Architect Arne Bystrom's innovative building designs, distinguished by his imaginative use of post-and-beam structural frameworks and ingenious detailing with wood...
ARCHITECTS AT HOME
Architect Arne Bystrom’s innovative building designs, distinguished by his imaginative use of post-and-beam structural frameworks and ingenious detailing with wood, have earned more than 30 awards, including two national American Institute of Architects honors. In 1985, he was elected to the AIA College of Fellows. His most famous local design is the Peggy Moore house, now the Cliff House, on Whidbey Island.
Bystrom, 80, grew up in Ballard, graduated in 1951 from the University of Washington School of Architecture, served on the Seattle Planning Commission and was a member of the Seattle Landmarks Preservation Board. He was in the front ranks of those who helped save the Pike Place Market from demolition. I spoke with him recently in the Victorian-era home on Capitol Hill he shares with his wife, Valerie.
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Q: Your work is contemporary, yet your house is old. What makes this a good place for you?
A: I bought it in 1962 and was charmed by the spaces. Originally, it was heated by stoves — the way they did it in 1888 — so all the rooms are human-scale, small with high ceilings.
Q: You’ve had a lot of influence in Northwest design. I see references in James Cutler’s work, for instance. Can you describe your style of architecture?
A: I think you’d call it a Northwest style because of the materials — the wood and glass. When I had a fellowship to Italy, I studied Italian wood architecture. Wood is such a wonderful material. I’ve done just one building out of concrete, and it’s controversial, but I won my first international award for that — the Century Building, at the foot of Queen Anne.
Q: You were interested early on in saving the Pike Place Market. Why?
A: When I was a kid, my mother used to take me to the market on the streetcar. Later, I used to go down with friends, buy cracked crab and bread, and take it into the Place Pigalle, which was still a tavern, and get a pitcher of beer. Victor (Steinbrueck) was a professor of mine, so when he came around to try to stop the (demolition), I was one of the people at Allied Arts instrumental in doing my part at least, in saving the Market. I did the first job in the Market after that, the remodel for the Soames-Dunn Building. Later, three of us made a proposal to buy the 1908 Seattle Garden Center building, which was going to be torn down because it was thought unsafe. My engineer and I figured out how to save it, we added a top floor, and it became the jewel in the market.
Q: What sparked your interest in architecture?
A: I took some engineering classes, which I found boring, but I was a good artist and thought I could do both being an architect. One summer, friends and I borrowed money and built a small, two-bedroom house. We sold it and made a little money.
Q: And after college?
A: I went to work, made some money and took a tour of Europe. Spike (Lionel) Pries was still at the University of Washington and gave me a list of places to visit. It was important to see the classical architecture firsthand.
Q: The building you’re proudest of?
A: The Sun Valley (Dennis) house. A client like that comes once in a lifetime. I was able to design the furniture, and all the tiles were custom-made. Chip carving, very Scandinavian, in the atrium. I think that’s the best solar house ever done. We probably were doing 70 or 80 percent of the heating through solar. (Seattle developer) Martin Selig owns that house now. He’s assured me he hasn’t remodeled it.
Q: Did you have to import woodworkers for it?
A: We used local help, and they loved it; they could take their time and do it right. It took three years, with basically one draftsman here. There were 150 2-by-4-foot sheets that UW has now in their archives.
Q: What do you think of building multistory condo/retail buildings in neighborhoods?
A: I think it’s a real improvement over what was happening in the 1950s and ’60s, with wide curb cuts out front. And retail — the first floor isn’t good for apartments anyway because of privacy.
Q: Were you for the initiative that would have created a greenbelt from South Lake Union to downtown?
A: Oh, it’s criminal they didn’t do that park. Where are the people who objected? They sold out and moved on.
Q: Do you have an ideal model in mind for downtown?
A: I think we need to think about light rail and how that in turn attracts density, as in the European model. And I think going up in the urban core is a good thing. How in hell are you going to put in another freeway? So, light rail is the only answer. Another big problem is the viaduct. We need to get rid of it for one crucial mile. My solution is a version of tunnel-lite: two lanes in each direction, but no exits, no onramps whatsoever. And open up that waterfront. People don’t realize an investment in transportation is an investment that pays back, and this viaduct is coming apart. We have faults running under it. As a result, if it is going to be rebuilt, it’ll be a brute.
Q: What do you think of general trends in architecture today?
A: I’m distressed by the weird things being done to the outside of buildings, mainly the commercial ones. Some of those down by the railway station are sort of mini-Gehry. It’s designing from the outside in rather than thinking about living in it. That’s what’s important. Frank Lloyd Wright quoted a Chinese philosopher who said the reality of a space is the space within that space. . . Now, it’s gone the other way. . . The architects I like, (Carlo) Scarpa, (Charles) Mackintosh, Wright, (Hack) Kampmann, were sort of off the mainstream. Those guys were really creative.
Dean Stahl is a Seattle writer. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.