Editor’s note: In 1989 the Pacific Northwest was enjoying a burst of growth similar to the post-War boom when Northwest modernist architecture flowered. At the time, ARCADE editors Michael Jensen, Lisa Kennan-Meyer, and Kathleen Randall were interested in how this regional design legacy would influence new development. Was this historical work still relevant for contemporary architects?
Their investigation led to interviews with dozens of Northwest architects, architectural theorists, and architectural historians. They presented portions of the responses in the October/November 1989 issue of ARCADE in “Northwest Style: What Is It? Who Does It? Is It Dead? Does It Matter?”
As ARCADE enters its thirty-sixth year and the Northwest experiences another boom, we wanted to revisit this early article and the words of designers whose work, the editors felt, “defined the architecture of this region.” This abridged and lightly edited version of the original, divided into three installments, will release over the following weeks.
“The Northwest Style will continue as long as some architects are sensitive enough to understand that there is such a thing as timeless expression of what you are doing. Timelessness comes from what we are. We live by love and hate and sociological problems and by differences between us and so on.
“There are timeless qualities, as I say, and love may be its best expression, which brings people together. But love should also be the scene that inspires an architect and expresses in the way he does a house, that here love will be the principal element that holds the family together.
“What is a family? You put the family together ... There will be friction unless there is some way of minimizing that friction and making it possible to have a place where they can meet to appreciate, where they come to know each other and respect each other. We are all different so there are psychological difficulties that have to be solved by architecture.”
Pietro Belluschi, FAIA, 90, is a Portland architect.
[Editor’s note: Pietro Belluschi passed away in 1994.]
“ls anyone still doing the Northwest Style? I still practice it. I don’t believe in this other B.S. that has gone up around here. I very seldom find houses that I get excited about so maybe it has blown over. There are still guys doing houses that are sensitive to the owners’ needs. However I can’t imagine why there are still builders putting the living room on the street where the cars drive up. They ignore the sense of privacy altogether. They ignore orientation; south is so favorable and should be exploited. I’m 74 now and still working. I just do residences, I draw the whole damn thing myself, I don’t want a crew of guys hanging around. The Japanese are very traditional builders. They had 3 x 6 modular buildings that I tried to get people in the states to do. I’ve always liked modular architecture; all my buildings have modular influences—I think it’s the simplest way to do buildings.”
Paul Hayden Kirk, FAIA, is an architect in Seattle and a graduate of the University of Washington School of Architecture, class of 1937.
[Editor’s note: Paul Kirk passed away in 1995.]
“I think houses that might be considered Northwest Style were built by people who really liked the landscape. I think it’s buildings in the landscape.
“I was naive enough to think there could be a Northwest Style pervasive enough to humanize the landscape the way regional styles in Europe and Mexico and earlier civilization humanized the landscape. I know now that that’s an impossible dream. There will be examples, but they will be a very small proportion of what happens to the general landscape.
“I’m a little bit skeptical of lots of claims for the Northwest Style. Very often, it’s Northwest Style because of the view from the windows or because the house is set among tall conifers. By and large, people consider it Northwest Style if it’s built of wood and has a lot of glass.
“The work I did is High Style without your noticing it. I used to say I had two styles: Barn Style and Palace Style.
“I also reacted to the International Style, against eclectic architecture. He (Pietro Belluschi) thinks it’s natural or inevitable and I think it’s a deliberate choice. I don’t for a minute think that what I did sprung fully formed from the head of Jove. I admit to all kinds of influences.”
John Yeon, FAIA, has practiced architecture in Portland for over 50 years.
[Editor’s note: John Yeon passed away in 1994.]
“It’s hard nowadays to isolate a style of architecture but actually underneath it all there is a development in various regions of the United States indicating a style, you might say, a movement in a certain direction. I think in the Northwest we were instrumental in providing an indication that certain elements of nature should be recognized. We have the rainy season and most of our outlooks are in the face of the sun, either east or west. The ordinary type of house built prior to 1930 didn’t recognize either the climatic conditions or that the sun was an element to contend with—something to capture certain times of the day.
“I went to the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1933 and it confirmed many of the things that I thought about architecture insofar as methods of construction, use of elements such as glass in large planes, aluminum and different materials that were not entirely new but were used in a new way at the fair. I was very much taken by all this and was somewhat determined that in my own design I would try to be more thoughtful in what I did.
“Actually, I didn’t have the opportunity here in Seattle because the depression really set in right after the fair. I bought a ticket around the world, good for two years, and went to Japan to work with a friend, Matsumoto, in his office. When I was with Matsumoto I met up with Antonin Raymond, the Czechoslovakian architect. He was one of the few people I was willing to listen to; most people just talked through their hat. He explained modern architecture as it should be explained. In Paris, I spent a day with Le Corbusier. I met a number of the world’s great architects on that trip—I made a point of it and gained a great deal from having done so.
“I created quite a furor with my contemporary designs. I drew on the simplicity of living in Japan—I thought there were many ideas that could be incorporated into American architecture. I did quite a number of so-called 'contemporary' buildings which more or less set the course for a lot of younger architects. I had the young guys supporting me and an element of people who just wanted more modern. I was entrenched in doing things a different way, but I came to realize that contemporary architecture as done in some parts of the world wasn’t really adaptable to Seattle because of our climate. If you wanted a view to the west, you also had the wind and the rain in the winter. So gradually I got to extending my rooflines.
“Of course I had a following. But there were other architects who had started to do things in a different way. Belluschi started doing things in a newer way about the same time or maybe sooner. With his exception, I would say that I introduced the whole business.
“I did the Washington Mutual building, between [Seneca and University and Second and Third Avenue]. I think that building contributed to architecture in giving a certain amount of design and livability to a building that most buildings of this type don’t have. It was straightforward and made sense. It takes finesse to develop beauty in simplicity.
“Of course there are certain architects who have done good work; Kirk for instance. He’s a pretty thoughtful architect. Another architect who worked for us during the war was John Sproule, and I think he had his own way of doing things—very simple and truly new. And Bystrom—that building he did over in Sun Valley was quite remarkable; he worked for me too.
“I would say that we have a Northwest architecture and that we created a style of architecture. As I progressed through this process of strictly Corbu-type box buildings into buildings that respected the sunsets, the views, and were protected against the rainfall, a building developed that was sort of automatically different. I would say that we did originate a Northwest architecture that gained popular favor.”
Paul Thiry, FAIA, graduated from the University of Washington School of Architecture in 1928. He recently retired after practicing architecture in the Northwest for over 60 years.
[Editor’s note: Paul Thiry passed away in 1993.]
“If we think about styles in history, or distinct changes in the way the Western world put up its buildings, then we think about long term changes. And now we talk about the style of one region compared to another. I think there is something superficial about the whole idea. Architecture today has become more like fashion, or advertising, or any other things: it’s all on the surface. This look at whether there is a Northwest Style or not is, in a way, a superficial exercise.
“I think really, until we get over this search for the world’s greatest building to plop down here we’re going to be in trouble architecturally. I think it’s become a disease. It seems to me that what we ought to be looking at is how to make this region a civilized, prosperous place. And the only way we’re going to do that is through the people who live here. We have to look at developing our own talent to the maximum we can. I think the key to the future is to build on what has already happened—we didn’t start building cities yesterday.”
Ibsen Nelsen, FAIA, is principal of lbsen Nelsen & Associates founded in 1953.
[Editor’s note: Ibsen Nelsen passed away in 2001.]