What does the skyscraper express? Along with ambition, importance and money, we can add costly, constricted building space and teeming crowds who want to live in the city.

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FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT detested cities, and yet his most inspired unbuilt design was a needle-tipped, mile-high skyscraper for Chicago. Apparently it arose from the same contradictory impulses a lot of us are feeling as we contemplate the burgeoning quiver of high-rise towers in Seattle.

From a distance, the Bainbridge Island ferry or the Queen Anne Hill aerie of Kerry Park, our city skyline exudes the sizzle of energy, prosperity and high aspirations. From a sidewalk downtown or in the Denny Triangle or South Lake Union, the perspective of human eyes 5 feet above ground level, it’s harder to embrace these 400- to 800-foot-high behemoths. They blot out sunlight. Many slam arrogantly into the street with alien indifference toward the human life ambling about their bases. Most incorporate some form of security that shuts us out from any interaction with them.

And while the skyline composition is one of Seattle’s prime emblems, this is due almost entirely to the natural setting cradling it, plus the distinctive punctuation of the Space Needle. Are any of the office or residential towers built in the past 60 years recognizably Seattle? Couldn’t we swap out any dozen with their counterparts in Singapore and nothing significant would change?

More than anyone else — any architect, at least — Blaine Weber is the ideal designated hitter to face these contradictions. His firm, Weber Thompson, has designed seven recently completed residential high-rises, five more are currently under construction, and 14 more are in the permit or early design stages — all in Seattle. Weber lives in a condo in one of the high-rises his firm designed and is a passionate advocate of high-density downtown living.

Architect Blaine Weber says “I’m a big proponent of high-rise building.” (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
Architect Blaine Weber says “I’m a big proponent of high-rise building.” (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

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And one of Weber Thompson’s new apartment buildings, the 40-story Cirrus at Eighth Avenue and Lenora Street, will serve perfectly as our focus for all the issues of this new, intensively vertical Seattle.

“I’ve always been enamored with cities,” Weber says. “I love the energy.” But he makes it clear that the real foundation for his passion is the environmental necessity on a planet now crowded with 7 billion people. “On the site the size of Cirrus you could build two homes in the suburbs. Or 400-plus in the city center. So I’m a big proponent of high-rise building.”

THE COMPLICATED MOVES that led to Cirrus dare anyone to summarize them, but a quick review is essential because it illustrates what a tangled process downtown building has become — and how many parties stand to make, or lose, money on it.

Delmar Gaines has a spectacular view as he prepares to install windows on the top floor. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
Delmar Gaines has a spectacular view as he prepares to install windows on the top floor. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

The 120-by-128-foot site had been an auto showroom built in 1925, and the owners first had to win permission from the city Landmarks Preservation Board to raze it. (The board decided it was not a landmark building.) That done, a local development consortium hired Weber Thompson to design the high-rise and get it entitled — that is, fully approved through the land-use code and design review. The consortium’s intention was to sell the entitlement to a more experienced developer. An entitled project can roll into construction with much less risk; opportunities for public challenge will be past. The disadvantage is that architects are designing a package for a hypothetical client whose objectives and ideas they can’t know.

After entitlement, a broker shopped it around nationally, and Boston-based GID, a real estate investment company, bought it. “We were attracted to the location first,” says Jim Linsley, GID Development Group president. “It’s like a knot in the middle of the bow tie between the Central Business District and South Lake Union.”

And in a fortuitous break, soon after GID wrote the check, Amazon.com announced it would build a trio of towers right across Westlake Avenue. This will presumably provide a ready-made neighborhood stream of young techies paid well enough to cover luxury rent. (Cirrus’ rates start at $1,675 for a 501-square-foot studio and $1,975 for one bedroom.)

Weber Thompson had designed Cirrus as a condo building, but GID recoiled from the higher risk of selling the homes. So the architects had to reconfigure the interior as smaller apartments, 80 more of them. GID also wanted to add decks to more of the units, which would alter the exterior appearance. Weber Thompson was able to slide these changes through under the “minor amendment” provision of design review, so it didn’t need to return for another round with the downtown Design Review Board.

