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Fair Winds in Seattle

Notes from Robert Ivy, FAIA Editor-in-chief

The question.
The sun is setting out on Puget Sound, a bright presence, reaching into the architects’ office like a fresh voice. “What do you think of the architecture here in Seattle?” The question hangs in the air—poignant, rhetorical. What do they expect, this gathering of a dozen earnest and lovely architects, whose work and careers I have followed? Do they expect harsh answers? Do they seek vindication? They’ve spent careers and lives building up a community in a place that is a kind of inhabited paradise. I look out the window at an environment so pungent, so complete, and thought, what structures can compete with this fulsomeness? Then I saw a few.

Gehry blew into town, riding Jimi’s coattails. The Experience Music Project building that he made, this eternal pop traveler from Santa Monica, (limned in our magazine in swooning construction photos by Lara Swimmer), rolls down toward the street as an undulating, candy-coated wall, more waterfall than object, a rolling plastic goodie, turning in on itself, uttering you into its Oz-like canyons. An electrified pull on Hendrix’s riff. Inside, controlled chaos reigns; architecture takes second fiddle to the kinetic hype. Kids were scattered and chattering all over the place, strumming the digital hand-helds, awestruck in a temple of cool that blows away any mall.

Emerald Temple.

Weyerhauser Headquarters - Photo © Ezra Stoller/Esto

The Weyerhauser Headquarters building, halfway between Seattle and Tacoma, glows like an emerald temple, defying and exceeding anything you have seen or read. This masterwork by Skidmore Owings and Merrill, the latest recipient of the American Institute of Architects 25 Year Award, offers a textbook case in thoroughgoing architecture. Beautifully conceived in 1971 as a skyscraper laid into the landscape, it bridges a swale and builds up, terrace on terrace, for five majestic ivy-covered floors.

I was unprepared for its reach and detail and its scale. Where have you seen a corridor 600 feet long, floored in maple, lined in matched veneered woods, opened bilaterally to the light? Where felt the presence of an orchestrated hand leading you in a spatial sequence--from tiered parking platform, through allee’ of plane trees, down walkways to the entrance? An architectural hand that is never overwhelming, always present. Where have you witnessed a democratic ethos in which company president and administrative assistants share the same views, the same artwork, the same cafeteria? There was a certain pathos in leaving, wondering what companies might make a similar investment in architecture today.

Steven Holl came home and made a museum. Over the bridges from Seattle proper, the New York architect was commissioned to create a museum for his home-turf--a pleasant, straightforward place that houses the scrubbed, hyper-intelligent yups who live plugged-in lives. It’s a craftique culture searching for urbanity, and this building fills the gap. Urbane in a profound way, street-smart, permeable, windowed, it unfolds and interlocks, sweeps like Holl’s Kiasma, and enfolds. More Bellevue Museums, and mall-o-rama land will find itself transformed.

Bike Ride.
On a Saturday morning, I rented a bike near the Harbor Steps from a breezy guy at Blazing Saddles and headed out. The pulls up the hill were extreme for me, even in high gear, but worth the sweat. At Discovery Point Park, I stopped the bike in the woods and stood underneath the tree canopy that was beyond symphonic in its density and variety--from deepest evergreen to yellow-leafed maple. Further ahead, beyond the tunnel of shade, the leaves cracked open to an abandoned army base, its empty houses like blind sentinels guarding a broad, empty field. Across the road, the bluff dropped 200 feet to a sea view that spanned 180 degrees. The Cascades, swathed in clouds, revealed themselves across the Puget Sound as a strong wind pushed in the sunshine, drilling in the brightness. I sat on a log and watched the boats and felt the wind. A personal meditation follows:


Odor of roses and diesel fuel
Hover over sandal-scented land
Brewing pine chips and dung
Redolent, teeming,
Winnowed by unseen hands that
Scrape the grasses with windy fingers
Slapped water
Raw sunshine
Stinging sand, etched off and flying
Scouring away the
Green memories
Deep as fog
Dark as death
In Seattle