‘Blandmarks,’ not ‘Landmarks:’ Why Seattle architecture falls short


By John Jacobsen April 6, 2023

The Seattle Central Library appears on a list of Americans’ 150 favorite structures.

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

I’m not an architect. I’m not an urban planner. I’m not a developer. I am just a guy who has chosen to live most of his life in Seattle, and I’m disappointed.

I fell in love with the Emerald City while visiting in the early 1990s, so much so that I moved my family from that parking lot called Los Angeles to come here. I loved Pioneer Square, Seattle’s sweet neighborhoods, its trees, trails, and topography, and I loved that Seattle wasn’t driven by money and fame like L.A., but was so beautiful and motivated by livability.

But I fear we can’t say that anymore, given our numerous and well-documented challenges, including the growing number of disappointing buildings being erected in and around our city. I seriously doubt anyone can say with a straight face that Seattle is a city full of beautiful architecture.

Why can’t we design buildings that will last and that are beautiful like in other world-class cities such as Rome, London, Venice, Paris, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Prague, New York, Boston or even Vancouver, B.C.? We sure do tear down a lot of our historical gems around here, and it sure does seem like we’re putting up buildings hastily in their place made of pretty cheap materials. It feels like we’re living and working in the Fast Food Buildings of the computer game SimCity.

I’m not saying everything is ugly. Amazon’s corporate headquarters has become a national tourist attraction. Several structures dating back to the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair stand the test of time. The downtown Seattle library has garnered international acclaim.

Nighttime view of United States Science Pavilion at the Century 21 Exposition (also known as the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair), Seattle, Washington, 1962. Designed by architect Minoru Yamasaki, the buildings were later used as part of the Pacific Science Center. Photo by Lawrence Schiller/Polaris Communications/Getty Images

Those, however, are exceptions. There have been a lot of experts involved over the years in this very discussion, so I’m not the only one pointing out Seattle’s drab and formulaic architecture. Why weren’t these revolutionaries, these superheroes, these visionaries, heard?

Well, in some cases, they were. Noted Seattle architect Victor Steinbrueck, who died in 1985, was instrumental in the creation of Seattle’s first two historic districts, Pioneer Square and Pike Place Market. The city defines historic districts as “the appearance and historical integrity of structures and public spaces within each district are regulated by a citizens board and/or the Landmarks Preservation Board in accordance with processes and criteria established by city ordinance.”

Today, there are six other Historic Districts in Seattle — Columbia City; Harvard-Belmont; International District; Sand Point Naval Air Station; Ballard Avenue; and Fort Lawton. Combined, they have around 400 structures, sites, and objects of significant cultural, architectural, and social importance.

And people fought hard for something else that is important and beautiful in Seattle: our parks. For a relatively small city, Seattle has a lot of public gardens, including Olympic Sculpture Park, which meticulously concentrates art, practicality, and nature in one site in downtown Seattle, and Discovery Park, a 534-acre natural park that is the largest in Seattle. It is a treasure of green spaces, natural shoreline, and paved and rough trails. Other notable parks include Green Lake, the Arboretum, Gas Works, Seward Park, and many more.

Parks are important because they play a vital role in the social, economic and environmental well-being of a city. They improve our physical and psychological health, strengthen our communities, and make our cities attractive places to live and work.

They didn’t happen by accident. They happened by design, as does all building in a city. Nothing built in a city is by accident. When, as a young city, Seattle had the advantage of looking back throughout history at the great cities, why didn’t we learn from these and work to create one of the most beautiful municipalities?

Victor’s Steinbrueck’s son, Peter, is also an architect, a Seattle Port commissioner, and a former Seattle City council member. He says developers have too much power and notes that the only oversight is the city’s Planning Commission.

“I look at the city as a whole, and ultimately, when it comes to city planning, profit and politics triumph,” he notes. “We are totally market driven, and developers contribute substantially to politicians’ campaigns, so the city is pro-development. The city caves because developers’ lawyers are at every single (design) meeting.”

“We have a lot of terrific things happening in our city, and an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how to make a beautiful future.”

One of those lawyers, Jack McCullough, is the go-to guy for major developers here, including one of the most prolific for decades, Martin Selig.

