Photo by Michael Burns

Photo by Michael Burns

“The world’s crummiest site to put a building on,” was how Seattle architect Rick Sundberg described the location of Hillclimb Court when it was published in Architectural Record in February 1984. Yet the project, which turns 30 this year, is a remarkable achievement and proof that constraints can often help produce great buildings.

The City of Seattle issued a request for proposals for the 27,000 square-foot parcel in 1979. The project was daunting: Not only was there a 45-foot grade change between Western Avenue and Alaskan Way, but the west side of the site faced the two-level Alaskan Way Viaduct, a source of continuous noise that also blocked views. The RFP required a garage for 200 cars and the project, to be constructed on top, was to be visually sympathetic with the Pike Place Market.

The project team of Cornerstone Development, Olson/Walker Architects and Gulf Landau Young Construction Company won with a proposal to create an oasis in the city, a complex of 35 condominium units (ranging in size from 520 to 1,150 square feet) and two retail spaces, all framing a shared courtyard atop the podium of a four-level parking garage.

Hillclimb Court achieves maximum effect with limited means (in mathematics, this is the definition of elegance). The design team (Gordon Walker, Rick Sundberg, Rick Worrell, Todd Heistamnn, Tom Rasnack) arranged the residential units in two rectilinear bars enclosing the west and south sides of the courtyard and sheltering it from the Viaduct. The retail and entrance pavilion frames the east side of the courtyard and presents a pedestrian-friendly commercial front along the sidewalk at Western Avenue.

The section provides a variety of unit types: two-story townhouse units facing the courtyard, one-story flats at the third floor and two-story townhouse units at the fourth floor. Because the first-floor townhouses are entered from the court- yard, only two levels of upper-level circulation, at the third and fourth floors, are required. The units face the courtyard and turn their backs to the Viaduct, except at the upper-level townhouses that look out west to Elliott Bay.

The poured-in-place concrete frame is ordered on a 30-foot grid that carries directly from the parking garage into the units. Units are mirrored (back-to-back), allowing an alteration of the structural bays and the mechanical bays with fireplace/chimney, heat-pump shafts and toilet exhausts clustered together and detailed on the exterior with a set of louvers.

The modular, concrete structure provides the primary character of the architecture and may be considered a contextual response to the concrete frame of the Madore Building (which once housed warehouse and light manufacturing uses), immediately to the north across the Hillclimb, and to other buildings nearby. However, the architecture is not imitative—the detailing of concrete, with crisp reveals emphasizing the modular order, is refined, contemporary and sophisticated. The industrial theme is also apparent in the corrugated metal, glass storefront and metal pipe railings. Glass block, used in the entry pavilion, allows the passage of light while enhancing privacy.

The center of the project, the shared courtyard, may be unique in the city. In terms of “defensible space,” the designers did everything right. Almost all the units have good views of the courtyard, which can also be seen from the adjacent Hillclimb, yet it is secure, with a hierarchical sequence of spaces from the public sidewalk along Western to the private interior of each unit. The scale of the courtyard is extraordinary with secure space big enough for young children to ride bikes and play ball games. Green spaces abound, with landscaping that has grown over the last three decades—now including trees with trunks up to eight inches and mature wisteria.

The quality of Hillclimb Court was recognized on its completion. The project received a 1983 Honor Award from AIA Seattle. In 1984, it appeared in Architectural Record, GA Houses and other journals.

Hillclimb Court has aged very well. Solidly built, it suffered no damage other than a few drywall cracks in the 2001 Nisqually earthquake. The homeowners have routinely invested in maintenance, cleaning, painting, roof repair, landscape care and the like. The building has inspired loyalty and units only occasionally change hands.