100 Years of Seattle Modernism


By Sean Meyers April 3, 2023

Ignatius Church

This article originally appeared in the March/April 2023 issue of Seattle Magazine.

Modernism is a 20th-century style roughly defined by the National Trust for Historic Preservation as encompassing “individual design movements that expressed modern ideals in different ways. Technical innovation, experimentation, and rethinking the way humans lived in and used the designed environment, whether buildings or landscapes.”

Frank Lloyd Wright launched his firm in Chicago in 1893, but the first modern residences, a reaction to a demand for economical housing, didn’t begin showing up until the 1930s.

The Depression was the death of numerous established architectural firms in Seattle, giving rise to a younger generation, many of them University of Washington graduates who would drive the post-World War II Modernism movement. The Space Needle is a raised torch to modern architecture, but the city has much more to offer under its shadow. “Seattle’s strongest architectural and design examples embrace our environment and context at a deep, fundamental level,” says Seattle architect Eric Cobb, who launched one of the top design firms in the Northwest in 1994. “And we have had some heavy hitters make a difference here.”

Here are some of those:

Ignatius Church

Photograph by Paul Warchol

Chapel of St. Ignatius
Seattle University campus,
Steven Holl Architects.

New York-based Holl called this “seven bottles of light in a stone box.” Rooftop volumes (geometric constructions that harvest light from different directions) harvest daylight that is refracted through color baffles and lenses and distributed to the interior. At night, the process is reversed, and the church becomes a color light generator. Last year, the American Institute of Architects awarded the project its 25-year national award for continuing to set standards of excellence.








O+K Water Cabin

Photo by Aaron Leitz

Water Cabin
Portage Bay,
Jim Olson, Olson Kundig.

Designed to establish a cabin sensibility in an urban environment, the horizontal lines of Water Cabin echo the flat plane of the eastern part of Lake Union in an effort to make it one with the site. The restrained color palette also helps the 1,580-square-foot house to fit quietly into its surroundings.







Freeway Park

Photo by Aaron Leitz

Jim Ellis Freeway Park
700 Seneca St.
Lawrence Halprin & Associates/Angela Danadjieva, lead designer.

The 5.2-acre park was the first in the world to be built over a freeway and was intended to heal the scar created by the recent completion of I-5 and to reestablish contact between downtown and the Seattle Convention Center. It is an example of “brutalist architecture,” a descendant of the modern movement that emphasizes utilitarian, monochrome, geometric, minimalist construction. Recently named to the National Register of Historic Places and the world’s second-best parkour location.










FLW Tracy House

Photo by Andrew van Leeuwen

William B. Tracy House
18971 Edgecliff Drive, Normandy Park.
Frank Lloyd Wright.

One of just five Wright structures in the Pacific Northwest, the Tracy home is a stunning example of Wright’s Usonian Automatic style. With no attics or basements, the low-cost structures featured versatile modular blocks and were designed to create seamless flow between nature, the home, and its interior.





Hunts Point residence, Jeff Wright, owner. Hunts Point, Washington.

Photo by Benjamin Benschneider

Courtyard Houses Numerous locations.
Roland Terry & Associates.

Roland Terry, an architect from the 1950s to the 1990s, was a primary driver in the development of a Northwest style of post-war modernism, including numerous local projects in the style of the Washington Courtyard House (1960). It featured two storied masses bisected by a pavilion, waterfalls, rest nooks, and extensive glazing.








Olympic Park

Photo by Lara Swimmer

Olympic Sculpture Park
2901 Western Ave.

Envisioned as a new urban model for sculpture parks, this nine-acre plot, formerly a brownfield industrial site, is Seattle’s largest downtown green space. Operated by Seattle Art Museum, the free-admission park features modern and contemporary sculpture, some of which rotates.








Kirk Unitarian Church Interior

Photo by Andrew van Leeuwen

University Unitarian Church
6556 35th Ave. N.E.
Paul Hayden Kirk & Associates.

A builders’ architect, Kirk established his reputation in residential construction. The church, with a hefty $250,000 price tag, was one of his earliest large-scale projects, and highlighted the beauty of cedar shingles, shiplap, clapboard, and other common Northwest materials, drawing widespread praise for its delicate wooden modernism and remarkably slender structural timbers.






Floating Home

Photo by Steve Keating

Floating Home
Lake Union. Jacek Mrugala,
E. Cobb Architects

Most floating homes are built on-site, a great challenge because plumb bobs and levels are useless on the water. Floating Home was prefabricated in Port Townsend and tugged to its mooring. Concrete and Styrofoam systems have replaced giant logs as preferred, but still imperfect, flotation systems.

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