Architects at home by Dean Stahl photographed by Benjamin Benschneider A WHO'S WHO list of influential regional architects would have to...

Share story


A who’s who list of influential regional architects would have to include Gene Zema. He incorporated Japanese sensibilities into an emerging Northwest design style to create his own version of graceful living — houses both aesthetically intriguing and comfortable. Examples of his work include such diverse projects as the University of Washington’s Gould Hall (with architect Dan Streissguth), plans for spec homes for Bellevue’s Bridle Trails Park, numerous medical and dental clinics and a large number of custom residences. He also ran a Japanese antiquities business, which led to more than 60 trips to Japan, and cultivated interests in pottery making and bookbinding. Zema, 81, completed the UW architecture program in 1950. He retired from active practice in 1976, but retains his regard for good architecture. We spoke recently in the home he shares with his wife, Janet, on an island north of Seattle.

Q: You designed and built this house?

A: I did everything myself here, everything but the plumbing. I don’t particularly like to do plumbing.

Q: How did you proceed?

A: You have to take the site and all the approaches and begin. I drew plans in 1983. I thought it would take about seven years, and that was about right. I first finished the shop building, and got the well and the windmill going; the windmill pumps our water. There were several sites, as far as view is concerned, but there happened to be a fairly level portion at this point. This was a troop training ground. It was filled with tents used by troops at one time.

Q: Did you stick to your plans with this house?

A: Yes. The toughest job here was the stonework — just building it. All the stone came from the property. You’ll notice the big stones in the fireplace are on the bottom — I rolled them in there. You can only do about two courses a day, to let the concrete dry, so it’s a slow process. When this was a working area for the Army (many years ago), they had cleared the field and put up piles of stone at the edges, which was really handy. I think it’s semi-tumbled glacier granite.

Q: How did your experience as an architect guide you?

A: The buildings are on a 6-foot modular design, making it a lot easier to build if you’re doing it yourself. A lot of my buildings used that plan. I wanted to use recycled materials, so all the glass, for example, came to me because some of the buildings Swedish Hospital put up on Madison (Street) had to be redone. So I salvaged them and fitted them into the design.

Q: You worked with top builders. Why not do the same here?

A: We built our family house in Laurelhurst (in the early 1960s), or about half of it. And the gallery/office in Eastlake — probably half of that. The same with the house in Sheridan Heights we built for ourselves in 1954, the first AIA/Seattle Times Home of the Year winner. I wanted to see if I could do this myself, from the ground up. It was satisfying. I think architects should do that. I think it should be required. There’s a tendency now to be more concerned with how the house looks from the outside than with how it works. The sculptural idea. I think architects ought to take a course in clay and get some of that out of their system. Fiddle with it. Build it in clay.

Q: How should a house work?

A: You design according to a client’s needs, get it oriented right on the site, use the materials you can get readily and put it together. You take down a whole history: How big is the family, what are the expectations, how do you entertain, what are your hobbies, what do you like? You fit this around the budget. You try to come up with something they can afford. The trouble comes when a client says, “I want it to look like this.” An architect has to say, no, this is the house I can do. I don’t want to do a Colonial, or a so-called rambler, whatever that is.

Q: What do you think of current home design?

A: I’m sort of amazed by the houses being put up now — not by architects. I think that the contractors and developers began to do a lot of the designs, and the bulk of it seems to be this Craftsman style. Every time I open up a housing section and see a new development pictured, I expect to see a Model T Ford or some other old car in front of it. People are buying this, and I wonder what is happening here. I call it the Disneyland syndrome. It’s escapism. People may feel more comfortable in something that relates to feelings of comfort. I don’t see much innovation.

Q: How would you define your approach?

A: I’d say Northwest regional. I like to do buildings with materials that reflect the weather, the atmosphere, the landscaping. Some of my early work was in the International style. That’s what we were taught. When I got out of school I wanted to show the world these new things.

Q: If someone came to you in the 1960s or ’70s and said, ‘I want a Gene Zema house,’ what would that look like?

A: Wood house. Shingle roof. High interior ceilings. In the living room here and in the bedroom they’re higher than normal, but I didn’t want real high, sloped ceilings because of heating concerns. I wanted to be a little more conservative. I like designing in wood. And, I like it simple. I don’t know what the future of architecture is, but I hope it’s not a cold, impersonal thing.

Dean Stahl is a Seattle freelance writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.