Tuesday, November 4, 2008

"Seattle architecture needs to have more fun"

Seattle architecture needs to have more fun
Last updated November 3, 2008 4:59 p.m. PT

BEING CAREFUL what we pray for, because we just might get it, today's cautious wish is that architecture in Seattle weren't so damn serious. And growing still more so.
We are cultivating an almost unwavering devotion to mainstream modernism, conventional respectability and generic anonymity. From private homes to high-rise towers, there's a near-blackout in personal vision, risk-taking and simple quirkiness. The two most daring buildings of this century, so far, have been delivered by out-of-town architects: Frank Gehry's EMP and Rem Koolhaas' Central Library.

These are nowhere near the best local buildings of the past eight years; the first is ridiculous and the second is seriously dysfunctional. But by ducking the risks always associated with radical or idiosyncratic design, Seattle also is missing the opportunity to invest its neighborhoods with more character and verve.

We didn't need a generic Gehry, but we're desperate for a Northwestern Gaudí.

Poke through the city's architectural history, and it's clear that Seattle has never been inclined to hang out on the edge. Jonathan Raban, always the incisive analyst, blames the cautious, Lutheran-Scandinavian conservatism of its early settlers and then the climate: "Manic elation is difficult to sustain under the low grey skies of the Pacific Northwest, and Seattle was never likely to emulate the dizzy excesses of Los Angeles or Las Vegas."

Paul Joseph Brown / P-I

Paul Allen’s "Waterfall" building (headquarters of Vulcan Inc.) boasts dramatically sloping glass walls.
You can see a dollop of quirkiness in the 1914 Smith Tower and plenty of dizzy excess in the 1962 Space Needle, but these are exceptions, and there were reasons that had little to do with personal verve. The Smith Tower acquired its strange massing and pointy party hat through the architects' naivete -- the design came out of a Syracuse, N.Y., firm with no high-rise experience. The Space Needle spun in perfect tune with the early '60s aesthetic, and though unquestionably dramatic, it wasn't an architect's personal statement but an announcement to the world of Seattle's ambitions.

Aside from EMP and the library, the quirkiest local buildings of the past decade look as though the architects were pushing their envelopes with a tentative pinkie, not a decisive fist.
In Fremont, which of all places ought to be fertile ground for the edgy, there's the Epi Apartments, whose balconies jostle first this way, then that; and then sculptor Mark Stevens wrapped a corner of the building in six stories of otherworldly stainless steel tentacles. Nice try, but the building nevertheless carries the soul of a basic box. Its character is tacked on, not built in. Fremont's most prominent newer building complex, the Lake Union Center on the ship canal waterfront, exudes all the panache of a Baptist Sunday School annex.

Downtown, Paul Allen's "Waterfall" building, designed by NBBJ, offers that admittedly dramatic 11-story cascading curtain wall and another face that tilts west over the sidewalk. The glass waterfall, in isolation, is a unique and frankly beautiful landmark, but it doesn't mesh into the character of the rest of the building. It's like finding a romantic sonnet in the middle of a quarterly report.

Another recent downtown building, Weber+Thompson's Cristalla, demonstrates opportunity missed. The architects salvaged the Italian Baroque-ish terra-cotta facade of the 1915 Crystal Pool natatorium and grafted it onto the base of a jewel-faceted, 23-story glass tower. Again, not a bad trick, but it might have been vastly more entertaining if the architects had crumbled the upper edges of the natatorium facade, as if it were a ruin, and let the glass high-rise burst out of it.

Architect Don Carlson's University Child Development School is wonderfully weird inside, but as a private school, only a select crowd of students gets the experience of discovering space that's more magical than logical. Outside, the building tumbles intriguingly around its sloping site like a rectilinear Slinky, but it's quirky only in contrast to a typical public school.

Prowl the Web sites of some of Seattle's better architecture firms, and one of the peculiar trends you might pick out is that the most innovative work is arising in the form of weekend cabins in the Methow Valley. Partly, this is understandable -- architects and their clients naturally feel less inhibited when they're away from home and the intense scrutiny of the city.

But it also illustrates an unhappy trend in that city. As Seattle grows larger, denser, wealthier and ever more conscious of itself as a city of real importance, it seems less willing to take chances, explore the fringes, invert expectations and celebrate weirdness. Too much at stake.

You can see the perfect illustration in the 2007 Seattle Art Museum expansion, where the shack-up arrangement with Washington Mutual gave birth to a building that wears the stiffest of gray business suits. Although it provides excellent exhibit space for art inside, its expressionless public face beams the wrong message outside: no imagination, no adventure, no fun to be had here.

Likewise the microcosm of the Lake Union houseboat community. It used to be a celebration of improvisational architecture and free-spirit thinking, but the strange and quirky houseboats are almost all gone, replaced by increasingly luxurious floating homes, many of them not without pretension.

The trouble with architecture is that trends don't evaporate; they remain on exhibit for generations, long after their styles have become passé. Quirky buildings, even if they're silly or dysfunctional, have a way of insinuating themselves into the enduring fabric of a place and defining its culture. Blandly competent buildings simply elide into the background ambience, neither cherished nor derided -- nor noticed.

Seattle has an overabundance of that background competence; what it needs now is more architecture that will start some fights.

Lawrence W. Cheek is a freelance writer on architecture and author of "Frank Lloyd Wright in Arizona." E-mail escrito48@comcast.net.
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