Our city’s most beautiful buildings speak to who, and where, we are.

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EVERYONE’S A PHOTOGRAPHER on the bow of the Bainbridge ferry. Steadying on gentle crests, corralling windward hair, directing posers along the rails … all assembling that one quintessential Seattle shot: lanky Space Needle/Smith Tower bookends, shadowy jagged backdrop, Elliott Bay rippling full-frame like a rhythmic gymnast’s sea-gray ribbon.

We are not out here because it’s ugly.

Instinctively, scientifically, we are drawn to beauty, and our singular skyline — seemingly morphing with every crossing — is stunningly, gloriously, possibly universally beautiful.

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20th Annual Architectural Model Exhibit: ‘Resurgence’

In a time of intense cultural and social change, “Resurgence” challenges designers to explore the ways in which their work intersects with the growth of grass-roots and community movements; the changing conceptions of what cities can be and do; and renewed interest in formerly neglected places, spaces and ideas. When: Sept. 14-Nov. 18

Where: Center for Architecture & Design, 1010 Western Ave., Seattle

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When: Sept. 9-22

Where: Throughout Seattle; check the program at designinpublic.org.

Both events are free and open to the public.

Tourists recognize it. Advertisers capitalize on it. We are luckier. We get to feel it.

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“From Alki, I experience the skyline a lot,” says architectural consultant, educator and author Barbara Erwine, who lives in West Seattle. “If we were to picture ‘home’ in the city, that’s an over-encompassing picture. When I travel, I take postcards with pictures: ‘This is where I come from.’ It’s the skyline and nature that convey, ‘This is Seattle.’ As individual citizens, we hold that — that’s our city.”

RELATED: We asked local architects, interior designers and readers to share their votes for downtown Seattle’s most beautiful building

But ask individual citizens to identify our most beautiful building (we did; see accompanying story), and you’ll get a Cascadian range of responses. It’s the iconically arched Pacific Science Center. No — wait. It’s the terra-cotta-walrus-adorned Arctic Building. Or the artfully functional form of Fire Station 10.

In defense of each, you’ll hear age-old architectural tenets: material, texture, color, composition, scale, proportion. All relevant, of course (that’s why they’re tenets!), but you’ll also hear something much more personal: nostalgia, inspiration, connection, emotion.

Erwine calls less-textbooky elements like these “the architecture of the invisible” (also the subtitle of her new book, “Creating Sensory Spaces,” which explores “the deep sense of place that emerges when all the senses are engaged”).

“Beauty relates to a sense of space, beyond a building as an object,” she says. From this perspective, every building everyone suggested very well could be the most beautiful in Seattle’s photogenic skyline.

Maybe, then, beauty is in the eye of the beholder — and, in many respects, we all share a vision. Maybe beauty lives in buildings that speak to us, individually and collectively, through our experiences. Maybe, our most beautiful buildings most eloquently reflect who, and where, we are.

 

WE ARE LUCKY.

IF THERE IS one benefit to our modern Seattle “commute” — and by that, we certainly don’t mean to imply actual movement — it is the observational opportunity afforded by our shared “stuck-ness”: stuck on a stuffed bus, stuck in our idling cars, stuck at an eternal “don’t walk” crosswalk waiting for stuffed buses and idling cars.

While we’re stuck, we get to look around: at eye level, at sky level, at street level. At this personal scale, our magnificent macro skyline refocuses into awe-worthy components — buildings and spaces that, at their best, articulate both “Seattle” and “beautiful.”

 

Take in details and panoramas, textures and contrast, our past and our future. Take your time; there’s a lot.

“People don’t always think of architecture when they come to Seattle, but they’re mistaken,” says Stacy Segal, executive director of the Seattle Architecture Foundation. “Seattle is a huge design city, and our downtown core reflects that. There’s a mix of style: cutting-edge designs, contemporary mixed in with historic. When you first walk downtown, you might not notice any of it. When I first moved here 12 years ago from Chicago, I didn’t get any nuances. It’s very different from a large, old city. But over time, I have much more appreciation for our architecture and the forces that have shaped our downtown.”

SAF exists for that very reason, Segal says: to increase public awareness, and appreciation, of design in our built environment. Because it matters.

