Editor’s note: This is the second abridged installment of “Northwest Style: What Is It? Who Does It? Is It Dead? Does It Matter?,” which appeared in the October/November 1989 issue of ARCADE. For the original article, editor Kathleen Randall and guest editors Michael Jensen and Lisa Kennan-Meyer collected thoughts from over thirty Northwest architects, architectural theorists, and architectural historians about the history and value of northwest regional architecture. For more information on the original piece, please see Part 1 of the series.
“The question of architects doing work in their own place transcends the question of style. As a matter of fact, I think this whole international discussion of style is superficial, irrelevant. Regionalism matters because to do anything worthwhile you have to know the subject deeply. Art just doesn’t come flying in on the wings of a raven, it comes from a deeply felt understanding of all the conditions. It is easy enough to understand the conditions of site, climate, local materials. The things that are hard to come by are the feeling for the area, the social and cultural character and qualities of a place.
“The architects, rather, the work that I respect most, is that of those who worked here at the tum of the century or in the ’20s. It is true that looking back, much of it was early modern work. But the work that was inspired by modernism is much less successful than that which grew out of the region itself. I’m thinking of Ellsworth Storey’s cottages particularly, and some early work of Joe Wilson, Kirtland Cutter, J. W. B. Wilcox. You’ve asked if the [Henry M. Jackson Federal Building] has regional characteristics. It does seem to fit its location pretty well and I’m pleased with it close-up, but I don’t much like it from a distance—It’s rather dull. That is reproof to me for my lack of adequate vision or energy.
“I think AT&T Gateway Tower is more of its place in that its base, its roof, its sides, each different from the others, respond more clearly to the urban context, the site and the climate. Its profile relates to region and site—it steps down on the west toward the water, somewhat recalling Seattle’s hills sloping to the Sound, while on the east, it rises up high to the top suggesting the mountains in the distance. The gabled glass roof, curved at the top, shows at once that it rains in Seattle. I hope there is no hint of fashion in it. I’m not immune to that, of course, even while trying to steer clear and do something lasting.
“Ralph Anderson seemed to have been able to do reasonable work, fitting the site and the climate right from the beginning. I don’t know where he got his wisdom; mine didn’t come from the same place. I went back to Harvard and studied with Gropius and Breuer and knew those guys and came back brainwashed—as they still do from Harvard today. It was very slow coming—that appreciation of what we have here. Whereas Ralph, and people like Storey, seemed to have it from the beginning.
“I think the important thing, and I bet you get the best answers from [Ibsen] Nelsen since he has thought deeply about it, is that we understand what we are doing here, what we are about and that we do it with our own people. Someone said once, ‘A fool can put on his own clothes better than a wise man can do it for him.’ If we are going to do anything characteristic in this area, we are going to have to do it ourselves, make our own mistakes, be responsible for them, build the area in our own likeness—nobody else can do that for us.”
Fred Bassetti, FAIA, designer, theorist, northwest native—since 1947.
[Editor’s note: Fred Bassetti passed away in 2013.]
L. JANE HASTINGS
“I think one of the things that makes us different is the relationship of the architecture to the site and the fact that we have the most glorious sites in the world to deal with. Also, I think that scale is terribly important. So it is materials, site relation and scale—and another thing, the use of light.
“I don’t think that the Northwest Style has gone away because it is a reflection of materials. I do think that the materials are becoming harder to come by and are more expensive. We don’t, unfortunately, see as much wood as we used to, but I think we are sleeping. It is a little bit like the Chanel suit or the shirtwaist dress—they never go out. Good design never goes out of style.
“Another thing is all the talk about the fact that the Northwest was influenced by the Japanese. That is OK, in a way, because we have similar climates, similar materials, lush greenery. There are lots of things in common, but I also think perhaps it is more a response to Scandinavian influence. The love of wood and the warmth of wood. They came here to fish and log and they knew how to use wood and they had lots of it. But I think we have always been [identified with] the Asian influence, although so many of our forefathers were the Ballard boys. There is no question about it. No matter how far you are away from ‘home’ little tidbits, things from a part of your upbringing, come through.”
L. Jane Hastings, FAIA, is a Seattle native and a University of Washington Alumni: She has had her own practice for over thirty years.
[Editor’s note: L. Jane Hastings closed her practice in 2002.]
“I’m one of the strong believers in a Northwest Style. It has to be residential architecture, the environment must be intact, it doesn’t work in an urban setting. It’s an attempt to not break the natural continuity of the setting, in opposition to Modernism or Postmodernism. In the Northwest Style, environment is primary and architecture plays a second position.
“Stick construction is the least expensive, most economical, most honest construction method. It makes a very honest, honorable, logical type of structure and it will come and go in popularity. The Northwest Style is a little too honest; it’s not glitzy. It’s too quiet and out of pace with this great consumptive journey we seem to be on.”
Ralph Anderson graduated from the University of Washington’s School of Architecture in 1952. He has practiced architecture for over 36 years as principal of Anderson Koch & Smith.
[Editor’s note: Ralph Anderson passed away in 2010.]
“It troubles me that some of us would like to force a false uniqueness on ourselves just so we can have a stronger identity. People strive to be special. In terms of regional architecture the uniqueness should be a result of a unique set of circumstances, or a unique place, or a unique culture—or a combination of all those things. And if the culture really isn’t that unique, or the circumstances and the limitations, then it’s quite all right to claim that here is such a situation when there isn’t, I suppose.
“The fear that I would have in giving too much emphasis to regionalism or to a particular Northwest Style would be that it tends to promote a kind of provincialism where there is the idea that somehow we shouldn’t be thinking individually for ourselves, but we should all gather together now and somehow try to live in buildings more alike. That somehow, that is going to make this area more attractive. Those people that feel that way feel that unity is the great god of design rather than diversity and maybe a richness that might come from diversity. Diversity and diverse attitudes—and this would go for designing buildings as well as doing anything else—is probably a more healthy viewpoint than one that would insist upon unity at all costs.
“I would say to the question ‘Do we have a unique architecture?’—Well sort of. We live at a certain latitude: we’re not at the north pole, we’re not at the equator; we are half way in between.
“We have a relatively mild climate. When climate has been a factor it has been in places where the climate has been more severe. We, on the other hand, have a pretty rugged terrain around the Seattle area, at least west of the Cascades. It has precluded our easily using generic or traditional building forms.
“Limitations or some severe unusual situation will quite often spawn a unique solution. Uniquely regional architecture of the past was nearly always a result of severe limitations—of materials, moisture or lack of same, sun, very rugged terrain—any and all extreme situations.”
Wendell Lovett, FAIA, has been practicing architecture since 1951, specializing in residential work.
[Editor’s note: Wendell Lovett passed away in 2016.]