The concept of “design review” sometimes rankles architects, who, like most of us, don’t love being second-guessed from the sidelines. Weber, however, has seen it from both sides. He was on the board for four years in the early 2000s and even chaired it for a time, and he generally thinks it has contributed to a better Seattle.

 

“Sometimes the individual members can be a little heavy-handed,” he says. “But overall it’s a very open, public process that results in better buildings. I think the program has evolved over time and it works.”

IT’S ENLIGHTENING TO take a walk around Cirrus, then almost any of the comparable residential towers built a generation or more ago. It doesn’t take an architect to discern three obvious differences:

Window washers dot the surface of Cirrus. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
Window washers dot the surface of Cirrus. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

Cirrus offers public open space at street level — a landscaped parklet with benches, created by reclaiming eight feet of Lenora Street (alas, sacrificing its parking lane), and indenting the building’s northwest base for a sliver of outdoor cafe seating. Very unusually for a high-rise, the cafe’s folding glass doors are intended to be drawn back on summer days, eroding the boundaries between building and street, private and public.

This is called “activating the street,” and it’s always a thorny challenge for modern urban architecture. In a crowded, expensive downtown such as Seattle’s, the base of the building itself will want to eat every possible square foot of space on the ground, leaving little or no opportunity for a welcoming pedestrian plaza. The usual design solution has been to carve out a gathering place underneath a pillar-supported or cantilevered mass of the building. Almost invariably such plazas prove dark and oppressive; most of us instinctively feel uncomfortable under thousands of tons of concrete looming overhead. Cirrus’ plaza is small but inviting.

With the Space Needle as a backdrop, Cece Asencio installs a window starter track on the top floor of Cirrus. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
With the Space Needle as a backdrop, Cece Asencio installs a window starter track on the top floor of Cirrus. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

Cirrus is a busy and deceptive building for its first five stories. Busy because various wall surfaces are pushed out, tucked in, eaten away and articulated with small details and varied textures. An example is the colored reveal, or sunken vertical strip flanking a stack of windows on the Eighth Avenue side. These are all tricks for rendering a 440-foot-tall structure emotionally accessible to a measly human. We can’t digest the whole building, but we can savor small, domestic-sized morsels of it.

The two rectangular bulges that pop out on two sides on the second through fifth floors serve three functions at once. They help activate those critical first 60 feet of the building, they enclose small workspaces that will rent to building residents, and they provide something better to look at than concrete walls screening cars. Doesn’t look like a parking garage? Levels 3 through 5 are indeed parking, in addition to seven subterranean levels.

Cirrus doesn’t try to be a monolithic sculpture, unlike the skyscrapers of nearly the past 100 years. Cirrus’ torso pokes toward the sky. Like a single-family home, each of its four facades is geometrically different. Two of them appear to be convex curves (with different radii, no less), one opens itself toward Eighth Avenue in a butterfly-wing V shape, and one angles toward Lake Union with notches that allow view decks. And there are shallow ornamental bites in the skin; Weber likes to call them “erosions.”

In the so-called Golden Age of the skyscraper, the early 20th century, the prevailing aesthetic dictated a tower that stepped back and slimmed down as it rose. The 1929 Seattle Tower at Third Avenue and University Street does this elegantly; the 1914 Smith Tower less so. This geometry gave the early skyscraper a graceful form and helped lure snatches of sunlight down to street level. After 1950, economics and the ubiquitous International Style dictated tall, skinny boxes, which proved tedious and dehumanizing. A third wave of style, beginning in the 1970s, treated the skyscraper as a gigantic sculptural form, to be appreciated from a distance. Seattle’s 1985 Columbia Center at Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street is a distinctive example.

The game room is one of many communal spaces in the building. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
The game room is one of many communal spaces in the building. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

WEBER LOOKS AT the skyscraper’s body from a totally different angle, literally. “I think that a good building is responsible to its context, and that leads to a different facade on each side,” he says. “Each side is responding to a different geography, climate and urban format. At the same time, it’s critical that the architect provide a cohesive response so all four sides talk to each other.”

