If a single sentence could sum up the essence of Robert E. Hull’s architectural practice, it might be: “His designs were all about understanding what a site had to offer.”
Those are the words of David Miller, co-founder with Mr. Hull of The Miller Hull Partnership, and chairman of the architecture department at the University of Washington.
Mr. Hull, a former president of the Seattle Architecture Foundation, died Monday (April 7) at age 68 after complications from a stroke he suffered while on a three-month sabbatical in South Africa.
Miller and Mr. Hull met while studying architecture at Washington State University in the 1960s.
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“Bob was amazingly creative,” Miller said in a phone conversation earlier this week. “He could draw better than anyone in the class — by far. … He could squint at a piece of paper and just draw so intuitively, and have this connection between his hand and the paper.”
That talent helped bring Miller Hull national recognition. In 2003, the firm became the first in Washington state to win the American Institute of Architects’ annual Architecture Firm Award, honoring them for “consistently producing distinguished architecture.”
The award, the highest honor in U.S. architecture, placed Miller Hull in company with I.M. Pei & Partners (designers of the glass-pyramid extension of the Louvre in Paris) and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (designers of the John Hancock Center and the Willis Tower — formerly the Sears Tower — in Chicago). The only other Seattle firm ever to win the award is Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects, in 2009.
Miller Hull also won the AIA Seattle Medal of Honor in 2010.
Mr. Hull, the son of two educators, grew up in Moses Lake. After graduation from WSU in 1968, both he and Miller joined the Peace Corps, Miller going to Brazil and Mr. Hull going to Afghanistan.
“I think we both enjoyed the problem solving, and learning how to do as much as you could with minimal resources,” Miller said of their Peace Corps experiences.
While in Afghanistan, Mr. Hull designed the headquarters for the country’s National Tourism Agency — a building that landed him a job in the New York offices of legendary modernist architect Marcel Breuer.
“One of Breuer’s partners,” Miller said, “saw Bob’s building … and offered Bob a job without even interviewing him.”
Mr. Hull met his wife, Beanne
, in Greece at about the same time, in the early 1970s.
“Beanne was backpacking around Europe,” Mr. Hull’s niece Nasue Nishida said. “They exchanged addresses, which were lost in their travels. Several years later, Bob was at a party in New York and met a South African man. He mentioned to the man how he met a South African woman years before, and the man said he had a cousin who had traveled about then. Lo and behold, his cousin was Beanne Wilson! Bob got her address and started communicating with her.”
The couple were married in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1977 and settled that year in Seattle, where Mr. Hull and Miller formed The Miller Hull Partnership.
Mr. Hull’s attraction to natural materials and sustainable design was a defining characteristic of his architectural practice. His projects included many private homes (“He was the best house architect I’ve ever known,” Miller said) and such public projects as the Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center (“his most iconic building in Seattle,” Miller believes).
Pragmatism and a modernist aesthetic blended with social conscience in Mr. Hull’s work. During his years in Afghanistan, he built more than 100 schools. He recently had returned there to lead the design of a health clinic and a girls’ school there.
“He had a huge heart,” Miller said. “Clients loved working with him, and I did too. It was like a journey or a road trip through the possibilities of landscape and design.”
Their successful decades-long collaboration belied the common wisdom that you shouldn’t go into business with your best friend.
“Because we were such good friends, that was always in the forefront,” Miller said. “We could be honest with each other. We could be critical, in a good way, of each other’s design work. There was never any hostility. There were never bad words.”
Mr. Hull’s activities outside work included hiking, bicycling and the home design and construction projects that he and his wife embarked on together, his niece said. She added that he was an avid reader and “so, so good at Scrabble. … You could not beat the guy.”
She summed up his personality as “a combination of a lot of different things … definitely gregarious and definitely motivated. … He never did anything half-assed. It was 100 miles an hour all the way. He was thoughtful, but he really could weigh through things and get to an answer pretty quickly.”
She added that his sense of humor was one of the best things about him: “He was super quick, very witty. He could be very serious about the things that he did, and he did them very well. And he could also make light in a situation, and not take himself or anybody else too seriously.”
Mr. Hull is survived by his wife, Beanne; their sons David and Daniel; his sisters Nancy Nishida and Linda Hatch; nieces Nasue Nishida and Lisa Steele and nephews Eric Hull and Kai Nishida. He was preceded in death by his brother, Richard Hull, and niece Blythe, who died in a car accident in 1969.
Details of a Seattle celebration of Mr. Hull’s life are being arranged.
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com