Like his classmate Steven Holl, Vancouver’s James K. M. Cheng is one of the most influential and successful graduates of his generation from the University of Washington’s Department of Architecture. With his designs for 888 Beach, Residences on Georgia, and Fairmont Pacific Rim, his firm is central to the city-building practices American architects started calling “Vancouverism” 15 years ago. The following is an adapted extract from a book by frequent ARCADE contributor Trevor Boddy describing Cheng’s Seattle education and early design commissions. City Builder: The Architecture of James K. M. Cheng will be published in January by Images Publishing of Australia.
While still a high school student in Hong Kong, James Cheng’s choice of profession came through process of elimination. Though his academic achievements were sufficient for medical or dental school, he had no interest in those fields. Though numerically adept, he had no interest in so mathematically-focused a profession as engineering. Though he greatly enjoyed reading, the continuous writing of a legal or academic career was not for him. Instead, he chose architecture, building on his drawing and photography and a Hong-Konger’s natural curiosity about urban life. At the time, the then Crown Colony’s only school of architecture, at the University of Hong Kong, was very difficult to get into, and Cheng wanted an opportunity to travel. With a family friend in Washington State willing to sponsor him, James Cheng made his first trip outside of Hong Kong at age 17 and finished high school in Everett as a guest of the Maulsby family.
After high school, he spent the academic year of 1965–66 at Evergreen Community College to improve his English and prepare his portfolio for architecture school, taking courses in photography and the fine arts. While he decided to pursue architecture in Hong Kong before ever meeting a practitioner, one of his art professors had an architecture background and further encouraged him in his choice. In 1966 Cheng applied to the University of Washington’s Department of Architecture and was accepted. With this, James Cheng was among the first of a large number of university students, and then immigrants, who would come from Hong Kong and Taiwan to North America in the three decades that followed (and increasingly from Mainland China after 1997). Timing is everything in the life of an immigrant, and James Cheng arrived slightly ahead of most of his Asian cohort of future clients and associates, a group that was later crucial to building his practice.
In the mid-1960s Seattle was a Cold War city, with Boeing as its largest employer. Flanking the city to the north and south were expanded military bases (because of the Vietnam War), and the University of Washington was receiving high levels of defense-related research funding, especially in computer science, laying the foundation for the region’s future success. The UW had a solid, if somewhat conservative, architecture school with international faculty but a somewhat less diverse student body (Asians in general, and especially on visa, were a distinct minority, but ratios would change soon thereafter). The school was influenced by the environmental design ethos sparked by the interwar work of William Wurster at Berkeley and his colleague, Christopher Alexander, whose “Pattern Language” templates inspired young designers up the entire West Coast. The UW school of architecture remained relatively untouched by the postmodernist design emerging on the East Coast and in London at that time. The school prided itself on its community engagement, notably faculty members Victor Steinbrueck and Fred Bassetti’s long fight to preserve the Pike Place Market, which was slated for demolition. Cheng recalls that this debate about the role of institutions and citizens’ access to shared amenities shaped his emerging notions of public space.
Cheng’s considerable skills in freehand drawing, drafting, and photography were soon serving him well in architecture school. Unlike a number of his classmates, Cheng says he was “never that interested or that good at models” and instead “liked to draft and freehand draw” his ideas. His first brush with planning and urban design came through a design studio for a new civic centre for the suburb of Bothell, in which students developed a framework downtown plan and then designed a civic building. In another studio, he designed graphics for a mixed theatre and office project for the Pioneer Square historic district. Here, office floors are arrayed over the top of a thrust stage–style theatre, anticipating the almost continuous string of hybrid buildings (condo and hotel, condo and office, big-box retail and condo, department store and office, etc.) of his later architectural career. Cheng’s elevations clearly demonstrate an affinity for a much-published project of the time, the 1968 Boston City Hall by Kallmann McKinnell and Knowles.
