Archive for May, 2018|Monthly archive page

Minoru Yamasaki’s Seattle

American architect Minoru Yamasaki is best known for what doesn’t exist anymore, namely the World Trade Center twin towers and the ill-conceived, ill-fated Pruitt-Igoe public housing in St. Louis. The Seattle-born architect spent most of the professional life in Detroit, and his best work is there, including One Woodward (1962) and the McGregor Memorial Conference Center (1958) on the Wayne State campus, now a National Historic Landmark.

His work in Seattle consists of three buildings, the IBM Building (1963) and Rainier Tower (1977), across from one another in downtown, and the extensive Pacific Science Center (1962), which was designed for the World’s Fair 1962 as the US Science pavillion. These works are all outstanding, and like much of Yamasaki’s work, are best explored up close as there’s a lot of easily missed details behind the Gothic outlines and narrow windows characterizing his work. This is mid-century Modern at its best, less severe than Mies’ version of International Style, with an understated elegance and flair. And the dinosaur statues in the pool are a fun touch, although of course not original.

Let’s start with the Pacific Science Center, it’s a scaled-up version of his DeRoy Auditorium in Detroit, with the bubbling fountains and reflecting pools that are Japanese elements that he incorporated into his work. This building is best known for the free-standing arches the anchor the complex, which has become one of the symbols of Seattle, like the nearby Space Needle.

Downtown are the IBM Building and Rainier Tower. The IBM building (1963) is one of the first major buildings completed downtown after World War II. At 20 stories it used to have a prominent place in the Seattle skyline, but is now dwarfed by many carelessly designed, rapidly erected skyscrapers. It presents a slightly squat profile that has difficulty fitting into the hilly site, with one side of the building disappearing under the street. The real treasure of the building is the diminutive lobby, with an elliptical staircase and some Mies Barcelona chairs that are probably original. The light fixtures in the plaza are a nice treat, echoing the arches at the base. The city’s hilly terrain makes it tough to create an accessible building at ground level, indeed many of the skyscrapers downtown stumble, and this is no exception.

Across the street is probably the most distinctive tower downtown, the Rainier Tower (1977), with a tapering, windowless base that makes the building resemble a tree chewed by a beaver. It contains elements of his 1970s structures, like the World Trade Center and the BOK Tower in Tulsa, the reflective skin shimmers and it’s a well-proportioned skyscraper. But the base is what catches the most attention, up close it is a mosaic of hexagonal tiles lining the base. There used to be an open plaza at ground level, but it has been turned into a massive construction zone with a very questionable tall building rising next door.

With few exceptions, there’s little good architecture in the city, unfortunately, as the breakneck development in the age of Amazon has compromised Seattle’s built environment.