“We believe that design has the power to change lives,” she says. “If people know more, and interact with it, they can change their communities. You’ll learn why something was built, the time it was built and the social forces. With knowledge creates our shared, best city.”

Though Segal typically doesn’t lead SAF’s popular walking tours (attended mainly by locals, she reports), she happily agreed to put together a “highlight reel” tour for our beauty-conscious group: Erwine; architect Dale Alberda, a principal at NBBJ; Seattle Times photographer Steve Ringman; and me.

We covered a few miles and a dozen or so beautiful buildings — some ornamental, some iconic, some modern, and all meaningful.

 

WE ARE ADVENTURERS.

Seattle’s pioneering spirit might have been considerably more literal early on, but it certainly set a lasting, powerful foundation for who we are today — and for the architecture we’ve embraced along the way.

“Imagine the boldness to build a city here: what the land was like, the slough; they had to work hard to make this livable,” says Alberda, who’s leading NBBJ’s design of Amazon’s innovative and interconnected new headquarters, shiny Spheres included.

Smith Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast when it was completed in 1914, now looks up to the bigger kids on nearby blocks.  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Smith Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast when it was completed in 1914, now looks up to the bigger kids on nearby blocks. (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Between city settlement and the Spheres, he says, two lofty achievements — the still-gleaming Smith Tower (upon its completion in 1914, the “tallest skyscraper west of New York,” heralded The Seattle Daily Times) and the even-higher Space Needle (1962) — were particularly pioneering, and still beautifully relevant.

“For me, the underlying truth of beauty is authenticity, responding to context. If (buildings) do that really well, they will express what they are. If you express its purpose, aesthetic and function work together,” he says. “For example: People who aren’t from Seattle immediately identify the Space Needle as Seattle. It marked a moment in time: the World’s Fair. The notion of being bold and looking into the future with a 600-foot-tall monument was a brave move. It lasted longer than anyone thought and became iconic. It’s clear to everyone around here that there’s a cultural tie to here — even my kids understand why it’s there now and its original purpose.”

Boldness speaks to us in a decades-long dialogue:

• The landmarked Seattle Tower, a 27-story Art Deco showpiece from 1928, is one of Alberda’s favorite historic buildings. “It represents a step forward in thinking about progress and was a deliberate attempt to do something new and fresh, vertical-reaching and streamlined,” he says.

• The 1977 Rainier Tower, the “upside-down” skyscraper atop a skinny pedestal, “was meant to surprise people and challenge the assumption at that time,” Alberda says. “Technology was emerging; it’s an admirable, modern approach to the high-rise.”

• And Amazon’s glassy Spheres (domed homes to plants, water and humans) embody a boldness even beyond their design, he says. “It’s a building meant to express progress, not a trend, bringing nature back into the city. And it’s a bold move by the company to put stakes here and call the city home.”

Architect Dale Alberda, a principal at NBBJ who’s leading the firm’s design of the new Amazon headquarters (and its Spheres), says the project “marks a lot. The Spheres project shows how important it is to bring nature back into downtown.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Architect Dale Alberda, a principal at NBBJ who’s leading the firm’s design of the new Amazon headquarters (and its Spheres), says the project “marks a lot. The Spheres project shows how important it is to bring nature back into downtown.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

WE ARE OUR SURROUNDINGS.

As the lush Spheres embrace and nurture nature, Seattle’s built environment takes cues from our not-built environment.

“We have our own style,” says Segal, of SAF. “It’s architecture that interacts with the landscape and our region, and I think that in our region, people might consider that universally beautiful. In the last 100 years, there’s been a true Pacific Northwest style that even people who aren’t from here recognize: open, views to the water, wood, natural.”

Alberda says biophilia, the belief that we inherently seek connections with nature, is an increasingly vital driver in design at NBBJ, “especially as Seattle is growing and becoming more urban.

“A lot of people come here for the context of the city: beautiful views of water, a connection to nature,” he says. “For me, infusing nature is a big deal. How do you bring that into projects? Not push nature out, but bring it back in? Nobody does beauty better than Mother Nature.”

One way: Seattle’s award-winning, LEED Gold-certified City Hall.

“To me, it’s the most beautiful building downtown,” Segal says. “It takes details we often see in residential architecture and puts them in a public place. In reference to the glass, you have views you can take in through the building: water and landscape, something that makes life better.”

