Design Fantasy

A fairy-tale vision wins first prize.

For the past few months, Alan Maskin’s corner office at Olson Kundig Architects looked more like an art studio than a work station, his desk strewn with prints, the floor covered with a drop cloth and heaps of charcoal sticks, an 8’ x 10’ canvas pinned to the wall. The imagery articulated a grim and gorgeous vision of the future of architecture in Seattle.

Maskin completed this series of five photographs and a giant landscape drawing for a contest he never imagined he would win, but was set on fully fleshing out. The photographs are ghostly self-portraits overlaid with sketches of cityscapes, stadiums and structures draped in lush greenery. The large drawing, rendered with the help of architect Jerome Tryon, pictures a Pioneer Square crisscrossed with sky bridges and hanging gardens in the sky.

In late March, the artwork—in conjunction with a peculiar, haunting piece of fiction about a cryogenically frozen architect—earned Maskin and his team (including Tryon, Kevin Scott, Gabriela Frank and Katie Miller) first place in The Fairy Tales Competition: When Architecture Tells a Story, an international contest that asks designers to submit a piece of fiction paired with visuals. Founded three years ago by Matthew Hoffman and Francesca Giuliani of online architecture platform Blank Space, the competition explores the relationship between narrative and architecture. It has rapidly become one of the most popular design competitions in the world, attracting more than 1,500 submissions this year from 67 countries.

Maskin’s fairy tale “Welcome to the 5th Facade” tells of a Seattle architect who dies and is resurrected to discover an unrecognizable version of his city—which has been transformed by green spaces that cover every building’s surface. His story has roots in the real: Maskin’s current roster of projects includes things like designing a food court inspired by a Wong Kar-wai film and working with a museum that wants to teach four-year-olds to write code. For Korean clients, he’s designed numerous rooftop projects—which are popular in Asia and Europe—embracing the potential of what he calls the “largely neglected uppermost layer of cities.”

“Architects spend enormous amounts of time designing the four façades, or elevations, of buildings—the front, sides and back,” he says. “But the rooftops, ostensibly fifth façades, are rarely designed at all. They are regarded as leftover spaces for waterproofing membranes, ductwork and elevator machine rooms.”

In recent months Maskin, a principal and owner at Olson Kundig, invited coworkers, environmentalists, landscape architects, botanists, historians, artists, developers and a farmer to examine his drawing and provide feedback. Over time they revised it to accommodate a kinetic mechanism for vertical farms located on the 100-year-old neoclassical Washington Shoe Building that currently houses Olson Kundig.

“We added multiple approaches to energy harvesting, such as floating farms on barges—waters rising as a consequence of global warming—and playgrounds for kids, where they can step out of the shadows cast by emerging cities that increase in density and consequently, must grow vertically. We altered the structure of urban ownership by connecting the rooftops with bridges and making that upper layer a public one.”

Maskin’s fairy tale ends with a dark twist: an unresolved leap off the edge of the same vertical green spaces he fantasized about.

“Most architects skew toward utopian thinking, almost on a chromosomal level,” he says. “We naively think that design can solve every problem. The beauty of science fiction is that it allows a glimpse into a future filled with new possibilities, but it also forecasts the potential pitfalls. For every bright-eyed, hopeful idea for the future included in our mural, there are as many dark questions about how it could, just as easily, shift into a very bleak terrain. How people will ultimately use a project, and how it will stand the test of time, is genuinely unpredictable. There was a time when the Alaskan Way Viaduct must have seemed like a great idea to someone, or the concept of regrading Belltown. Edison’s light bulb had a pretty long run—but as incandescents are increasingly banned, we realize how most innovations are of a particular time.”