Effing the Ineffable

Seattle Design Finds a Home

Design is everywhere; design is ineffable. The chair in which you’re sitting, the device on which you’re reading this story, the building you’re inside of—they’re all results of design, a creative discipline so seamlessly enmeshed in our everyday existence that it’s hard to understand from an objective, layman’s perspective. Organizations like the Seattle Architecture Foundation, Design in Public, AIA Seattle and AIA Washington Council exist to educate the public on the role design and architecture play in our lives and to advocate for better urban living through good design.

This month, with the opening of the new Center for Architecture & Design, all four organizations come together under one roof for the first time. The multipurpose Center occupies 4,500 square feet on the ground floor of the National Building downtown, two blocks from the waterfront. With tall plate glass windows, a grand entryway and an adaptable floor plan, its front half is a showroom for rotating design and architecture exhibits that’s open to the public. The back half is office space for staff of the four resident nonprofits. (Briefly: SAF serves the general public with walking tours of Seattle and other educational programs; DIP produces the fall’s weeklong Seattle Design Festival as well as other events; AIA is a national professional organization for architects that advocates for progressive design citywide; AIA Washington does the same statewide.)

Flanked up and down Western Avenue by design stores and art galleries and a stone’s throw from the offices of some of Seattle’s premier architecture firms, the Center anchors a burgeoning design district. Taken together, it’s all part of Seattle’s rising profile as a design-centric city of global consequence.

“When you look across the spectrum of design, it’s incredible the impact Seattle is having,” says Lisa Richmond, executive director of AIA Seattle, during a recent walkthrough of the space. “Teague does all of the aircraft that fly everywhere the world, and Microsoft designs systems that inform what people are doing around the world. We have many examples, but people don’t think about that as a design identity for the city yet. One opportunity for the Center is to elevate Seattle as a leading world design city.”

Richmond says that the AIA and its cohort had been looking for a space since 2007 but the economic downturn hobbled their efforts. The National Building—a historic landmark built in the early 1900s as a railroad warehouse—became available in March of last year and fit their criteria: It was the right size in a building with design integrity, in a walkable part of the city. Once they found the space, the organizations went to work fundraising, generating some $2 million in a few short months. Most of the funding came from members of the AIA as well as grants from 4Culture and other foundations. The architecture industry, it seems, not only has deep pockets but a strong desire to give itself a public face.

“The space is a great opportunity for architects to explain the relevance of their profession to the layperson, as a way to engage the public with some of the things architecture means besides buildings as such,” says Stacy Segal, executive director of SAF.

Opened in mid-January, the first exhibit at the Center displays 50 or so architectural models, 3-D, 2-D and digital, from firms across the city as well as from students of various architecture programs. Present in the front window, under butcher-paper, was a model of the new Denny Substation by firm NBBJ.

“The public can come in and see how design happens and what goes on before things are built,” Richmond says.

Later in the year, Fit Nation will focus on health, fitness and active design and Living Small will delve into the downsizing of the urban architectural footprint. Each exhibit will feature ongoing informational presentations as well as scheduled workshops and lectures. Future programming will address urban growth, homelessness and architecture for the blind.

“They’re topical themes relevant to the city, with multiple angles for the general public, families, design professionals and city officials,” says Richmond.

The grand opening of the Center for Architecture & Design is March 5.