Friday, October 8, 2010

Boeing Tour and Tacoma Museums (September 16, 2010)

Boeing has three big facilities in the Seattle area: a factory at Renton, where they assemble 737s; Boeing Field, which doubles as King County Airport, and which includes the Museum of Flight; and another factory at Mukilteo, north of the city (called The Everett Plant, after a nearby larger town), where they assemble 747s, 767s, and 787s. This was the place we went to for their factory tour and a visit to "The Future of Flight," a sort of museum showing what might be coming down the road ... er, runway.

Bus-sized groups of visitors are carted from the visitors' center, across the freeway to the factory, which is, as our tourguide made clear again and again, huge. It's something like a third of a mile from end to end. The doors that allow parts to come in and planes to go out are, of course, huge as well, and the photograph decorating the door is the largest printed picture in the world. (Sixty-seven d.p.i., our guide pointed out, but so big it looks incredibly sharp.) The building was the largest in the world when it was built in the '60s, so much bigger than anything that came before that its designers had no idea that it would have its own weather system. Once it was occupied, it started raining inside. That problem's been solved --- I forget how; ceiling fans, maybe --- and the building's not air conditioned. If it gets too hot (and with all that machinery going in there, it does), they just open the door a crack.

They build 747s, 767s, and now 787s in this building. The tour takes you up to the catwalks several stories over the factory floor, and you can see how the assembly line is put together. The jumbo jets have a U-shaped line, but the 767s and 787s can be done in a straight line. The 787s, the so-called "dreamliner" that is Boeing's future, is assembled here from parts made all over the world. Some of the parts are so big that Boeing had to adapt several 747s with oversized fuselages, so they could fit the components inside and fly them to Washington for assembly. These five "DreamLifters" are, as a result, the largest cargo aircraft in the world. Four of the five were on the ground outside the factory. (A few weeks before this trip, Boeing announced that it was returning production jobs to the US because it found it lacked adequate quality control over its foreign producers. I reckon that means that they'll have to build a much, much bigger building at some point.)

After the tour of the factory, the bus takes the group back to the welcome center, where there's a gift shop (of course) and museum of sorts that is supposed to be about what's in store for air passengers, but is mainly about Boeing's history. It wasn't interesting enough for me to walk all the way through it, especially after that hike through the factory. One of the featured exhibits is a series of computer terminals where you get to "design your own aircraft." What this means, it turns out, is that you get to pick the wing configuration from about 8 options, and choose from three exterior paint patterns and half a dozen logos. Then you get to print it out for free, or buy a shirt or other souvenir with your design on it. Big woo. There's more than enough little boy left in me that I was excited by the build-up this exhibit got, but disappointed by the reality of it.

We made a quick stop at Mukilteo Lighthouse, not very far away, because Jeff has decided to be interested in lighthouses. I may have mentioned that earlier. Something to do with a recent trip to Long Island. Anyway, we didn't miss an opportunity to visit any lighthouse we came across, and Mukilteo is among the more quaint that we saw. Not as dramatic as Hecata Head in Oregon, but with all the fog they have in this part of the world you come away kind of surprised that there's not a lighthouse on every rock.

After the lighthouse and lunch at a New-Yawk-Style pizza place (not bad, for pizza by the slice), we headed down to Tacoma.

There's been a little paragraph of newsprint on my refrigerator door for about a year now, briefly describing the Glass Bridge that leads to the Museum of Glass in Tacoma. Someone wrote on it, "Sounds like a day trip," and ever since posting it I've been looking forward to this part of our trip. I have something of a collection of art glass myself, only about 30 or 40 pieces, but I love this particular art form, and was soooooooo looking forward to it: a whole museum, dedicated to art glass.

I should have known I'd gotten my hopes too high. Yes, it's an entire museum dedicated to art glass. The building itself is architecturally interesting, clever, and, surprise, attractive. A modern building destined to be a classic, I'm sure. Inside, the space is very limited. There are two galleries, the lobby, a café, a studio, and the gift shop.

The entire space was taken up by just three and a half exhibits when we visited. One was an exhibit of children's glass art. You can imagine how non-plussed I was by that waste of space. It was the museum equivalent of fingerpainted pictures on the refrigerator door.  Next to that was a one-man show featuring the work of a local artist, Preston Singletary. He is Native American, and this, plus the fact that some local rich person likes his work, has brought him to the point of prominence where you can get a one-man show in a leading museum. There were about sixty pieces in the exhibit, and while there is no disputing his command of the techniques of glassblowing, I found the One-With-Nature-Native-American focus more than a little heavy-handed. A few of the pieces had truly pleasing lines, and several were innovative (at least to me, who only gets to see what's going on in the world of art glass through occasional visits to shops, studios and galleries), but only one was what I would consider museum-quality: one of two pieces named Raven Stealing The Moon (after one of the artist's tribe's creation myths, duly told on a small placard next to the work). One of the two pieces named this hung on the wall like a rainspout on Notre Dame, a sandblasted black-on-red stylized bird with a big marble in its beak. It evoked a totem pole, with rounded lines and framed images inset. I didn't care for it. But the other one was stunning, and not surprisingly I found that this was the piece used on the promotional materials for the show. It stands on end, about a foot and a half tall; like its namesake, it's a black-on-red bird's head with a large marble in its beak, but this one has magnificent proportions and truly pleasing lines. One is art; the other is Art.

