Built-In Beauty

Seattle Architecture Foundation - Smith Tower

Seattle Architecture Foundation - Smith Tower

The Smith Tower celebrated its 100th birthday earlier this month, and to mark the architectural anniversary visitors were able to enjoy the Tower’s Chinese Room and the vistas from the Observation Deck for the original admission price collected in 1914—a budget-busting 25 cents.

Of course, Smith Tower is always just “there,” part of the ever-present scenery of daily life in downtown Seattle. Maybe on your checklist of show-off-the-city items for visitors. But try for a moment to ignore the familiarity of icons like this.

Because architecture is so integrated into our everyday patterns, it’s easy to take the urban landscape for granted—buildings, facades, interiors, walkways, skylines—yet at the same time they profoundly influence the way we experience those everyday patterns, at however unconscious a level.

It’s the mission of the Seattle Architecture Foundation (SAF) to “awaken people to these influences and increase the public’s awareness and appreciation of design in the built environment.” To that end, SAF is currently offering a baker’s dozen of walking tours both downtown and in a variety of other neighborhoods, each conducted by members of their reserve of highly trained tour guides.

Founded in 1982, SAF operates from its headquarters in the Rainier Building (for now, until the University of Washington reclaims this valuable segment of downtown real estate later this year); the annual budget is $200,000, with a full-time staff of 2.5.

In addition to its walking tours, SAF presents lectures and special events like open houses at significant buildings and exhibits that are discounted for members. There’s also a series of specially tailored youth and family programs.

This is the high tide of SAF’s touring season, which schedules its tours at varying frequencies Thursdays through Saturdays until mid-December each year. You might want to start with the big picture of downtown Seattle (“Greatest Hits: Chart Toppers and Heart-Stoppers”) or opt for a close-up on the interface between engineering and embellishments in “Design Details: Lions, Griffins, & Walruses, Oh My!”—another chance to pay homage to Smith Tower. You can even focus on a particular period and architectural style (“Diamonds & Gold: The Art Deco Skyscraper Northwest Style”).

Meanwhile, SAF brings its focus to particular neighborhoods: Capitol Hill’s Harvard-Belmont residential district, Queen Anne’s hilltop vista, and the University District (“”From Gothic to Modern at the UW Core”) are part of the repertoire of community tours.

All told, SAF works with a staff of some 50 tour guides, all of them volunteers. According to Stacy Segal, Executive Director of SAF, the guides represent “a blend of architects, teachers, interior designers, engineers, and design-interested public.” All of them undergo a rigorous training program that includes being mentored for a year by others at SAF before they are given the green light to lead tours on their own.

And the resulting quality is delightfully obvious, as I discovered while going on two recent tours: the downtown “greatest hits” blockbuster and an exploration of Pike/Pine, one of Seattle’s most dramatic examples right now of a rapidly altering urban landscape.

Karen Whitney, a mentor and once a part of the tour planning committee, shares duties with Greg Zwisler (a Dan Savage doppelgänger) on the Saturday morning I see them at work leading the Pike/Pine tour.

It’s one thing to put up with the blocked sidewalks and detour walkarounds while negotiating Capitol Hill. But what’s usually a source of annoyance suddenly becomes fascinating when Zwisler puts it in historical perspective: he points out that the growth spurts happening nowadays actually pale beside the boom underway a century ago. In 1900 the total populationwas just above 80,000; by 1920 the boom reached 315,313.

Whitney and Zwisler draw the group’s attention to the emergence of the auto industry as a major force in those years, which made Capitol Hill into a Northwest epicenter for the business. We then explore some of the varied ways architects and planners have been refashioning the historic Auto Row showrooms into new urban spaces for living and business.

Abstract concepts like “incentivized conservation” come to life when the guides point to concrete examples of design features that win financial advantages for retaining aspects of the original external structure. Cities are natural palimpsests in this way, with layers of an earlier era often “written over” to create spaces for the needs of today. But it’s astonishing to realize the different ways in which a sense of a preceding structure’s “character” can be cleverly incorporated into its heir.

Why devote all this energy to volunteering to lead a SAF tour? “It combines my Seattle-native pride, interests in design and history, and the great fun of connecting with the interesting kind of people—new residents, visitors, and longtime denizens—who come out for an architecture tour on a Saturday morning,” says Zwisler.

There’s a surprising amount of information about our city and its character—not to mention aesthetic pleasure—hiding in plain sight. The really enjoyable aspect of SAF’s tours is how these details are illuminated.

Take the abundance of public spaces and accompanying sculptures that add texture to the urban center. The rather forbidding plaza in front of the IBM Building on Fifth Avenue, designed by Minoru Yamasaki (best-known for his design of the destroyed Twin Towers at the World Trade Center), is often quickly passed by but includes a fountain sculpted by James FitzGerald, whose work appears in several other Seattle locations (including the Intiman courtyard).

As for Yamasaki’s structure—just another landmark of function-centric Modernism? Alice Hammond, the guide leading this section of the big hits tour, remarks on the curious anomaly of the arches at the base, which introduce a suppressed Gothic feel (and a decorative motif supposedly out of sync with the stern, stripped-down aesthetic of the whole).

It’s eye-opening, to be sure, for a sense of our city’s architectural history and preferences—entirely different worldview exist literally side-by-side, connecting completely separate historical eras. Even more, these tours can enhance your understanding of what formed Seattle’s character—and how it may continue to evolve.

And that, too, plays into SAF’s core mission, which includes the conviction that “an architecturally informed population becomes involved in exploring options and is enthusiastic about its choices.” Along these lines, SAF will present the 17th Annual Architectural Model Exhibit In Processat a storefront space near the SAF gallery in Downtown Seattle (407 Union St.) from Sept.12 to Oct. 3. The architectural models and designs on display will mostly feature recent work from local architects and students (including, for example, models for current projects in the South Lake Union area).

In Seattle: Then and Now, his book juxtaposing archival photos with current views of the same sites, Seattle native Benjamin Lukoff writes about the continuity that circulates here, despite the city’s reputation as a boom-driven metropolis with too much activity crowded into too short a time to have retained a genuine sense of history: “But a history it plainly does have. It began with the arrival of the Duwamish as many as 9,000 years ago, and traces of the past are visible everywhere…. Seattle’s history is there for the taking—if one only knows where to look.”

A full list of the Seattle Architecture Foundation’s summer and fall tours, along with links to reserving tickets, can be found on the SAF website here.

Photo by Monique Blanchard.