The Lasting Impact of Seattle's World's Fair Architects

Design at the 1962 World's Fair brought its architects acclaim well beyond the Seattle Center ground

Most Seattleites walk or drive past the Space Needle and the other major buildings at Seattle Center without giving much thought to who designed them. But these structures, including KeyArena and the Pacific Science Center, are the lasting architectural legacy of the Century 21 Exposition, better known as the Seattle World’s Fair. In 1962, some of the Northwest’s most important architects—Paul Thiry, Paul Kirk, John Graham Jr. and others—came together, along with University of Washington alum Minoru Yamasaki, to present what Thiry called “a world within a world.”

With the exception of architecture groupies and history geeks, however, most Seattleites know very little about the people who made the World’s Fair spaces, what they were hoping to achieve and the other structures they went on to design. As we mark the 50th anniversary of the World’s Fair, we shine the spotlight on its space-age architectural legacy.

Victor Steinbrueck

Of all the contributors to World’s Fair architecture, Victor Steinbrueck probably has the most name recognition, if only because a park next to Pike Place Market bears his name. But Steinbrueck made a crucial contribution to something most of us see every day: the Space Needle’s arced legs. The design for the Needle started out like a Tootsie Pop, a quick sketch doodled by Seattle hotelier Eddie Carlson, the chair of the commission planning the fair, who thought the event needed an over-the-top symbol to match the grandiose “Century 21” name and its “man in space” theme. Engineers, however, worried that a ball on a stick would topple over in an earthquake. A 1935 graduate of the UW’s architecture program, Steinbrueck solved the stability problem with three columns pinched about halfway up, a shape local historian Walt Crowley labeled “wasp-waisted.” But Steinbrueck didn’t earn his place in Seattle’s pantheon until almost a decade later, when he fought to preserve Pike Place Market from demolition. In many ways, it was Steinbrueck who begat the Seattle icons recognizable to people from outside city: the charming, European-style Market and the graceful upward sweep of the Space Needle.

Space Needle designer John Graham Jr. also designed the towers of the Washington Plaza (now Westin) Hotel. The first went up in 1969, the second in 1982.
Credit: UW Libraries, Special Collections, MPH222

John Graham Jr.

Seattle residential architect John Ridley had a hand in the Space Needle’s final look (primarily the “double decker” effect of the crown), but top billing for the Space Needle design goes to local architect John Graham Jr., who was also the first American to design and patent a rotating restaurant. (He filed U.S. patent number 3125189 in 1961—using drawings for the Space Needle’s Eye of the Needle restaurant to illustrate the design—and was awarded the patent in 1964.) This wasn’t his first revolving restaurant. Graham had previously built one—the first in America—atop the Ala Moana shopping center in Honolulu. After the success of the Space Needle, Graham’s buildings tended to soar skyward, including several high-rises now integral to downtown Seattle. His firm designed the funky “hair curler” tower for 1969’s Washington Plaza Hotel (now the Westin Hotel), adding its twin tower in 1982; the 37-story Henry M. Jackson Federal Building (1974); the Bank of California Building (1974); and the Sheraton Seattle Hotel and Towers (1982).

Graham is also remembered (for better or worse) for inventing the suburban shopping mall. He designed Northgate—which opened in 1950 and is notable for being the first American shopping center called a “mall”—as two long rows of stores with entrances facing each other, connected by a covered pedestrian walkway. The World’s Fair’s principal architect, Paul Thiry, incorporated the inward focus of Graham’s shopping mall concept when designing the grounds.


Paul Thiry's penchant for remarkable roofs is evident in the Colieum, 1962, and other local icons such as the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, 1961 (below right).
Credit: MOHAI, 1986.5.8131 (top); Daniel Spils (right)

Paul Thiry
Paul Thiry’s vision for the fair drew from more than 30 years of experience. A 1928 graduate of the University of Washington, Thiry visited the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair and was inspired by the new architectural ideas he saw there (primarily: form should follow function). In 1934, he traveled extensively in Japan and Europe, where he met globally influential architects Antonin Raymond and Le Corbusier. He merged ideas from abroad with what he had seen in Chicago and started building homes in the “International style,” which emphasized simple, cube-like forms, a lack of ornamentation, flat roofs and long banks of windows.

Thiry’s embrace of this style in the late 1930s—well before midcentury modern became all the rage—earned him his colloquial title as the “father of Northwest modernism.” But the World’s Fair planners likely hired Thiry for his experience designing campuses; he had managed projects at the UW, Washington State University, and the Capitol campus in Olympia. He had also designed museums and public buildings: the Frye Art Museum and the Museum of History & Industry in Seattle (both of which have been heavily remodeled since), and the Washington State Library on the Capitol campus.