Despite the generous nipping, tucking and curving, an apartment building isn’t a sculpture, so all its eccentricities of shape have to make financial sense for the building’s owner and work with the internal functions of the building. So here are a couple of Cirrus’ strategies:

Those curved facades aren’t really curved. True curves would add serious expense. These walls read as arcs from the street below because the curtain wall units butt into each other at slight angles. Weber says there’s “almost no extra expense,” and the only consequence is that the seams between the wall units are slightly more open on the outside than in — filled, of course, with appropriate weather sealing.

Instead of stepping back, the tower seems to shift and twist and take on a different character beginning at the sixth floor, and a recess at the joint makes it appear from some angles as if the more sensuous tower is hovering over its sober base. It’s a dialogue between personalities, and while it might weaken the building’s sculptural force in a view from Queen Anne, it improves its visual interest up close.

Michael Blume enjoys a spectacular view as he works out in Cirrus’ gym. Blume, one of the building’s first tenants, says he loves his new home. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
Michael Blume enjoys a spectacular view as he works out in Cirrus’ gym. Blume, one of the building’s first tenants, says he loves his new home. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

Cirrus incorporates amenities and systems that would have been unlikely in a building of a generation ago — or in a less prosperous market today. One is the “fifth side” of the building, the 2,835-square-foot open roof garden on the 40th floor incorporating an outdoor gas fireplace, ornamental pool and clusters of seating for socializing. Another is the adjacent fitness room, the hidden engineering of which provides a clue to how demanding (and expensive) the design of these buildings has become. The workout machines all reside on a concrete slab that’s acoustically isolated from the concrete building frame through a system of shock absorbers. Concrete is a fine sound deadener for blocking outside noises, but it’s an even better sound transmitter for feet hammering a treadmill. A suspension system is essential.

Linsley says urban renters today place a high premium on these social components of the building. The idea, he says, is to create a “comprehensive and cohesive residential experience.” GID isn’t targeting transient renters, but rather an affluent millennial crowd who’ll consider the tower “home,” just as their parents and grandparents embraced the single-family suburban house. Not incidentally, Linsley also hopes to capture some empty-nested boomers who are finally sick of mowing lawns and battling roof moss.

THERE ARE DOWNSIDES to Seattle’s skyscraper boom, and we can see one of them from Cirrus’ roof garden. One block away is an 8-year-old, 34-story condo that’s just seen a 40-story office tower rise 20 feet away, obliterating views and light. While the latest revision to the city land-use code requires minimum spacing of 60 feet between towers, there are still some tightly-packed ones to come that were entitled under old code.

Even this 60-foot minimum might not be enough to preserve emotional breathing space in Seattle’s core, to keep the city feeling more Seattle than Singapore or Manhattan. But here’s the problem: We either shoot up (the Manhattanization of Seattle) or spread out (the Los Angelization of Seattle) or restrict new building so tightly that homes in the city become unaffordable to all but the elite (the Santa Barbarazation of Seattle). If there’s a fourth alternative, nobody’s found it.

The 40-story Cirrus apartment building is seen at the far left of this image featuring several construction projects in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)
The 40-story Cirrus apartment building is seen at the far left of this image featuring several construction projects in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood. (Benjamin Benschneider/The Seattle Times)

Another skyscraper problem is that no one has really figured out how to give high-rise buildings a sense of place, to make them seem stylistically and spiritually at home in the Pacific Northwest. With the tiny Magnolia Library in 1956, architect Paul Hayden Kirk expertly infused the International Style with a Northwest spirit by framing a glass box in a post-and-beam wooden exoskeleton, but that’s not going to work with a 40-story building. Decorative capers, like tricking out a tower with echoes of a ski lodge or the Space Needle, are guaranteed to look preposterous: big buildings wear architectural in-jokes very poorly. Flamboyantly sculptural forms, such as the scoop-shaped 58-story tower recently approved for the Fourth Avenue and Union Street block, sometimes become successful civic icons. But they also have a tendency to soar over budget, and they might end up appearing more like starbursts of ego than authentic expressions of a city’s culture.

What does the skyscraper authentically express? Ambition, importance, money — these have always been its stock in trade, and now to these we can add costly, constricted building space and teeming crowds of people wanting to live in the city. It’s asking a lot, after all this, to demand that the building also be democratic, to offer a populist nod to the ordinary folk passing by on the street.

But it’s absolutely the Seattle spirit to ask this.