Since it was built for the 1962 World’s Fair, the Pacific Science Center has been an iconic piece of Seattle’s architectural landscape. Today it’s home to dinosaurs, Laser Floyd and educational IMAX films, but when it was first constructed, it was best known for being a futuristic marvel. It was so famous that it even appeared in the movie “It Happened at the World’s Fair,” featuring the one and only Elvis Presley.
The Pacific Science Center was designed by Minoru Yamasaki, an architect born to Japanese immigrant parents in Seattle in 1912. Yamasaki graduated from the University of Washington in 1934 and then moved to New York City for graduate study in architecture at New York University. He later settled in Detroit, where his early employers helped him save his parents and relatives from internment during World War II.
Pacific Science Center under construction, 1961
Pacific Science Center model, 2002
Even in the 1960s, Seattle was a science and technology hub. It had Boeing, the University of Washington, a massive and increasingly high-tech military presence, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Columbia River dams. The organizers of the 1962 World’s Fair wanted a science-minded architectural structure to match, so they commissioned one from forward-thinking Yamasaki.
Pacific Science Center arches, 1962
Pacific Science Center arches at night, 1962
Photo: IMLS DCC/Flickr
Yamasaki, who was fed up with the bland, modernist buildings popular at the time, was perfect for the job. He set out to build a distinct secular temple with gothic “space age” arches, serene pools and white shimmering stone and concrete. The space was designed to evoke a sacred reverence for science.
The architect’s work was greatly inspired by a visit to Japan. In a 1963 Time magazine interview he described the “joy of surprise” in finding a peaceful courtyard after walking through a narrow alley, or in stumbling upon a garden of “raked white gravel, dazzling in the sunlight” after tiptoeing through a hushed Buddhist temple.
Pacific Science Center fountain, 1962
Photo: Roger W/Flickr
Pacific Science Center arches from below, 2014
Photo: Adam Barhan/Flickr
According to HistoryLink, Yamasaki feared heights — that explains his preference for “narrow windows spaced between numerous columns to admit light without subjecting tenants and office workers to vertiginous views.”
The Pacific Science Center was a big hit when it opened in 1962, drawing over 10 million visitors. Yamasaki would go on to design the World Trade Center in New York City, but passed away from cancer before the towers fell on 9/11.
Pacific Science Center fountain, 2012
Photo: Al Pavangkanan/Flickr
Pacific Science Center arches, 2006
Photo: David Davies/Flickr
The embrace of science embodied by the Pacific Science Center is a legacy celebrated in Seattle to this day. The structure is an architectural reminder of the city’s progressive values and forward-thinking community.