Many of the futuristic-looking buildings Thiry designed for the fair were destroyed immediately afterward, including the egg-shaped Nalley’s Fine Food Pavilion and the golf-ball-roofed Ford Motor Company Pavilion. The architect seems to have had a thing for unusual roofs, which can still be seen today in local buildings such as the St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church (1962) in the Montlake neighborhood, the Mercer Island Presbyterian Church (1961) and the Agnes Flanagan Chapel at Lewis & Clark College in Portland (1972). One of Thiry’s early World’s Fair ideas, in fact, was to suspend a roof over all 74 acres of the grounds. But his most famous roof was also one of his most controversial—the Washington State Coliseum (now remodeled and known as KeyArena), which he designed as a centerpiece of the World’s Fair. His use of huge concrete buttresses upholding a roof with no interior supports were extremely radical for the day. A critic at the time, James T. Burns Jr., called it “quite disturbing—even annoying,” although he said the coliseum’s interior was “breathtaking.”

Thiry’s love of soaring concrete was also evident in a Normandy Park house he built in 1962. The home featured enormous cantilevered concrete supports suspending it out over Puget Sound, and gained media attention in 2010 when it was put up for sale for $1 (the buyer would’ve had to pay to move it elsewhere). With no takers, it was torn down.


Paul Hayden Kirk's love o clean lines is seen in his Playhoue, 1962 (now Intiman Theatre), and University Unitarian Chruch, 1959 (below right)
Credit: UW Libraries, Special Collections, SEA0429 & DM2599

Paul Hayden Kirk

Also integral to the World’s Fair team was Paul Hayden Kirk—a UW architecture grad and master of regional modernism—who, in the 1950s, earned national press for designing many impressive local homes in the International style. For the World’s Fair, Kirk conceived the Playhouse (now Intiman Theatre) and the sawtooth-roofed Fine Arts Pavilion (which now houses Exhibition Hall downstairs, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet offices and studios upstairs). Kirk’s penchant for long rows of bold parallel lines can be seen in his other local work from the same time period, including the University Unitarian Church in the U District (1959) and Seattle Public Library’s Magnolia branch (1964).


Minoru Yamasaki
Minoru Yamasaki, a Seattle native based in Detroit at the time, was one of only two architects from outside of Seattle brought on to the World’s Fair team. (The other was San Francisco-based landscape architect Lawrence Halprin, who designed the fair’s master landscaping plan and later, Seattle’s Freeway Park.) Yamasaki designed the United States Science Pavilion, now the Pacific Science Center. No one created an insulated space better than Yamasaki, who took inspiration from the serene homes and inns of Japan. Writing in his 1979 autobiography, he remembers “the combined feeling of peace and pleasure, [which] seemed to envelop us at once” as he entered a Japanese restaurant. Jeffrey Ochsner, a professor at the UW school of architecture, says Yamasaki was also influenced by a trip to Venice in the late 1950s and the Gothic tracery in the city’s medieval buildings.

These forces coalesced in Yamasaki’s Science Pavilion. Six exhibit halls, painted white and adorned with simplified tracery in parallel lines close together, enclose large pools of flowing water crowned with five arches that resemble the vaults of cathedrals. People called the pavilion a temple to science and technology. “It created a wonderful, contemplative space,” remembers local architect Bill Bain, who worked with Yamasaki. Observers labeled the style “space Gothic,” a term Yamasaki rejected. (After all, the arches are rounded, rather than pointed.) “The narrow, strongly vertical look becomes a motif in his architecture after the late ‘50s,” Ochsner says of the look that is clear in Yamasaki’s other Seattle buildings, the Rainier Square Tower (with its “golf tee” base; 1977) and the IBM Building (1964), both downtown. But it was the Science Pavilion that brought Yamasaki to the attention of New York’s World Trade Center planners. The Twin Towers—whose structural system was derived from the IBM Building—were by far his most famous work, destroyed in the 9/11 tragedy.


The U.S. Science Pavilion, 1962 (now the Pacific Science Center), by Seattle Center architect Minoru Yamasaki
Credit: UW Libraries, Special Collections, SEA3221

The Future

By the time the fair closed
, nearly 10 million people had experienced the 21st century, as imagined by mid-20th-century Seattleites. Most cultural critics blessed the event (although commentator Alistair Cooke, the future host of PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre, called the expo “a trade fair overlaid with Coney Island”). The fair made money—a rare accomplishment in the history of world’s fairs—and the planners left behind public buildings still in daily use. Besides KeyArena and the Pacific Science Center, the Exhibition Hall and the Food Circus (long known as the Center House) have survived largely intact. The International Fountain (designed by Hideki Shimizu and Kazuyuki Matsushita, winners of an international contest held by the City of Seattle) still draws thousands.

