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An image of the concrete and glass Hillclimb court building.

Seattle’s Hillclimb Court boldly challenges housing and urban design conventions in Seattle’s Pike Place Market neighborhood. Photo by George Gibbs.

The Eko is chanted daily in Zen temples. A recitation of a spiritual lineage going back to the Buddha, the Eko expresses gratitude to all dharma ancestors, with the implied remembrance of Zen’s great vow to care for all creation. It is a wonderfully simple tribute to Zen’s legacy—passed down from generation to generation—of rigorous practice, teaching, and above all, service to others.

I’ve recently started practicing Zen with a group here in Seattle, and with the Eko in mind, I was struck by this statement from Hacker Architects’ website:

“We believe that architecture is best when it’s an honest expression of the people and institutions it serves, when it interacts dynamically with its surroundings, and makes humble use of the earth’s resources.  More than a craft or practice, we see architecture as a calling to create beauty and serve humanity, requiring from each of us our deepest listening, questioning, curiosity, and engagement.”

This is a wonderful passage that emphasizes the architect’s call to service. This is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, in part because the connection between architectural practice and the Eko has me hooked. Like Zen practitioners, we architects also inherit a rich heritage, and our work, for better or worse, will leave a lasting impression on those it touches. We too believe that our practice dignifies human existence.

We believe that our work as architects and designers serves others, holds community, fosters vitality, and inspires our most noble human qualities. We know good architecture because we feel it.

So I ask, are our current results worthy of our efforts?  What do we owe those who taught us, and what do we leave to those who follow? Are we honoring a call to serve others and protect the planet?

A blue rakusu sitting on a window sill.

The Rakusu is worn by Zen Buddhists who have taken the precepts. Photo by George Gibbs.

When I look around Seattle, I have to say that I’m easily discouraged. In our effort to keep up with demand and address our region’s affordability crisis, we are working as quickly as possible to produce front doors and beds. However, I worry that the very housing projects that need our greatest focus don’t receive our full care when bound so tightly by budget and schedule constraints. While certain housing projects stand out, many strike me as rough, uninspired, and hastily conceived. Looking around, it’s evident that our delivery processes stymie innovation, encourage formulaic responses, and that most projects don’t fit within an overarching urban design vision. While we have a housing recipe and planning dogma, in sum total our efforts appear to lack coherence. I worry about the legacy we are leaving.

The architects I know are drawn to the profession by something experiential, deeply moving, and real. Our call is deep, timeless, and connects us to those who came before us. Of course, as the years go by, it’s easy to lose the spirit. As we learn our trade, we are forced to reconcile our highest calling with the quotidian and the banal. Our experience teaches us that we can’t afford thoughtful design. Instead we learn to work quickly, create value for investors, keep the water out and the air in. But in light of the myriad challenges we face as a species and the inherent environmental and human costs associated with our work, can we afford to build poorly? Our work as architects is connected to the greatest challenges of our time (social inequity, environmental degradation, and violence, for starters), and at the core of humanity’s most difficult problems is a crisis of the heart.

An image of the mirrored facade of a building and trees.

The taut, transparent glazed curtain wall facade of the 200 Occidental Building in Seattle reflects the urban landscape and the collective aspirations of the community. Photo by George Gibbs.

As we meet our region’s demand for more housing, architects must listen deeply to the call within that pushes us towards compassion, care, and beauty. Then we will be able to offer the thoughtfulness, insight, perception, and discernment worthy of our work. First, let’s consider human dignity to create housing as an expression of the community it serves. Maybe it’s as fundamental as referring to examples of work we admire, finding inspiration in the work of those who’ve done it well before, and opening our minds to new modes of operation. Let’s thank those who came before us with our best effort and consider what we hope to pass on. In doing so, let’s abandon our desire for personal gratification and check our pride at the coatrack. Let’s just show up each day and meet the day’s challenge as best we can, doing what needs doing with passion and vigor. The work we produce reflects our values whether we recognize them or not.