SAF executive director Stacy Segal says Seattle City Hall is her favorite downtown building: “City Hall is exemplary in terms of sustainability: open and welcoming.”  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
SAF executive director Stacy Segal says Seattle City Hall is her favorite downtown building: “City Hall is exemplary in terms of sustainability: open and welcoming.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Nature, bless its sweet wild heart, does that for us — on its own, and through architecture — naturally.

“I could argue that beauty lies in simplicity,” Alberda says. “You can fool people by making it ornate, but if you strip that away, is it still beautiful? That’s hard to do in modern architecture. You’re not relying on ornateness; you’re relying on the essence of the building. When that’s done really well, with most beautiful buildings, there’s this pristine, very simple quality: It could be the most beautiful thing in nature, like a leaf; very simple geometric patterns. The beauty of simplicity in nature.”

City Hall beautifully navigates its steep site, directly across Fifth Avenue from the Seattle Justice Center. The buildings are connected symbolically (law and order) and physically by an underground stream.

“The two are interesting structures,” Segal says. “The Justice Center has one side of masonry (strong), and the other side is glass (transparent). The water feature is an awesome sensory experience; you hear that.”

But not too loudly. We are expressive, after all, not obnoxious.

“I like City Hall’s civic scale — a quiet grandness — to me, that is Seattle,” Erwine says. “It doesn’t come off as showy or aggressive. There’s an incorporation of sound, iconic water and textures, which all speak to Seattle’s place in the world.”

 

WE ARE OUR HISTORY.

Erwine finds beauty in spaces (and details) that reveal other connections, too: with architecture, with each other, with our past.

“I see people gathering and wonder: Why do they gather here?” she says. “Our understanding of place can come through a memory of gathering there: collective memories of what’s in historic spaces.”

Stacy Segal, executive director of the Seattle Architecture Foundation, says she prefers a modern building, but, “By going on SAF tours and learning more about history and craftsmanship, I have a deeper appreciation. I was looking at the Cobb Building, which is more historical, with ornamental detail, and I have an appreciation for that, too. I learned about how those pieces were made and what their purpose was — and how the terra-cotta remains white after all these years. Things that make it stand out make it iconic.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Stacy Segal, executive director of the Seattle Architecture Foundation, says she prefers a modern building, but, “By going on SAF tours and learning more about history and craftsmanship, I have a deeper appreciation. I was looking at the Cobb Building, which is more historical, with ornamental detail, and I have an appreciation for that, too. I learned about how those pieces were made and what their purpose was — and how the terra-cotta remains white after all these years. Things that make it stand out make it iconic.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

In Erwine’s book, a close-up photo of the old brass door handles to Rejuvenation Seattle is subtle, but telling.

“The way we navigate space, that comes with history, too. Here it’s the simple idea that everyone uses the right-hand handle,” she says. “It’s worn. You learn about the culture. You’re touching that, and you know so many people have touched it. You’re welcome here. Most people wouldn’t notice, but subconsciously we do. It’s like the pig at Pike Place Market; you’re drawn to rub it where it’s shiny: This is where you rub it. You establish that connection with the history, with everyone before. I have a real appreciation for that.”

Appreciation leads to protection — and a shared mission.

“History is part of the role beauty plays as we strive to create a sustainable city,” Alberda says. “History shows that sources of pride for cultures last for generations, versus buildings that are neglected. We cherish and take care of and use beautiful things for a long, long time. We have to build quality, sustainably. We want future generations to cherish them like we do.”

There’s a reason SAF’s tours showcase historic and modern buildings, Segal says: “We want people to understand the past with what’s happening now — how to save certain buildings the right way, full or partially preserved. It shows the diverse ways our city is changing.”

“From this view, you can see moments of history,” NBBJ principal Dale Alberda says from the Rainier Square Roof Park. “The Cobb (right) and the Seattle Tower are both important buildings from different eras, enriched by the variety of those eras. The detail and craft are coming back as something we appreciate and want in our built environment. New buildings done well have attention to details.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
“From this view, you can see moments of history,” NBBJ principal Dale Alberda says from the Rainier Square Roof Park. “The Cobb (right) and the Seattle Tower are both important buildings from different eras, enriched by the variety of those eras. The detail and craft are coming back as something we appreciate and want in our built environment. New buildings done well have attention to details.” (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

For “change,” “diversity” and “beauty” all in one vista, it’d be hard to beat the view from Rainier Square Roof Park, our tour launchpad. There’s that powerful, mountain-evoking Seattle Tower, with “30 shades of brick purposefully laid out, a white top and iron structures that look like trees,” Segal says.