Thanks to the fair’s insular design, however, city planners are still figuring out how to make the grounds more inviting to the general public (beyond once-a-year events such as the Folklife Festival and Bumbershoot). In the original World’s Fair design, the grounds were enclosed (by walls in some places, buildings in others). Ochsner says many alterations have opened up the site (including the Denny Way entrance to the Pacific Science Center, and McCaw Hall’s Mercer Street entrance and large plaza). But a few original design features (such as the back side of the Northwest Rooms) remain as imposing walls. “We’re still faced with how to take a site that’s inwardly focused and turn it into a place that looks outward,” says Ochsner.

Fifty years later, the space continues to evolve. Frank Gehry drastically changed the landscape with his shining and lumpy Experience Music Project in 2000. The previously awkward corridor between the Seattle Repertory Theatre and Exhibition Hall has been opened up into a pleasant plaza. The Center House is undergoing a massive makeover—adding local food purveyors and outdoor seating, and a new name, The Armory. The Thiry-designed buildings that once held the Canada, Denmark and United Arab Republic pavilions, until recently known as the Northwest Rooms, now house (respectively) all-ages music venue The Vera Project, a new screening venue for the Seattle International Film Festival and in the next year or two, will welcome independent radio station KEXP and a proposed accompanying concert space. Not to mention the gigantic new addition to the grounds: Chihuly Garden and Glass, in the space formerly known as the Fun Forest (previously the fair’s Gayway), set to open this spring. And the Seattle branch of the American Institute of Architects is currently holding a design competition, “Urban Intervention,” to determine what to do with the 9-acre space currently occupied by the soon to be demolished Memorial Stadium (the winning design will be announced in May).

Given all the changes afoot, by the time the fair’s 75th anniversary comes around, the grounds may very well be once again bustling—and Seattle Center will be looking toward a whole new future.


Additional reporting by Brangien Davis.

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Are High-Rise Wood Buildings in Seattle's Future?

Is Seattle ready for high-rises built of wood after 80 years of concrete-and-steel buildings?

When architect Joe Mayo walks into his office, he’s steeped in Seattle history. Mahlum Architects is located in Pioneer Square’s 1910 Polson Building, which served as a warehouse for gold mining equipment during the Klondike Gold Rush. Over the past 100 years, the building has also housed offices and artists’ lofts, and survived two arson fires. So it’s remarkable to see the original old-growth Douglas fir columns still rising from the floor and spanning the ceilings. “It creates a pretty amazing environment,” says Mayo.

Large buildings framed with wood from big trees were commonplace in Seattle and in other parts of the country in the early 1900s. But changing building codes and diminishing availability of large timber put an end to this style. Today, wood buildings are usually one- or two-story houses, while our apartments, hotels and office buildings are nearly all built from concrete and steel. The six-story Bullitt Center on Capitol Hill, which opened in 2013, is the first mid-rise building in Seattle constructed of wood in the past 80 years.

With the advent of a new wood building material called cross-laminated timber (CLT), it might one day become one of many such structures. Proponents say the benefits of building with CLT could be significant. CLT can be used to create buildings that are as tall as 30 stories (and beyond, some architects say) that are better for the environment and aesthetically pleasing, and can be quickly built, help create jobs in economically depressed regional timber towns and are as long-lasting as other buildings. Some research even suggests that wooden buildings offer health benefits for occupants.

Mayo says the material makes sense for our region. “Architecture should feel like it’s a part of a place,” he says. “We’re in the great Northwest, with some of the tallest trees in the world and the best timber in the country, and we have a long history of building with wood.”

But while building codes in Europe and in some other countries have changed to embrace the new material, and CLT buildings as tall as 10 stories are in use in Australia and London, U.S. building codes lag behind. Seattle recently became the first city to allow the use of CLT in construction, but that use is currently limited to five stories for residential buildings and six stories for office buildings.

“The City is open to proposals on larger buildings, but we do have to verify that fire safety and seismic issues have been addressed in the designs,” says Bryan Stevens, spokesperson for the City of Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections. That’s because, while these issues have been resolved for buildings in other parts of the world, the U.S. requires domestic testing if building codes are to change.

Washington State University is one participant in a multi-institutional program with the National Science Foundation and the Network of Earthquake Engineering Simulation that is testing how mass timber systems like CLT fare in earthquakes. Hans-Erik Blomgren, a structural engineer in the Seattle offices of the international engineering firm Arup who is a participant in the research program, believes engineers can solve this puzzle. “There’s no technical reason we shouldn’t be designing a building with this material,” he says.

