Four new high-rises stroke civic egos, with style
Published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Jan. 6, 2009
Watching the dizzying phalanx of new high-rises sprouting in downtown Seattle and Bellevue, you’d assume they’re all about economics—betting on maximum return from minimum footprint on ground—and you’d be mostly right. Nietzsche explained the rest: Architecture is the expression of human pride, our triumph over gravity, and the “oratory of power.”
For too many of the towers prickling the Puget Sound sky, that oratory amounts to crude, stentorian bellowing. But developers and architects are learning from these city-killing disasters, and the early 21st century is shaping up as a happier time for skylines. The current crop of towers sports more interesting sculptural shapes, more color, better detailing, and sometimes a friendlier relationship to the person-on-the- street. Favorable developments all.
There persists a nagging worry here that our increasingly dense quivers of skyscrapers may ultimately do more bad than good. Skylines bristling with power look terrific on postcards, but that’s not the same thing as a livable three-dimensional city.
More on this later. First, an appraising roundup of four of the most interesting new high-rises opening just about now:
The near-twin Bellevue Towers are the best pieces in the suburb’s entire skyline, and the most sculpturally ambitious high-rise shapes in either city. The asymmetrical five-sided forms, skewed 22 degrees on axis from each other, guarantee that they’ll never look the same from any two viewpoints on the ground, and there are a wealth of intriguing pleats and tucks in their skins.
Those tucks don’t just relieve visual monotony. They form partially enclosed residential balconies, a deft solution to one of the persistent problems in high-rise residential living. A balcony cantilevered off the side of a skyscraper can feel very much like a 400-foot-high diving board, which is why so many of them are deserted. These Bellevue balconies feel embraced and protected by the building.
The architects confess that these towers actually were designed from the inside out—intriguing floor plans for the residences, which tend toward outlines resembling Idaho or Nevada, generated the envelopes. That could have been a recipe for chaos, but the designers imposed enough discipline that the towers look busy, but organized.
Good as they are, they still lack the proportional grace of the great skyscrapers of the 1920s, such as the Empire State Building, or locally, the 1929 Seattle Tower. Modern skyscrapers rarely step back, slimming as they rise, which is what we’d like them to do, crowding the sky less and conforming more with our common-sense intuition of how buildings stand up. Today, economics always trumps grace.
Fifteen Twenty-One 2nd Avenue [cq] is the first of the skinny, 400-foot residential towers allowed by Seattle’s 2006 downtown zoning revisions. It’s an experiment, the developer frankly admits, “to see what would work.” It works pretty well as a shape in the sky, remarkably well in its innovative carving of interior space.
Architect Blaine Weber detests “podium” high-rises, where a tower splashes onto a wide, two- to five-story base. A podium wouldn’t have been possible on this tiny, quarter-acre site anyway, but Weber says he believes in marrying the design elements of base, shaft and top to form a cohesive composition. He’s done so in this crisp, clean building, although its top, a subtle but intriguing intersection of blocks and planes, is more interesting than the rather pedestrian ground floor.
The best action takes place inside, where Weber’s magic pleats and popouts, together with the northwest-southeast alignment, has managed to provide an Elliott Bay view from every residence, including those on the “east” side of the building. The balcony issue is neatly resolved with indoor solariums where bifold doors at chest height open glassed-in corners to the sky.
There’s more smart juggling of space on the first five floors, which, although you’d never know it from the street, encloses the parking. The corners, normally wasted space in a garage, are work or hobby studios averaging 200 square feet, available for sale to residents. Actually, this is a podium base—it just doesn’t look or act the part.
The new Four Seasons, 10 floors of boutique hotel and 11 more of very high-end condos, cuts the most urbanistically sophisticated profile of all these buildings. At ground level, the architects have fashioned a useful Netherlands-style “woonerf,” or mixed car-pedestrian plaza, from the truncated west end of Union Street. In the squared-off U-form of the condo floors, the residences jostle and step with a layered organic quality, almost like a pile of glass blocks arranged by a geometrically precocious child.