The studio contains the third full exhibit, the museum's "Hot Shop," where you can watch glassmaking live. They were on break when I was there, and I wasn't about to wait around for them to come back so I could see something I've seen in studios all over the country; and often enough to know that everybody does it pretty much the same way. Jaded, I am, when it comes to watching glassblowers at work.

The half exhibit is a couple of tables set up in the back of the lobby, whereon are gathered a number of birds by Finnish artist Oiva Toikka, a master craftsman at some factory in Europe who specializes in bird shapes. Some are pretty; some are ugly; some are just silly, possibly intentionally so. It seems these birds have become collectible, a 21st-Century alternative to Hummel. Anyway, the exhibit excited me about as much as the Steuben Glass room at Dillard's Department Store used to back in the '80s. The exhibit had the look and feel of an afterthought, as though somebody had said "We need to fill that space over there," and then they rushed around gathering up a flock of glass birds, put them on the table, then got busy with other things and forgot to make a show out of it. Kind of sad, really.

The stunning part of the Museum of Glass was the gift shop, for two reasons. First, there were the works of the aforementioned Preston Singletary offered for sale: tiny little glass baskets and boxes at positively astronomical prices, as though someone had accidentally added two extra zeros to all the price tags. Second, there were some genuinely magnificent pieces by other artists on sale there, at prices approaching reasonable (or, at least, museum-gift-shop-reasonable): Cohn-Stone Studios in San Francisco (whose web site, unfortunately, is all about cutesey pumpkin and leaf shapes, instead of the elegant type of stuff I saw at the museum), and a Canadian guy named Jeff Holmwood. I was sorely tempted to buy something, but I promised myself I wouldn't buy any more glass until I have a place to display it. (I plan to build a shelf above the french doors and windows in my living room, lighted from below and running the length of the room, just to put some of my glass pieces on. Been planning that for years....) Plus, there's the problem of getting it home, or the expense of having it shipped.

Outside the museum, crossing the adjacent railroad tracks and highway, and leading to other museums in the district, is the Chihuly Glass Bridge. It's a pedestrian bridge with three installations of art glass. In the middle are two poles with big chunks of blue-green dalle glass on them, like giant rock candy sticks. At one end is a wall of about a hundred cubicles, each containing a single vase by Chihuly, the local glass artist who's become the biggest name in the business, although to my mind he hit on a popular style back fifteen years ago, and has since turned into a one-trick pony, churning out the same products time and time again. I took pictures of almost every one of the vases, so I could look at them at my leisure (ah, the wonders of digital photography: it costs nothing to waste memory like that). Some of them are nice. All are technically proficient but most are unpleasant in their proportions, though that doesn't seem to matter in matters artistic these days. Some are gaudy, some are busy, some are subtle, but none rise above the level of expert craftsmanship.

At the other end of the bridge is an overhead exhibit, a space containing vaguely sea-creature-shaped glass. I suppose on a bright sunny day this would look downright pretty, but when's the last time Tacoma had a bright sunny day? (Oh, sure, they must've had one some time.) All of these pieces look like the Chihuly vase in Frasier's living room, or like the elements of the formulaic sculpture that some real salesman talked the Friends Of The San Antonio Public Library to shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for. Same old, same old, and not even pretty to boot.

Edward Bruns, ca. 1910
All in all, I found more of interest in the Washington State Historical Society museum at the other end of the glass bridge. If I were to go back to Tacoma, that is the museum I'd head for. On the top floor is a model railroad (always worth seeing, and this one was particularly well done, if not as big as the one I saw in San Diego) and other exhibits relating to local history. My favourite parts were the exhibit of Arts-and-Crafts architecture and design (especially, of course, the stained glass windows on exhibit, and some prints that I photographed for my friend Rick, who's into that), and the "Washington Icons" exhibit, featuring a few things that museum visitors chose as representative of the state: notably, Galloping Gertie (the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which famously collapsed soon after opening in the 1940s), and a series of hilarious and imaginative Rainier Beer commercials playing on continuous loop.

8 miles offshore, heading out to sea
A propos of nothing: I have a DVD-based GPS navigation system in my little convertible that was probably not state of the art when it was designed in the late 1990s. It causes me a great deal of irritation because it's tedious to find things on, and won't plan out the kind of route I want, and sometimes it just plain gets lost. But after using Nancy's up-to-date GPS feature on her Blackberry (or whatever), I feel a whole lot better about my rickety old in-dash navigator. It, at least, does not ask me to exit a freeway, immediately re-enter the freeway, go to the next exit, take the turnaround, go back to the original exit, turn where there's no street, and then go three blocks past my destination.

Just thought I'd throw that in; it's the first kind word I've had to say about that device since I bought the car.