U.S. fire codes have also long prevented the use of combustible materials such as wood in mid- and high-rise buildings, but engineers say code changes to allow for the use of CLT are also achievable. To understand how resistant to fire large pieces of wood can be, proponents suggest thinking of how hard it is to start a bonfire with really big pieces of wood. Not only are such pieces hard to light, but they burn slowly.

In theory, developers could propose larger CLT buildings before codes are changed, but they would have to invest time, money and coordination to get this new building type through Seattle’s Department of Construction and Inspections, with no guarantee that their designs would be approved. “It takes a very special project and specific client and certainly a very ambitious design team to take it on,” says Mayo.

Unless that client steps forward, builders will be waiting for the International Code Council (ICC) to work through the fire and earthquake issues and develop the necessary code changes before mid-rise and higher CLT buildings spring up in the city. 

“We know there’s been a lot of interest in this construction type,” says Stevens, “so we’re trying to be responsive to the demand without giving up safety.”

As with so many innovations, another problem for developers is that material costs for CLT can be high because there are so few North American CLT manufacturers. Developers wait for the price to go down, but manufacturers need more demand for a product. To alleviate this problem, some businesses and legislators are working to help bring CLT mills to Washington state. An Oregon lumber company, D.R. Johnson Lumber, in Riddle, Oregon, recently became the first certified manufacturer of CLT for construction material in the U.S.

Clt was developed in the 1990s by researchers in Austria and Germany who were looking for a use for pieces of surplus wood. The material is created by layering smaller pieces of wood together into a kind of sandwich that offers the strength and insulation found in the massive timbers of the past, and that can be used for the walls, floors, roof beams and posts that make up a building. 

One of the most touted aspects of this material is its role in fighting carbon emissions. Trees absorb carbon and use energy from the sun to grow, which makes them a lower carbon choice than concrete or steel, which not only don’t absorb carbon, but require much more carbon-emitting energy to manufacture. Trees are also a renewable resource, as long as they are harvested from a sustainably managed forest. And CLT can be made from otherwise underused or damaged woods, such as the vast forests of domestic pine that have been killed by mountain pine beetles.

Another selling point, particularly in urban areas, is that CLT panels are prefabricated—bring them to the building site, and your building goes up quickly, with less noise, pollution and traffic delays than with other materials. The eight CLT stories of London’s nine-story Murray Grove apartment building went up in nine weeks.

But building with CLT is not all about practical considerations, says Susan Jones, who owns the Seattle architecture firm Atelierjones and designed her family’s home as the first (and so far only) CLT home in Seattle’s Madison Valley in 2015. The material itself—in the case of her house, CLT primarily from white pine and left unpainted—is a sensual pleasure, from the quality and patina of the wood to the subtle pine smell in the house.

“It’s been incredibly satisfying to live with it,” Jones says. “That’s what architects are asked to do—we create beautiful spaces for people. What’s better than to immerse yourself into this incredibly rich natural environment of wood?”

Here in Washington, there’s enough raw material to immerse us all in that environment. But only a handful of projects in the state have used the material so far—for example, in Jones’ CLT house, in the walls of the Bellevue First Congregational Church sanctuary designed by Atelierjones and on a building project at Washington State University in Pullman. In Oregon, Joe Mayo recently worked on the design for what is to be the first use of U.S.-made CLT on a two-story building project, using panels manufactured by Oregon’s D.R. Johnson.

There are a few other regional CLT building projects in the design process now. In June, Washington state granted design-build contracts to several architects, including Susan Jones of Atelierjones and Joe Mayo of Mahlum, for 900-square-foot classrooms at several elementary schools in western Washington, to be constructed by the end of 2017. 

Another building, Framework, a 12-story building with retail, offices, and housing in Portland, Oregon, is currently in the design process, after a team, which includes Blomgren as its fire and earthquake CLT engineering specialist, won a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tall wood building competition created to encourage innovation with the material. Winners for 2015, including the Portland team and a team in New York City, each received $1.5 million for the research and development phase of creating buildings using CLT and other engineered wood materials.

At the University of Washington, associate professor of architecture Kate Simonen is leading another USDA-funded study to determine the relative environmental impact of using mass timber in commercial office buildings in Seattle, which follows on other studies indicating that this kind of building will have a lower carbon footprint than other building materials. 

While she’s cautious about reaching premature conclusions in her study, Simonen thinks it might not be a bad idea to start working now to get the structures built in our region. 

“We don’t have all the answers now, but in order to get those answers we need to help lead innovation,” she says. “It makes sense to take some risks in our region to advance a building material that supports our region.”