Architect Fred Bassetti has helped shape the region's look and civic conscience over a long career. He founded and led Action: Better City in the late 1960s...

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Architect Fred Bassetti has helped shape the region’s look and civic conscience over a long career. He founded and led Action: Better City in the late 1960s, which called attention to Pioneer Square, Gas Works Park and other overlooked city assets. His projects include several notable private residences and public buildings. He was president of Allied Arts of Seattle and served on the Seattle Landmarks Commission as well as the Seattle Design Commission. He is a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and includes an AIA Seattle Medal among his many honors.

Bassetti, 91, grew up near Seattle, earned a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Washington in 1942 and a master’s degree from Harvard in 1946. He apprenticed with Paul Thiry, began work at NBBJ, then broke out as Bassetti & Morse, Fred Bassetti & Company and, eventually, Bassetti Architects. He retired in the mid-1990s. I spoke with him recently on the Portage Bay houseboat he shares with his wife, Gwen.

Q: Why a houseboat?

A: When I was divorced in 1949, I came out one snowy day and bought it. It was one level. No kitchen, just a hot plate and alcove. The bathroom was a moldy shower. There was a plank on brackets for a dining area. I had a single bed. It made a pretty good pad, but it was awfully small.

Q: How has it evolved?

A: The first remodel was shortly after I moved in, and several changes after that. The place was rented for a period of time. I married Gwen in 1989, and the kitchen bay was remade when we moved in. That nice cedar ceiling was put in about 10 years ago to cover the original planks from 1936. These open spaces vary quite a bit and work wonderfully. The main floor is about 600 or 700 square feet, and about the same above.

Q: You’ve designed a number of public buildings. Do you have a favorite?

A: I think both of my tall buildings downtown are people friendly. The Federal Building has great terraces and cascades of steps on both sides, though the feds have changed the front entrance for security reasons. . . . Key Tower (Seattle Municipal Tower) I think is unusually friendly in the way it fits into the city. It’s pointed on both ends; a six-sided building, longer than it is deep. It’s made something like a person: It has a front, two similar sides, and it has a back different from the front. Unfortunately, it has been all glass-fronted along Fifth Avenue, on the south side, and it doesn’t have the character it had before. The dormitories and other buildings at Western Washington University and the dorms at Central Washington University at Ellensburg turned out well. You may laugh at this, but we did a power substation on East Pine (in Seattle) I think is one of the best buildings I ever did. City Light has remodeled it a couple of times, but (I like) the concept and detailing and the way it was conceived structurally.

Q: Is there such a thing as having too large a budget?

A: Oh, yeah. When you’re tighter on a budget you don’t make anything to impress. The most important characteristic of any house is that it should have a sense of sincerity. It should not yell, ‘Look at me!’ We can tell a phony from a person of sincerity very quickly. It’s harder with buildings, because people don’t know how everything goes together and what the possibilities are. They’ll put up a big arch, or columns, to look like something important.

Q: But the phrase from builders is, “That’s what they want.‘”

A: It’s true, because the average person hasn’t had the training. I’m not criticizing it; I don’t look down on that. My clients were mostly modest. I got one job in the first 30 years where the project wasn’t strapped for money.

Q: What was your upbringing like?

A: I was born in Seattle of Norwegian and Italian immigrant parents. Within a year my folks decided we ought to move out of town so the kids could breathe fresh air. Probably 10 automobiles in town, about then. So we lived south of town, near where the airport is now. My father was a scholarly type.

Q: What led you to architecture?

A: I started in engineering. I had had visions of being a surveyor, but I did very poorly in the first year. I went on a double date with a friend in the architecture department, and switched. Later, I.M. Pei had the desk behind me at Harvard. He was the best in the class.

Q: How did you learn to build?

A: I was a country kid who was always building things. I never learned the fancy ways. I only realized this after I was 60. I sometimes think no architect should be designing a house until he’s 60 or 70. We often get our best jobs when we’re young — but you haven’t lived yet.

Q: Sixty years is a long time to wait. What advice do you have for young architects today?

A: First, learn how a building is built. Go to work for a contractor. Go to work for a specialist in concrete. Don’t just learn how to pour concrete, but learn how the reinforcing works.

Q: What does architecture say to you?

A: I think every building has its story; it includes the owner, the architect, the engineer, city-planning people. A building should tell you information about how it’s made. A thoughtful passer-by should be able to read it.

Q: Where is architecture headed?

A: I can’t say there’s any improvement coming. I don’t know that the best house in the world would have a broad influence.

Q: Your advice for the layman?

A: Yes, read Frank Lloyd Wright’s autobiography and companion volumes on architecture. In his later years he kind of fell off, doing buildings that were kind of show-offs, but he was a true genius.

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