Editor’s note: This is the third and final 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, and find Part 2 here.
“Is it dead? No—not dead. If anything it’s just sleeping and about to wake up.
“Why waking up? I think that at long last we’re beginning to see our region as a place with tremendous and unique intrinsic value. We seem to be getting over our long-lived inferiority complex. Our newfound popularity, our improving self-image and the growing respect for nature and our environment give validity to some of the attitudes of the so-called Northwest Style.
“As the world gets smaller—and in some ways more the same—we feel the need to declare our uniqueness even more.
“I see the Northwest Style as an attitude. Some aspects of that attitude I find valid are respect for nature and surroundings, gentle to the land, easy on resources, colors that blend or complement—but don’t disrupt, sensitivity to our muted light, response to our misty climate. There are a variety of ways to express these things. I think the attitude of trying to respond to the uniqueness of the Northwest is what is important.
“I don’t believe that styles just start and stop—they evolve and branch off in various directions. When I began in architecture, in the ’60s, I was drawn to the branch of the Northwest Style that seemed to be a mix with the International Style. Some of the work of Roland Terry, Paul Kirk and Arthur Erickson went in this direction. For some reason I like the stronger, cleaner lines. I like to draw a straight line under our hills and furry foliage—give it a base, a reference point. I see the evolution of the Northwest Style as having the most potential. Residential vocabulary builds easily into commercial or institutional. By joining with the International Style the Northwest Style somehow builds better into the world, and into the future, and still retains its uniqueness.
“The planet needs us right now. We need to popularize the integration of our lush foliage into architecture. We need to teach people to love their plants. That attitude grows right out of the old Northwest Style. I think it’s another reason the Northwest Style is about to wake up. And we need to pay attention.
“Love the Earth; Love Nature, worship it, be part of it and be kind to it. To me, that is what the Northwest Style is all about.”
Jim Olson, AIA, is a principal of Olson/Sundberg Architects in Seattle.
[Editor’s note: Jim Olson, FAIA, is a partner at Olson Kundig.]
“There are two sides of regionalism. One is attitudinal. The attitude of cultural self-determination—feeling confident and clear enough to decide as a region what you want to do, rather [than] taking your cues from supposedly more sophisticated centers—San Francisco, New York or LA. In terms of travel and communication it is easier now for regional areas to assert themselves. Seattle is less remote now than it has ever been. It is a matter of chutzpah, and gumption and taking the lead. I think this area is hitting its stride and developing more and more confidence to speak in its own voices and to assert itself. It’s been a relatively quiet, laid-back culture here, never a region to beat its chest. It has always seemed to admire quiet confidence over brash celebrity or bravado.
“There is a second side to critical regionalism which has to do with characteristics that might be common to any regionalist architecture. First I’d like to differentiate between regional and regionalist. In no way does this department aspire to be regional. It aspires to be regionalist. Or at least l aspire for it to be regionalist. Regionalist is concerned with local and regional issues and ideas wherever it might be, Timbuktu or Mobile, Alabama. The idea of celebrating what is unique about a place is important. Regionalism is an international idea, not a provincial idea. I think that there are some common values any regionalist architecture would have: love of place, love of history, a love of nature, love of craft and a love of limits.
“Regionalism in architecture is a timely idea because there has been a proliferation of mass culture in the last couple of decades. In some ways it is a reaction to the mass culture that has swept and cheapened this country. Critical regionalism is an act of resistance against mass and homogenized culture. It is pitted against television, the computer, the telephone and the whole technocracy, and I think those technologies are winning. This is somewhat like the Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the nineteenth century, which tried to reverse the industrialization and technocratic society that was beginning to emerge. In a sense, regionalism is a resistance like the Arts and Crafts movement. It may ultimately carry the day, but I don’t think it is now.
“So critical regionalism I see as the unsentimental celebration of what is unique to a local place and its culture—climate, geography, building materials, building practices as well as culture, ethnicity, politics, history and mythology. And that is easier said than done. It is a lot easier to talk about this than to express it in architecture.”
Doug Kelbaugh, FAIA, is chair of the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington.
[Editor’s note: Doug Kelbaugh is a professor and former dean at the University of Michigan Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.]
“What is it?"
“A natural, but intelligent, response to a need as opposed to self-conscious overdesign."
“Has it died out or is it still evolving?"
“The interest and intellectual pursuit remain."
“Which projects exhibit its features?"
“Storey, early Belluschi, Paul Kirk, early Ralph Anderson."
“Is anyone currently working in what you would define as a Northwest regional style?"
“The hop kiln builders of the Yakima Valley."
“Is the work limited to suburban and rural settings?"
“The roots are rural. Suburban is a self-conscious overlay.”
Gordon Walker, AIA, is a longtime Northwest architect currently with NBBJ in San Francisco.
[Editor’s note: Gordon Walker is a consulting principal at Mithun.]
“I think the primary thing was the region and its characteristics: the terrain, the growth, the rain ... weather is a big factor and the fact that we had certain materials that were on hand here for us to use, wood being the primary thing. Where else in the US is there a better supply of building material than there is in the Northwest?
“It took a lot of time and a lot of training on our part to indoctrinate general contractors to the type of thing we wanted. If we would get three or four general contractors to bid on an exposed wood house we were doing well. A lot of them were afraid because of the labor costs. It is more costly to expose framing. Nowadays it’s gone.
“I’ve always liked working with wood; even at the time I was going to school, I was building actual buildings. Once you start working in wood, actually doing it yourself, you become more aware of the possibilities, and the limits, as to what framing should be.
“I started looking at Japanese architecture, which has been built in wood for hundreds, well, thousands of years. And they knew how to handle wood, they knew all its possibilities.
“Even when we were in school they seemed to feel that everyone had to be doing the same thing throughout the US, throughout the world. My question is why—why are we so concerned at having a common denominator, why stifle individualism in architecture? Why are we hell bent to make everything the same?
“Things are different here. This is one of the reasons we live here, I guess, and our architecture should reflect the region.
“I think it’s just another revolution of the wheel. It’s just too bad that some of us who have developed something—and it seems that some people are aware of it—it’s too bad that has to die and you start all over again. Probably the new generation will develop something eventually that may fit the region or fit the economic circumstances—that will make the puzzle work.”
Gene Zema graduated from the University of Washington and practiced architecture in Seattle for many years. He is an expert on Japanese art and antiquities.
[Editor’s note: Gene Zema is retired and resides on Whidbey Island.]
“I think one of the things of the Northwest Style, and it’s an utterly critical thing, besides the humanism, is [that] the architect who does it—and it’s usually done by small offices for this reason—has got to have confidence in himself to say to hell with all this bullshit, close the magazines, and just follow his intuition. Go out and live on the site for a while and analyze the needs of the client and come up with what Wright used to say—‘find the solution in the problem.’ I think that’s basic to my work and I think anyone who works in the Northwest Style would start with the problem and not with some image or metaphor or little gimmick that they think will win them an award or get them published in a magazine.
“I would say that if there is a Northwest Style that reflects the traditional, indigenous building of the Northwest, which would be a very gray climate with a winter monsoon, it would need weather protection and glass. We have rain and we have gray winters and we have the wood and so if you reflect the environment then that’s what we’re talking about.”
Arne Bystrom, FAIA, is a practicing architect in Seattle.
[Editor’s note: Arne Bystrom passes away in 2017.]
“I think one of the basic issues is money. The budgets today don’t allow for that kind of work. And when the money is there, very often there isn’t time.”
George Suyama, AIA, is principal of George Suyama Architects in Seattle.
[Editor’s note: George Suyama, FAIA, is a partner at Suyama Peterson Deguchi.]