There’s the engineering statement that is Rainier Tower; the soaring 1201 Third Avenue skyscraper; and the Beaux Arts Cobb Building — whose terra-cotta Indian-head accents, she says, likely were economically ordered from a catalog.

But still.

“There’s a cultural emphasis on beauty and detail,” Alberda says. “It’s important that there are buildings like this that live on, continuing to be useful and functional; they’re meant to last.”

 

WE ARE FUTURE-FORWARD.

You could think of architecture like the clothes on your back, Alberda says.

“There’s a longevity of beauty: Will I like this shirt in 10 years?” he says. “Our thinking of the relevance of design changes over time. The things we wear and buy — they may be the thing that day. When you’re building a building that’s meant to last 100 years, you can’t just think about the latest fashion. It’s a huge task for architects to think about that. Yes, it needs to mark the time, but in 30 years, will I be proud of that? There’s a difference between enduring the elements and time — it has to do both.”

So, if the 1910 Cobb Building is a classic lace-and-embroidery blouse, then the ultramodern Seattle Central Library might be … well, something quite a bit edgier than a classic lace-and-embroidery blouse.

“It calls into question the preconceived notion of a public library,” Alberda says. “It’s pretty thorough in redefining it, with raw concrete, exposed light-blue steel, industrial corrugated metal. And it’s expressive of a new age of tech; its structural system is a huge innovation. The order questions the notion of form: You can see through the whole building. That is not traditional.”

Departure can be polarizing in architecture — especially in a public building — but traditions do evolve, and we are nothing if not evolutionary.

“Most libraries look in to the information; this looks out,” Erwine says. “You’re aware of the city and the outside. It reflects the internet, sharing in a grand, connected way. Some people like the exterior, some don’t — like any iconic building.”

Three striking buildings line up along Fifth Avenue: Seattle Central Library, 5th and Madison and the new F5 Tower (formerly called The Mark).  (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)
Three striking buildings line up along Fifth Avenue: Seattle Central Library, 5th and Madison and the new F5 Tower (formerly called The Mark). (Steve Ringman/The Seattle Times)

Just down the street, another shiny example of modern architecture represents the future of Seattle while embracing our past: the brilliantly reflective F5 Tower (formerly called The Mark), occupying a chunk of Fifth and Columbia like a hip kid who’s come home to look after his elders.

“We’re seeing some taller buildings, and density is increasing,” Segal says. “I think the design of some new skyscrapers is pretty fantastic. I really like the (F5 Tower). It’s a really beautiful skyscraper, well-designed, and the story behind the church and everything around it is pretty interesting.”

The Sanctuary (formerly the First United Methodist Church, built in 1908) is now landmarked, Segal says, preserved and nestled into the purposely tapered base of the F5 Tower.

“It’s really well done,” Alberda says. “I like the form of the tower, its unique crystalline faceted facade and its simple skin. Architecture has a responsibility to mark the time it came from, but not in a trendy way. A lot of times, with things built so fast, it’s trendy vs. progressive and thoughtful. New buildings should express our technology — the way buildings are being built. For example, the technology that goes into glass — energy-efficiency and culture push buildings to be much more transparent. Technology allows it, and people want it. It drives a different aesthetic. I’m a fan of honest progression.”

Even better — The Sanctuary is so integrated, it will progress honestly into space for the tower’s luxury hotel.

“That building might be more utilized than it has been in decades,” Alberda says.

On the same block, also in the tower’s shadow, the 1904 Rainier Club remains luxuriously vital, and stunning, as a private club.

Ah, yes: We’re resilient, too.

“There’s a resistance to talking about beauty in architecture; we like to think our work has relevance in function, form and context,” Alberda says. “If we design just for beauty, we’d be building trophies. You can’t separate beauty. No architect would say: ‘I’m going to build something that isn’t beautiful.’ You don’t get to talk about beauty until you talk about how it functions, how it lasts.”