Forbes magazine have called it one of the “10 Ugliest Buildings in the World”. Some architects have even nicknamed it ‘The Haemorrhoids’.
Seattle’s disabled community, however, are in love with the EMP Museum.
The museum, formerly known as Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame, had accessibility built into the project from its inception. Celebrity consultants and advisory board members threw their weight behind public awareness of inclusiveness, and the museum serves as an exemplar of accessible public architecture.
The non-profit EMP Museum was the dream of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. From its outrageous exterior to hallucinatory exhibitions, the EMP seems like it was designed after finding a sketch and a poem written on a napkin, following a long weekend of LSD consumption.
The EMP is a mash-up between a giant shrine to the music and history of Nirvana and Jimi Hendrix, and a global archive for all things Sci-Fi, Horror and Fantasy. One minute you can peruse a huge collection of personal instruments, lyrics and photos of the Seattle musicians; the next you can uncover a nerdy treasure trove that includes Captain Kirk’s command chair from ‘Star Trek’, the original model of the Death Star, and a (presumably deactivated) T800 Terminator.
The museum itself was designed by superstar architect Frank Gehry, notorious for developing blueprints from piles of screwed-up foil and paper. His prolific Guggenheim Museum in Spain is a breathtaking piece of architecture, appearing entirely organic yet undeniably alien.
Gehry drew inspiration from a smashed Hendrix guitar to start designing the EMP museum in 2000. Access was a focus throughout the entire project. Gehry worked closely with Seattle’s disabled community to ensure that disabled visitors and employees could experience a new level of accessibility and inclusion.
Six lifts just for wheelchairs; electric door openers at every entrance; low, 70 cm counters and surfaces throughout. The best seats in the house, including in the Sky Church, the EMP’s main music venue, are the wheelchair-accessible seats.
An assisted listening system and ‘Rear Window’ captioning for the deaf and hearing-impaired, and sub-woofers installed in the floor so patrons can feel the music. All exhibitions and events have complete audio narration for the vision-impaired.
Visitors with a disability can choose from an array of real and virtual instruments, compose an instant hit and then perform it ‘live on stage’ before a massive audience created using virtual reality.
Setting an international benchmark for accessibility proved costly but was helped substantially by advisory board members including Steven Spielberg, James Cameron and George Lucas.
The exterior of the EMP is a blaze of gold, silver, blood red and a Hendrix-ish purple haze. It houses one of the largest indoor LED screens on the planet along with ‘IF VI WAS IX’ – a reference to the sublime Hendrix song ‘If 6 was 9’ – the creation of eccentric German sculptor and inventor, Trimpin.
‘IF VI WAS IX’ is a formidable tower of 500 electric guitars, keyboards and an array of traditional instruments, 30 computer controllers and a half dozen ‘robot guitars’. Combined they create ‘super chords’ and celestial music that matches the trippy nature of the EMP experience.
The entirety of the vast sculpture is accessible, and can be interacted with, from multiple floor levels.
Could it be that a jealous Forbes magazine and ‘The Haemorrhoid’ grinches just couldn’t rock hard enough?
Written by Brett Woodward, Captioner