A ‘seminal’ moment for high-tech arts: Bellevue’s plans for immersive space evolve with growing city

The design process is just beginning for the Performing Arts Center Eastside, but an artist’s rendering shows a concept for the building in downtown Bellevue. (PACE Image)

The evolving skyline in downtown Bellevue, Wash., features more plans for towering office buildings, residences and retail. Amazon recently announced its intention to build its biggest skyscraper ever in a place where fellow tech giant Microsoft and others have staked a claim. Adding to the tech mix in the rapidly growing city east of Seattle is a reinvigorated effort to build what its leader foresees as the world’s most innovative and immersive performing arts center.

Performing Arts Center Eastside (PACE) has been in the works for decades, and for a time was called the Tateuchi Center after a $25 million gift in 2010 from Atsuhiko Tateuchi and his wife, Ina Goodwin Tateuchi. But a change in leadership, rebranding and shift in focus hit full stride earlier this year, and new CEO Ray Cullom has brought with him more than 25 years of experience developing and programming performance spaces.

Cullom, a longtime theater professional, joined PACE a year ago and has spent that time getting a lay of the history of the project, hiring staff, and changing the board of directors into more of a working board, or “startup board” as he called it, better suited to address PACE’s direction.

“The project has grown and changed and the scope and the scale of the idea behind it has really grown beyond what was originally envisioned as a very traditional 20th century performing arts hall, to being something completely different,” Cullom told GeekWire, referring to PACE as a 21st century “cultural hub.”

PACE CEO Ray Cullom, who has a history of developing innovative performance spaces, is hoping to build a cultural hub for the 21st century in Bellevue. (PACE Photo)

PACE has thrown all tradition out the window for the planned $200 million building — $123 million of which has been raised thus far — at Northeast 10th Street and 106th Avenue Northeast. Beyond being a community space for theater, dance, opera, symphony, educational purposes and more, Cullom envisions a building that can be endlessly tweaked to meet demands around changing technology and the habits of patrons.

Certainly other institutions are implementing tech in new and innovative ways to meet the changing demands of patrons. Some off them are in Seattle, led in large part by the tech-infused know-how that the city cultivates. Paul Allen, the late Microsoft co-founder, is a prime example of instilling cutting-edge tech into venues, such as the Museum of Pop Culture.

Cullom is particularly interested in immersive technology and virtual and augmented reality — a line that traditional arts have been slow to cross. And it all goes far beyond the focus of a 2011 New York Times article on PACE, which simply said theatergoers would be able to defy norms and use their cell phones during performances.

“We want to expand the definition of what performing arts are,” Cullom said. “Yes it’s symphonies and operas and plays. But I also want to build a space where people can go and experience e-gaming. I want to build a space where I can have an actor here in Bellevue interacting with an actor in London, playing a scene from ‘Three Sisters’ with an actor in Istanbul, Turkey, and people all over the world can experience that in some form or another. So you’re removing location from the equation but still keeping live performance at the heart of what you do.”

A “vision and development team” at PACE taps into creative energy from technologists, futurists, artists and video game designers, including:

  • Mike Pell, envisioneer and design lead at The Microsoft Garage
  • Michael Nassirian, founder and CEO at ARVR Academy
  • Bambo Sofola, GM of XBOX emerging markets at Microsoft
  • Eric Vonderscheer, senior project manager at GLY Construction
  • Lawrence Yang, designer and artist at Valve
  • Alys Holden, director of production for Oregon Shakespeare Festival
  • Alexey Leonidovich Pajtnov, video game designer and inventor of Tetris
  • William Murray, principal and lead of performing arts practice for Pfeiffer Partners
  • Jim DuBois, former Microsoft CIO

The circumstances in Bellevue are unusual because typically a performing arts center is built to house an established group such as a symphony or dance company, or a new building is built to replace an existing facility that has catered to a well-developed arts scene for many years. That scene and need have not been part of Bellevue’s story during its rapid growth over the past 10 or 15 years, according to Cullom.

