Dazzling art glass makes Tacoma sparkle

The sovereign of art glass, Tacoma's native son Dale Chihuly, was dressed in a coral shirt and rainbow shoes glistening with glass droplets. He's as colorful as his Bridge of Glass, a dazzling outdoor gallery of his creations.

"I envisioned it," he said at the bridge's dedication, "as a gateway that welcomes people to Tacoma ... something unique in the world, something that has a lot of color, a joyous experience, night or day."

What Frank Gehry did for Bilbao, Spain, Mr. Chihuly has done for Tacoma. Both men transformed an industrial center and put it on the art-world map. Tacoma's $48 million Museum of Glass: International Center for Contemporary Art, and its accompanying $6.8 million Bridge of Glass, have metamorphosed this blue-collar city into a major cultural center and tourist destination.

My first glimpse of the museum, which anchors one side of the bridge, is of its iconic, 90-foot-tall, tilted stainless-steel-wrapped cone, which shines as a beacon against a backdrop of the snow-capped majesty of Mt. Rainier and the Thea Foss Waterway.

A homage to the wood burners of sawmills that once proliferated in the Pacific Northwest, the shimmering cone houses the major attraction of the museum, a hot shop, the workshop where art glass is born.

Inside, as visitors walk around the observation deck above the furnaces, they can feel the heat as they watch glass flow from the artists' rods.

The museum, designed by Canadian architect Arthur Erickson, is a low-slung horizontal building of concrete and glass. It is "dedicated to presenting the medium of glass within the context of contemporary art in all media."

In keeping with that goal, the gallery space is dedicated to exhibitions of glass, prints, and sculpture of international artists, which change periodically..

Outside, the building is surrounded by platforms, grand curved staircases, and shallow ponds, which are punctuated by glass and a variety of installations.

On the Thea Foss Waterway's esplanade is the Water Forest, a sculpture by Howard Ben Tre - 20 bronze and glass towers standing tall like trees in concentric rings. Water continuously fills and overflows each tower into drains, contingent upon the ebb and flow of the tide in Puget Sound. "My concept," says Mr. Ben Tre, "was to take water from the waterway and bring it to you, creating a sense of community."

But the pièce de résistance of the facility is the Bridge of Glass - a 500-foot-long, 20-foot-wide pedestrian bridge that soars 70 feet into the air, spanning Interstate 705 and rail lines, to connect the museum with Pacific Avenue's blossoming cultural center and the waterfront.

Designed by Chihuly in collaboration with architect Arthur Anderson of Austin, Texas, the bridge features an outdoor gallery of Chihuly creations. As we entered from the rooftop of the museum and crossed the bridge, we were captivated by the displays of some of the largest blown-glass works ever executed. The Venetian Wall of glass cubicles contain an array of 109 objects from Chihuly's Venetians, Ikebana, and Putti series.

The "Venetians" are exuberant sculptures recalling Venetian Art Deco glass; "Ikebana" follows traditional Japanese floral arrangements; and "Putti" was inspired by European representations of 16th- and 17th-century cupids and the Roman god of love. Chihuly's classical "Putti" figures play and dance atop vases.

Those who view the wall from concrete benches along the opposite railing will be, as Chihuly had envisioned, "enveloped in color and shape."

At the center of the bridge are two towers of glacial blue polyvitro (a word Chihuly has coined) crystals, rising 40 feet. The artist describes them as "raw brutal forms, monumental and bold, that appear as if cut from mountain peaks or taken from frozen alpine lakes, that serve as beacons of light for the bridge and city." This is especially true at night when they are illuminated.

At the opposite end of the bridge is the Seaform Pavilion, which has a suspended glass ceiling. The gallery houses 1,500 objects from Chihuly's Seaform and Persian series - undulating sea forms mixed with exotic cones, flasks, and roundels of spiraling ribbons of color.

But the grandeur doesn't end here. Across the bridge, inside the Court House - reincarnated from the city's old Union Station - Chihuly art glass fills the massive arched windows.

Next door is the Washington State History Museum, which is exhibiting Chihuly's collection of American trade blankets and the art glass creations they inspired.

On the other side of the Court House is the new home of the Tacoma Art Museum. In addition to fine art, it also houses a collection of Chihuly glass.

"When the city bought the Foss Waterway property back in 1991," says Tacoma Mayor Bill Baarsma, "we envisioned that what was then a polluted superfund site would someday be a clean, livable, thriving place. But what we see developing here goes beyond even our highest hopes for the area."

For more information, see www.museumofglass.org, or call toll-free 1-866-468- 7386.

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