“We need a process that is friendly for capital investment but not make it so friendly that they (developers) can do whatever they want to,” McCullough says. “Design restrictions can blow the budget and make the project less affordable. Ultimately, it is the money that is speaking, not the developer. I don’t want you to feel sorry for them, but they often feel they are being pushed in the design process toward greater expense and then are being pushed on the other side by trying to find investment.”

Fair enough, but there must be some constraints, or we will truly ruin our great city. There are simply too many “blandmarks” and not enough “landmarks.”

“We should all be designing for the future we want,” says architect Mark Reddington, a partner at Seattle’s LMN Architects, which has overseen some of Seattle’s beautiful and significant projects, including the Seattle Convention Summit Building, the new Seattle Aquarium Ocean Pavilion, Benaroya Hall, and McCaw Hall. “Every building has a responsibility to enrich the experience of the public realm and a more specific and openly discussed ambition for Seattle might create a stronger, more cohesive, and unique version for Seattle. We have a lot of terrific things happening in our city, and an opportunity to demonstrate to the world how to make a beautiful future.”

The living wall in the Amazon Spheres features more than 25,000 plants.

Photograph by Stuart Isett

He is right. Seattle does have a lot of terrific stuff here, besides just our parks, including great architects and even some great developers. Look at the work of Kevin Daniels, who was just awarded The Washington Trust for Historic Preservation Honor Award. He did the King Street Station, the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, the Seminary at St. Edward State Park, The Sanctuary Seattle, the Starbucks Center, plus numerous completely new structures like The Mark, The Gridiron, and Stadium Place.

For a building to be good, it must be beautiful. Why? Because beauty in architecture brings us exhilaration and joy. Our love of beauty and our desire of a good life dance together in our architecture. The buildings we admire are ultimately those that extol the values we think worthwhile — that refer, whether through materials, shapes or colors, to such vital qualities as engaging, expressive, welcoming, intelligent, ambitious, and pleasing.

Vitruvius, the Roman architect and engineer during the 1st century BC, is known mainly because of his famous 10-volume work, On Architecture. He identified three elements necessary for a well-designed building: firmitas, utilitas, and venustas. Firmness or physical strength secured the building’s structural integrity. Utility provided an efficient arrangement of spaces and mechanical systems to meet the functional needs of its occupants. And venustas, the aesthetic quality associated with the goddess Venus, imparted style, proportion, and visual beauty.

Rendered memorably into English by Henry Wotton, a 17th century translator, “firmness, commodity, and delight” remain the essential components of all successful architectural design. How many current architects were taught Vitruvius?

Without a doubt, some variation on this statement, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” will rear its head in this debate over architectural design. It’s put forth as if to say, “There’s no objective measure of aesthetic value, so why even bother arguing about it?” Therefore, you can’t legislate beauty and thus, no discussion of aesthetics. I fear this is unfortunately how our design review boards have been boxed in, perhaps by attorneys, to view beauty discussions.

But we must discuss what is beautiful. We must not succumb to agreeing that each of our tastes are right because, I’m sorry, some things are without a doubt beautiful, like the gorgeous Moorish-style Royal Alcázar in Seville or the Palace of Versailles or the Jefferson Memorial or the Glass House by Philip Johnson or the Taj Mahal, and some things are just ugly, like 7-Elevens.

Beauty aspires beyond mortality and gives meaning to our lives. Beauty stops us all in our tracks. It inspires, uplifts, and excites. The world we surround ourselves with has the power to shape our thoughts and emotions, and when people are pummeled on all sides by ugliness, they are unhappy without even knowing why.

But beauty is essential. Our city must do better for people.

Creating beautiful cities takes partnerships. It takes investors working with developers working with citizens working with architects working with review boards exploring, discussing, arguing, and fighting with beauty as, at the very least, an equal to function and cost. Because when function and cost alone become the driving forces to everything we build, then we might as well live in Los Angeles. And I don’t think any of us want that.

We should wake up every day in Seattle inspired not only by the stunning natural beauty of the Northwest, but also by the amazing herculean beauty that we ourselves have conceived. We can and must create this, like all those great cities that have come before us.

Read more about Seattle’s architectural history here.

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