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THERE IS A place smack in the middle of Seattle where mid-20th-century modernism, generally the most reviled and rebarbative period in the history of architecture, is gloriously redeemed. It’s on the side of a 50-year-old building that was declared obsolete as its prime tenant split town, and it’s only a detail, not a featured attraction. But it’s Architecture Power at its best.

The building is KeyArena, designed by Seattle architect Paul Thiry as the Washington State Pavilion for the 1962 World’s Fair. On its south side is a wide pedestrian walk flanked by a colorful assortment of maples and willows. Nothing special — until suddenly overhead rises a herculean tripod of reinforced concrete buttresses, and where the three legs crash together in the sky they erupt in a glorious rash of folds and triangles, like a titanic paper airplane. It’s a stunning fusion of delicacy and strength, art and engineering, and of the practical and necessary rendered elegant and beautiful.

It’s what the theorists kept telling us modern architecture was all about, only the elegant and beautiful occurred so rarely that we never bought it. There was, and still is, a vast gap between the practitioners of modernism and the forced consumers, between the architects and the public. A couple of generations of us went to junior high in school buildings that looked akin to insecticide factories, and then as adults we trudged to work in office buildings as banal and faceless as file cabinets. Thiry’s pavilion was among the 1 percenters — the minuscule minority of buildings of the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s that showed how modernism could be expressive and inviting, or exude a sense of place.

We now have a problem. The modern architecture of the 1960s is turning half a century old, which in various contexts qualifies it as “historic.” (The National Register of Historic Places, for one, generally agrees to consider buildings for listing at the age of 50.) There are sure to be more preservation battles like the one over the Ballard Denny’s restaurant, finally demolished in 2008. Which buildings from that era are worth preserving? How do we decide what’s worth a fight? Do we cheapen Seattle’s looks by saving a dumb and ugly building, which Denny’s was, as a museum exhibit of the cultural gestalt of its time?

The problem is accented by the fact that we may be too close in time to these buildings to make the right judgments. Here’s a fundamental truth about architecture: A style is normally held in contempt by the children of the generation that produced it. It’s the grandchildren who begin to treasure it. Local example: It was Abby Martin, a University of Washington architecture student, who filed the National Register nomination to save the UW’s 1961 Nuclear Reactor Building, whose atomic guts were decommissioned in 1988.

It’s the most bizarre and anomalous building on campus, a structure that vaguely resembles a ’60s swoop-roof diner with fins flying from under the eaves, only executed in concrete. To many of us, it’s the love child of Brutalism and Burger King. But to Martin, whom I interviewed in 2008 as she was working on the nomination, “The shape is really dynamic, it’s very expressive of the possibilities of concrete, and it also embodies the ideology of the time, when architects were rejecting so many historical conventions.” Now known as the More Hall Annex, the building was saved (so far); it’s sitting unoccupied while the university tries to figure out a use for it.

Modernism was rooted in idealism, in a suite of ideas that included the honest expression of structure and materials, design to serve a unified and egalitarian world, and the celebration of technology. What could be wrong with these noble ideas? How did they lead to a succession of styles so widely despised? The answers are complicated enough to fill books (which they have), but in short, I think the prime reason was the magnitude of the postwar building boom and the size of the buildings themselves.

In the U.S. and much of the world, the ’50s and ’60s demanded immense amounts of new space for housing, schools and commercial buildings. Formulas for doing it quickly and cheaply had to be found. Modernism conveniently scrapped the old idea that a building should respond to the culture or setting of the region it served and declared ornamentation to be a crime. The Austrian architect Adolph Loos, one of the theoreticians who primed the movement, declared, incredibly, that lack of ornament “is a sign of spiritual strength.” This was absurd, but architects bought into it because opposing it would have made it impossible to compete economically.

The baby boom fed the building boom, so buildings of all kinds grew bigger, and all other factors being equal, a giant austere box is more alienating than a human-scaled austere box. The good big buildings of the ’60s were generally those where the architect found a way to make art out of the structure itself, such as Eero Saarinen’s Dulles Airport in Washington, D.C., or Thiry’s pavilion in Seattle. Those where the architect tried in desperation to decorate the building despite the risk of spiritual dissipation, or articulate the envelope in some unusual way, almost always failed.