Cheng was enthralled by architectural history, with its glimpses of Europe and case-study narratives of how building plans, sections, and details could combine to define and enhance human activity. Bored with a student job in a restaurant, Cheng started to use his graphic abilities to fund his university studies. UW faculty member Hermann Pundt caught Cheng sketching during his history slide lectures, but was so impressed with Cheng’s contour drawings that he commissioned him to draw a number of Karl Friedrich Schinkel’s plans for a book he was preparing. Pundt’s resulting volume, Schinkel’s Berlin: A Study in Environmental Planning, explored the German city’s urban projects and their surrounding public spaces. Cheng relished getting to know these key masterpieces of neoclassical architecture by drawing them. Moreover, the discipline of crafting these figure-ground drawings taught him much about the patterns of streets and public spaces in neoclassical Berlin.
Cheng gained his first architectural-office work experience while still in school and living in Seattle. In contrast to Vancouver, where small practices predominated, Seattle had the most corporate design scene on the continent, being home to huge firms such as NBBJ, Callison, Mithun, and Bassetti. Starting in the summer of 1967, Cheng ran prints, made tracings and did other low-level tasks at Bassetti. As with all of his subsequent employers, Bassetti recognized Cheng’s skills as an architectural photographer, and soon he was shooting models of a high-rise office proposal and helping the firm prepare awards submissions.
Cheng’s strong portfolio next landed him a job at Mithun from the summer of 1968 through 1970. Founded in 1949, Omer Mithun’s firm evolved from designing military bases to more general work, including housing and urban design at a large scale, and Omer was one of Cheng’s professors at UW. In 1969, under the supervision of colleagues at Mithun, Cheng developed his skills by designing the single-family KING-TV Demonstration Residence, a show home sponsored by the local television station and constructed in the fast-growing suburb of Bellevue. For the Northwest, this is a rare type of house plan based on a courtyard layout, its textures and detailing being clearly inspired by the much-published condominiums at Sea Ranch in Northern California designed by Moore, Lyndon, Turnbull, and Whitaker of San Francisco. As a central motif, the KING house borrows an idea from Frank Lloyd Wright — a living tree set at mid-plan as an icon of family life — as in the architect’s own residence in Oak Park, Illinois. James Cheng’s photographs of the KING Residence are exceptional. These bold, starkly contrasting images reveal the house’s character in its lush forest setting, showing it to be an amenable space for living and an embodiment of disciplined architectural ideas.
Precociously, fifth-year architecture student Cheng was made responsible for the urban design and architectural detailing of a “planned unit development,” or large townhouse development, also located in Bellevue. Sahalee Village Condominiums was completed in 1972, after Cheng’s graduation. It was published in a special “Young Architects” feature in Architectural Record in December 1972, where an editor offered the first published critical assessment of his work, saying “[it] richly expresses its regional flavor and provides more than the ordinary architectural amenities. Cheng developed a basic plan and variations with unusual sensitivity and combined these comparatively intricate elements in a series of gentle offsets that give the site plan an appealing informality. His use of materials and sensitivity to detail mark him clearly as an emerging talent.” Sahalee Village Condominiums went on to receive an AIA Seattle Honor Award for 1973 and was published again in the 1974 issue of Record Houses.
The Bellevue condo project displays many of the strengths of Cheng’s later work. At the macro level the site plan is very clear and coherent, with housing units staggered (the “offsets” referred to above) so that each condominium has multiple orientations for breezes and views, a device Cheng uses in many later projects. Cladding the building in cedar and using pitched roofs, Cheng demonstrates easy facility with the material language of Pacific Northwest modernism, and the houses are nestled into their forested sites as if they had stood there for generations. Of particular note are Cheng’s black and white photographs of this project, another example of superb documentation of architecture and a key reason for this project’s subsequent awards and publications. By his mid-20s, James Cheng had been given responsibility for a large and complex project, designed and detailed it in a skilled manner, and then photographed and promoted the work to gain national publication and awards from peers.