Published in Crosscut.com Oct. 7, 2009
Young as it is, downtown Bellevue has a strong imprint in its urban design and architecture: long blocks, plentiful open space, and architectural indifference.
Into this context drops The Bravern, the new strato-zoot shopping/office/ residential complex at Northeast 8th Street and 112th Avenue, without a hint of friction.
The buildings are impeccably tasteful, meticulously detailed, spotlessly inoffensive, and immaculately devoid of quirks or personality. Cynics will crack, “Well, of course, dummy—that’s Bellevue dead-on.” But in fact, there are enough smudges of interesting modern architecture around the edges of Bellevue’s heart to suggest a context for something different, and better.
The 1993 regional library, by Portland’s Zimmer Gunsul Frasca, is both intriguing and beautifully functional, a pairing that eluded Seattle’s Central Library. The 2008 Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center, by Jones & Jones of Seattle, is a stunning retort to the grade-it, pave-it, supersize-it suburban ethic, and an essay in how straight-line modernism can assume a surprisingly organic interaction with the land.
The Bravern’s developers and architects might better have taken some of their cues from these buildings, rather than combing ideas from Paris, London Berlin, Prague, Vienna—28 cities in all, as developer Tom Woodworth explains on the promo video. What’s arisen in Bellevue in the wake of that ambitious world tour is a pastiche that has the feeling of no particular place, but rather a placeless, genteel, utterly predictable tastefulness.
The developers cite “timeless architecture … European inspired … but authentic to the Northwest.” The reality hardly qualifies on any of those fronts, unless “timeless” means that an architectural historian from the 23rd century would have a hard time dating the ruins because the stylistic cues are so ambiguous. And The Bravern seems about as home in the Northwest as the REI flagship store would feel in Dallas.
I should break for a moment and admit to a cultural bias, which unquestionably is coloring my view. The Bravern is unabashedly aimed toward rich people. I am not rich, I don’t appreciate ostentation, and I don’t understand how rich people stay rich if they’re buying $350 shirts at Neiman-Marcus. So this isn’t my milieu. But The Bravern is billing itself as a public gathering place, so it’s fair game for evaluation on that level.
Seattle’s Callison Architecture designed The Bravern’s two mid-rise office towers and retail shops. The complex nods subtly toward Louis Sullivan in its integration of arch forms, complicated cornices, and the great rounded corner of the tower at 8th and 112th. There’s no fussy Sullivanesque ornament, of course. At street level, architecture junkies will note withpleasure the indented bays every 16 feet, embracing planters and elegant stainless-steel wire lattices that each likely cost as much as a Neiman jacket.
NBBJ, another Seattle-based architectural colossus, designed the two 34-story residential towers. They’re the crisp and streamlined siblings of The Bravern family, featuring acres of vertical glass, and the de rigueur bustle of bulges and tucks and nips to articulate the surfaces. They’re perfectly competent and forgettable.
For most of us, the heart of any Bravern experience will be the two-level piazza. It’s pretty and inviting if you appreciate formal, meticulously thought-out spaces, and if it’s not raining. The landscaping is lavish and orderly, an orchestration in terraced planters. Uniformed valets standing at attention underscore the formality, and two supersized outdoor gas fireplaces, burning merrily on a recent 80-degree day, suggest that the current century’s sustainability concerns have eluded Bellevue. Authentic Northwest? What about something to keep the rain off our heads?
The best outdoor space in the complex looks almost like an afterthought—a narrow secondary stairway leading from 8th Street up to the piazza between the office towers. It twists a bit, so you can’t see exactly where it leads when you start up, and it’s graced with a delicate foot-high bronze fox sculpture, artfully positioned. Here’s the breath of whimsy and unpredictability that the rest of the complex lacks.
Designers of public agoras—parks, plazas, even courtyards—face an admittedly difficult balancing act. People want to feel secure, so spooky, secluded places where trouble can wait in hiding are off the table. But people also crave mystery and discovery, places that don’t reveal themselves all at once, that offer an unpredictable geography of experiences. That’s what’s missing here.
In fact, it’s a doomed errand to launch a 28-city tour of great European agoras to try to bottle and recreate their spirit in the middle of a 60-year-old American suburb, because what makes a Paris or Prague shopping street great are centuries: hundreds of years of layered ideas, styles, textures and mistakes. Such places can’t be forced into existence; they just have to be allowed to happen.
If a modern development outfit wants to create a distinctive shopping center, they’d be smarter to hire a slightly mad genius architect—I am not necessarily endorsing Rem Koolhaas or Frank Gehry—with instructions to not tour any existing place. Or provide an entirely blank canvas and have a dozen different architects each design a piece of it, barely talking to each other.
If the result is a fascinating mess, that’s automatically a better draw than impeccable taste. Bellevue already has more than enough of that.