PREVIOUSLY: Amazon to build its tallest tower ever in Bellevue, continuing rapid growth outside Seattle HQ

So beyond getting a state-of-the-art performing arts center built, Cullom wants to help nurture the arts scene as a whole on the high-tech Eastside and in downtown Bellevue specifically. He sees the other half of his job as lobbying every developer, preaching the importance of including the arts as a public amenity. There’s more to making the city livable than just office towers and retail establishments.

“We’re talking to a bunch of the developers coming into town — Vulcan and Amazon and Skanska and also the City of Bellevue — about what else needs to be here as a cultural infrastructure for downtown Bellevue,” Cullom said. “We’re looking to see the development of theater space and rehearsal space and dance studios and interactive media centers and galleries, the kind of arts infrastructure that’s going to make downtown Bellevue a really cool place to live in 24 hours a day and not just from 10 o’clock to 6 o’clock.”

The view back across Lake Washington at the Seattle skyljne from Bellevue’s Lincoln Square. (GeekWire Photo / Kurt Schlosser)

Bellevue Mayor John Chelminiak hasn’t shied from talking up what his city has to offer in the face of its bigger neighbor across Lake Washington. In April he said “welcome home” to Amazon after the company announced plans to move its worldwide operations team to his town. In a call with GeekWire, he sounded just as optimistic about luring arts as he does about tech jobs.

“It’s an important aspect of the city and it is very important to a number of businesses that are located in Bellevue,” Chelminiak said, adding that the city committed $20 million to PACE. “Ray has taken a re-look at how performing arts would fit into a high-tech community like we are. And I like that concept that he has of high tech meeting the performing arts and being a part of the art and an enhancement of it.”

Chelminiak said Bellevue also buys into Cullom’s belief around the importance of art as part of the fabric of the city, and promoting that belief among businesses and developers.

“Art and culture plays a particular role as does having great spaces in a city. These are all things that businesses look to to be attracted to an area,” the mayor said. “Within the high-tech community, we are seeing businesses — whether it’s Microsoft, Google, Facebook — with presence on both the west side of the lake and the east side of the lake. Having that presence on both sides and in some ways attracting people to live on those particular sides of the lake is a boon to and a reason to get facilities like this completed and up and running.”

The PACE website touts the planned institution’s area’s of focus. (PACE screen shot)

The design process for PACE will be given “time to breathe,” extending a full year beyond this September. By the end of next summer the plan is to lock in on a design of the building and then send it on to architects to render and construction companies to permit. Groundbreaking could happen in 2021. And even the name PACE could give way again for the right donor and right price.

But whatever the building looks like — in its 2,000-seat concert hall, on stage, in an envisioned educational makers’ space on the ground level and so on — Cullom stressed the need for constant change and scalability, and the ability to support immersive tech. While VR and AR wearables and the need to be tethered to a device are probably the norm for the foreseeable future, change is undoubtedly coming.

“If you commit to any certain generation of technology, your building very quickly becomes a museum to the year it opened,” he said. “We have to keep in mind that perhaps in 10 or 15 years, [current tech] is going to be gone. And instead of wearables and phones, it’s going to be a contact lens or who knows what it’ll be. The important thing is that we don’t commit to it. All we do is leave space for the tech to be there and to be easily changed and upgraded.”

That concern even extends to how people will get to the theater in a decade. Queue the futurists: Does it make sense to build a huge parking structure in a 100-year building if 10 years into it most of the people are coming via autonomous vehicles? If PACE does add a parking structure, perhaps it could take on a more necessary and intrinsic use 20 years from now.

As Amazon moves in in a big way, Bellevue will continue to challenge Seattle for more than its tech jobs, perhaps making arts and culture across Lake Washington a genuine attraction. Cullom doesn’t hold back on how he thinks PACE could put the city and the Eastside on a world stage the way tech giants have done that for the region for decades.

“I’ve worked on bigger projects and I’ve worked in more exotic locations, but I don’t think there’s a place where I have the opportunity to work on a project that could be so seminal in the history of building theater buildings, quite frankly,” Cullom said. “I think if we can do what I think we can do, this building is going to be a real marker and signpost in the history of the development of theater architecture and performing arts buildings, and will be looked back on and copied into new performance venues as they get built.”