place to get them on the way out anyway. Even more surprising was the fact that it was an Apple Mac based system that is being used in the home of Microsoft. That must Needle them.
At the top, it opens out into a large circular viewing platform with an unrestricted view of All Seattle has to offer, looking right out to the Olympic Mountains and beyond. It is a huge view. This is about 120 degrees of it showing the boats running in and out and the huge container port beyond.
It is a massive and wonderful view. Breathtaking and utterly simple as a concept.
The team who owned it, really struggled to get the money together in order to build it. They missed the deadlines because they didn’t have the cash and then even more problematic, they didn’t have the land. It was freed up just in time. The developers were paid back with $2.3m visitors by the closure of the words fair each paying their $6 to see it. They paid off their mortgage in 18 months.
They do have the advantage of 1m visitors per year, largely delivered via 3 cruise ships coming in 3 times per week, bringing 3,000 visitors at a time, but as Nick Hammond in our party pointed out, we also have away fans arriving for the football rugby, ice hockey, cricket, test matches (and hopefully the world cup) and all sorts of other visits coming too. We have 50,000 students who will all be keen to show their parents the best view of the city. If we have the ambition to do something on this scale, we can easily generate the footfall to make it pay.
The merchandise is very mixed. One real stand out was a very cheesy snow dome thing that had been made in China by a manufacturer who was clearly knocking them out for all of the US tourist attractions, based on their obvious confusion between the Space Needle and the Statue of Liberty.
The rest was a mixture of models, mugs t-shirts of varying degrees of wearability – from okay to a new level of awfulness. Glasswear, photo frames, Wine, hats, Space Needle Coffee, golf balls, Lego models, paper models, metal models, pewter models, glass models, pottery models, – In fact pretty much anything. And my personal favourite Space Noodles.
So from one landmark to another. The Space Needle sits right above the EMP and it looks almost as weird/impressive from above as it does from floor level. It must hsve had to be part of the design consideration that it was a great looking building from the top of the Sky Needle. That can’t happen too often in design briefs!
It was back into the EMP for a more detailed look and the chance to go on the audio tour. EMP was completely funded by Paul Allen, one of the original Microsoft partners. A real life billionaire. It does seem easier to make a massive landmark attraction a reality with a billionaire behind you. If only Robin Hood had kept some of what he took, it may be worth that in interest now, but he probably wouldn’t be as famous if he robbed from the rich and sensibly invested it.
The lobby area is huge and grand, with the exterior design, leaking into the interior and creating its reflections throughout the whole building. There is a giant screen that dominates one whole wall. It has to be 200ft wide and another 100 ft tall. It’s not a projector either, but looks like an LED screen like the ones you sometimes see at the footie or the races. Only this one is even bigger and is made up of strips about 1 ft wide, which creates a striking effect.
The audio tour, was for me, less impressive. Again it was iPod based (you had to hand over id in order to be able to get it) and unlike the system at Alcatraz, it was totally freeform. You could go where you wanted. This made it a real pain to get into anything. There were hundreds up on hundreds of files, most of which seemed to be 15-30 seconds. It too as long to find them as it did to hear them. And that was after you had found the actual numbers it related to. Anyone over 40 would really struggle with this as the numbers were too small, the screen was too small and the whole process to fiddly. Oh for a bit of logical linearity.
Some of the interviews that you could sit and listen to were incredible. I sat through Jimmy Cliff, Kid Creole, George Lucas Grandmaster Flash and my favourite was Wonder Mike from the SugarHill gang, where it went on to play the whole 15 minute song afterward. Just the licensing must have been an amazing deal for this place, let along gathering all these extraordinary interviews. And the headphones were simply superb too. Everywhere, the sound quality was exceptional. But they should be if it’s a billionaire funding it.
The SciFi museum was far more traditional fayre, with a stamp on the left hand by the grumpy staff (as they’re not allowed to sit down at any point), giving you free movement between the two exhibitions.
If this isn’t Paul Allen’s personal obsession, I’m Hans Christian Anderson. It looks like someone who has been collecting Sci Fi memorabilia for years and can now play with the big boys. His collecting grew out of his home and he needed to move it into here to cope.
The Robot from Space Family Robinson was my favourite, but there was little to lift it from the mundane other than the sheer wonder at how complete the collection is in the world of TV based Sci Fi programmes and films.
But jumping back a stage. What else is Seattle famous for?
I answered some of these yesterday, but we’ve found out another now. Jimmy Hendrix is one of its most famous sons as we should have guessed by the amount of material dedicated to him in the EMP.
And lastly about the EMP and the Sci Fi Museum, I have to mention the advertising and branding. I just love this simple ad, which is shown all around the place to show that it’s the meeting of music and Sci Fi. What a lovely simple piece of branding.
And so to Boston. We’re coming right from the West Coast to the East. Losing another three hours sleep and hitting another packed programme tomorrow.
See you there.