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house of mirrors

I have claustrophobia, and as a kid, walking through the “house of mirrors” at amusement parks used to freak me out. The disorientation, the strange reflections, seeing hundreds of my pimpled face with braces and geeky glasses. It was terrifying!

In a weird kind of way, sometimes I still feel like that. For instance, recently I was walking to work on a typical grayish Seattle day. It’s quite apparent that Seattle is experiencing a historic building boom that will forever transform the city. There must be well over 40 construction cranes dotting the skyline just in downtown. As I walked I noticed exterior cladding being installed on a residential high-rise, and I had a strange sense of déjà vu. Hadn’t I just seen this building on the previous block? As I continued on my way, I became aware that the same tower kept popping up. First at Fifth and Stewart, then at First and Union, then again at First and Lenora, Fourth and Lenora, Fifth and Bell, Second and Virginia, Second and Pike … I had become entranced and was walking in a giant urban spiral.

And with every step I took it felt more and more like I was trapped in a suffocating house of mirrors! Without the slightest hint of drugs in my system, before my very eyes the city became a colossal maze of the same thing: giant, glass-clad, residential Seattle high-rises!

For those who haven’t travelled to downtown in the last decade, let me describe the architectural characteristics of these buildings:

1. Glass

Usually floor-to-ceiling with inexpensive and antiseptic window frame systems. A little bit of solid panel here, a bit of operable window there, throw in a few more window frames, and multiply that by 15, 20 or 30 stories. I know, I know, it’s about the view, dummy.

2. A Slight Conical Shape

Most of these towers employ some vague geometry, usually curved, that detaches them from the city grid. Honestly though, the geometry is fairly arbitrary. What’s important is that the building goes up and up.

3. A Minimal Base

I find the way these buildings touch the ground to be somewhat sterile. Concrete walls and panels, more glass with inexpensive window frames, and a lack of intimate detailing forces these buildings to rely on the interiors of their lobbies and commercial tenants to enrich the pedestrian experience.

4. Cost

Prices that only a software engineer can afford!


I can imagine what you’re thinking right now: How can any architect or planner complain about an American city transforming into a world-class magnet for vibrant urban living? What right does this ARCADE columnist have to criticize these gloriously light- and sun-filled towers that are bringing thousands of people back into Seattle’s downtown? And what about all the other evolving cities around the country invigorated by this new architecture?

What concerns me is I’m not sure which downtown I’m in anymore. Just like the sensation I get seeing the reflection of the same high-rise on every Seattle street, it’s starting to feel like every US city is a copy of the next, filled with mirrored images of these high-rises.

The most famous house of mirrors scene in film history is probably in Enter the Dragon starring Bruce Lee. In the finale, Bruce learns it’s advantageous to smash the glass obstacles before him to solve his problem and defeat the villain. However, architects are mostly followers, not mirror smashers, so I don’t anticipate much change in American residential high-rise design for quite some time. Soon some of our blocks will be filled with multiple glazed towers, all looking into each other, to an extent that everyone will have to permanently draw their curtains for privacy. Maybe all of downtown will look like a colossal Christo-wrapped city.

Though it doesn’t address the above issue, I believe part of the solution is in richer materials at the pedestrian level. Go ahead and keep your semicircular plan from floor three and up. At the sake of sounding too 20th century, would it hurt to supplement the base with a bit of brick, steel, cast concrete, or—I say this with trepidation—a finely detailed punched window? The point is, I think these buildings need to sacrifice a bit of slick for the sake of the humane.

But for now, this doesn’t really alleviate my house of mirrors hallucination as I circle the streets of downtown Seattle. I guess as long as I don’t cock my head upward on my way to work, I shouldn’t be too haunted by childhood claustrophobia.