It’s a building whose skin expresses what’s going on inside, something that high-rises almost never manage. Although neither these hotel rooms nor the residences are accessible to hoi polloi, the expression activates the street, to everybody’s benefit.
The big disappointment is the routine 5-foot-wide public stairway from 1st Avenue to Western, part of the hotel development. The architects at NBBJ originally envisioned something as dramatic and inviting as Harbor Steps a block to the southeast, but too many complications arose. Too bad: Harbor Steps is the rare and luminous example of a private high-rise development that actually provided useful public space.
Of all these, Olive 8 cuts the clunkiest profile in the skyline. It’s a tall box plunked onto a wide box—a podium. Richard Gluckman, who designed the skin, tried to redeem them with tricky decoration.
Some of the trickery is almost bewitching. That grid of gargantuan pipes just visible behind frosted glass up to the 17th floor doesn’t actually exist: it’s a masterful trompe l’oeil of fritted glass, a ceramic pattern silkscreened onto the windows. Likewise the canted ovoids in the podium glass, which were not intended to represent olives but in light of the project’s address, might as well. The blue glass fins streaking up the sides are intended as connecting elements to the balcony glass, and they look ridiculous.
The issue of how and whether to decorate a skyscraper has bedeviled architects since the close of the Art Deco era, and this building illustrates the problem. The stripped-down International Style worked best on small buildings; it typically read as deadly tedium on big ones. Playful nonsense such as Philip Johnson’s Chippendale-capped AT&T building of 1984 was like a Monty Python character bursting into a corporate board meeting: fun for once, but you don’t want to see it over and over.
The best decoration for a high-rise is built in, not tacked on. It grows out of a bold, intriguing and thoughtfully detailed sculptural form. The Columbia Center still may be Seattle’s best skyscraper simply because it’s so strong: no other building expresses attitude, ambition and power so nakedly.
And there we arrive at the question of whether the expression of power has any relationship to quality of life. Developers don’t bother themselves with such questions, and rarely do growth-drunk city councils. The Manhattanization of Seattle and the Dallasizing of Bellevue are good for the civic ego, and for the few who can buy these pieces of the sky to live in, but what else?
It looks like it’s now too late, but what we needed at the beginning of the current skyscraper boom was a radical-populist zoning code that would have required skyscraper developers to give back something of major public value for each new building permit—a civic plaza, say, as substantial as the Harbor Steps.
That might have nipped this boom in the bud. Then again, it might have transformed Seattle into the uniquely wonderful city we keep telling ourselves it is.
WHO BUILT WHAT
Olive 8, 1816 8th Ave., Seattle, hotel and condos
Height: 38 stories
Architects: Mulvanny G2, Bellevue; Gluckman Mayner Architects, New York
Developer: R.C. Hedreen Co., Seattle
Plus: Fritted glass windows create intriguing trompe l’oeil of a grid of giant pipes that doesn’t exist
Minus: Fatuous blue glass fins
Four Seasons, 99 Union Street, Seattle, hotel and condos
Height: 21 stories
Architect: NBBJ, Seattle
Developer: The Seattle Hotel Group LLC
Plus: The tower’s busy skin expresses what’s going on inside
Minus: Afterthought stairway from Union’s end to Western Avenue
Fifteen Twenty-One, 1521 Second Ave., Seattle, condos
Height: 38 stories
Architect: Weber Thompson, Seattle
Developer: Opus Northwest LLC, Minneapolis
Plus: Unique integration of parking and work studios
Minus: Tower meets the sidewalk with a dull thud
Bellevue Towers, NE 4th Street and 106th Avenue, Bellevue, condos
Height: 42/43 stories
Architects: GBD, Portland; Mulvanny G2, Bellevue
Developer: Gerding Edlen, Portland
Plus: Sophisticated and fascinating sculptural form
Minus: Parklet between towers accessible only to residents