PICK YOUR FAVORITE high-profile building in Seattle, and there’s a pretty good chance the engineers were Magnusson Klemencic Associates, a firm that has been known by many names in the 101 years since its start as the W.H. Witt Company. The Amazon Spheres, Seattle’s Central Library, Olympic Sculpture Park, the Kingdome, MoPOP, the Washington State Convention Center, Lumen Field, T-Mobile Park — all handled by MKA, which has completed billions of dollars’ worth of projects in 47 states and 49 countries.
Seattle’s engineering heavyweights collaborated on several jobs with star architect Minoru Yamasaki, the Seattle-raised, University of Washington graduate profiled in this week’s Pacific NW magazine cover story. Those projects include Pacific Science Center, the IBM Building and Rainier Tower in Seattle, and New York’s World Trade Center.
Rainier Tower, completed in 1977, was one of Yamasaki’s most controversial buildings, boldly (some said foolishly) designed with an 11-story pedestal at the base.
The guy who puts the “M” in MKA is Jon Magnusson. He has served as CEO and as chairman of the board, and he holds the title of senior principal now. Listing the awards he and his firm have won would take up the rest of my space here, so I won’t do that. Trust me: Jon Magnusson is a big shot in the world of engineering.
He never worked directly with Yamasaki but remembers vividly his first meeting with “Yama.”
Magnusson joined the firm in 1976 after graduating with a bachelor’s degree from UW and a master’s from UC Berkeley. Then, the firm was known as Skilling, Helle, Christiansen and Robertson. John Skilling was the point man who dazzled the World Trade Center developers with his sketches, and Leslie Robertson was the lead structural engineer.
In 1985, Magnusson and Skilling were in San Francisco and heard that Yamasaki was in town. Skilling and Yamasaki hadn’t spoken for a while, after a falling out in the 1970s, but they agreed to meet for dinner at The Waterfront. Sitting next to Skilling and across the table from Yamasaki at the fancy seafood restaurant, Magnusson, 32 at the time, had a view of the San Francisco Bay and two of his heroes.
“Whatever they had disagreed about, it was like it had never happened,” Magnusson recalls of the dinner, just eight months before Yamasaki’s death from cancer at age 73. “Yama looked at me and said, ‘No matter what this guy says, the pedestal for the Rainier Tower was my idea. It was MY idea.’
“Without missing a beat, [Skilling] says, ‘Yama, you underestimate my brilliance. I made you think that it was your idea.’ ”