One such failure, spectacular in its mammoth bulk, is the University of Washington’s Haggett Hall, a dorm built in 1963. It’s eight stories of unrelenting concrete gloom perched over a parking structure into which the architect cast abstract patterns recalling Northwest Indian art. This low-budget ornamentation succeeds only in calling attention to how depressing the whole concept of the building was, like decorating a prison dinner with a parsley sprig.

The architect was Paul Hayden Kirk, who was responsible for fully half the good Seattle buildings I’m about to name. He had a superb sense of beautiful and artistic design, and was fully capable of leading modernism out of the wilderness — but only when the scale and program of the building made it possible.

The architects don’t get a pass because they were oppressed by their clients of the time — most of them bought into the modernist dogma and encouraged each other. In 1964, Haggett Hall won one of the local American Institute of Architects’ Honor Awards.

So how do we decide what from this period is worth fighting to preserve? Let’s look at some of the good examples among Seattle’s public buildings and figure out what made them exceptional.

Magnolia Branch Library, 1964

2801 34th Ave. W.

This 6,400-square-foot building is an absolute jewel; with the possible exception of the Space Needle it’s the finest ’60s building in Seattle. The architect was Paul Hayden Kirk, and it opened just a year after Haggett Hall.

When this building was designed in 1964, America, and much of the world, was in thrall to the International Style exemplified by Mies van der Rohe, and minimalist glass boxes were arising everywhere in the form of office buildings, schools, libraries and homes. The trouble was that no one else executed the glass-box formula as elegantly as Mies, and these lesser boxes, replicated with minor variations a few hundred thousand times, inevitably became exercises in ennui.

For this library, however, Kirk merged the minimalist Miesian aesthetic with an expressive wooden post-and-beam structure that felt right at home in the woodsy Northwest. The stained cedar shingles soften the severe geometry of the box and make it seem vastly more humane and approachable than the inorganic glass, steel and concrete normally deployed in the International Style. Inside, there’s another contradiction between the disciplined power expressed in those beefy ceiling beams and the intimate, cubby-like spaces Kirk provided for browsing and reading.

The mainstream modernists tried to distill architecture to a rigorous intellectual purity that ultimately wasn’t either comfortable or interesting. Homo sapiens did not evolve in a “pure” environment — nature is a disorderly, complicated mess — so purity is not the kind of environment we feel at home in. In architecture as in nature, complexity and contradiction are more interesting than consistency. Kirk was pointing a way toward a more humane and livable modernism, and the lessons contained in this library remain useful reminders today.

University of Washington Club, 1960

Paul Hayden Kirk and Victor Steinbrueck, who also had a hand in designing the Space Needle, created this Miesian box on the UW campus. It’s right on the centerline of the International Style — no mitigating shingles or wood beams here — and it defiantly rejects the neo-Gothic idiom that prevailed elsewhere on the postwar campus in an effort to relate the new buildings to the historic context. So what’s it doing on this list?

A wise architect once told me, “If you’re going to defy a context, defy it strongly.” That’s what this building does. It’s so self-assured in its immaculate, elegant, sparse lines that it seems to be saying to all the Gothic fussiness around it, “Don’t you wish you could clean up like this?” But at the same time, its presence is quiet, not blustery or self-aggrandizing. It’s like the student who sits unnoticed in the back, seldom speaking or doing anything to attract notice, and one day she turns out to be the valedictorian.

As if this weren’t enough, the building thrusts itself off a hillside so as to create a vivid illusion of flying when you’re seated in the dining room. So there’s our contradiction: a straightforward, mild-mannered building conceals a heart of drama.

Pacific Science Center, 1962

Seattle-born and UW-educated Minoru Yamasaki is the local boy who made good, the first Seattle architect to build an international reputation. His local work is a decidedly mixed bag, however. Downtown two Yamasaki high-rises face off across Fifth Avenue and University Street, each with a gigantic gesture at its base that tries to solve the problem of how to make a skyscraper hit the street with something other than a colossal thud and also humanize the plaza space around it. He encircled the 1964 Union Bank Building (originally the IBM Building) with a loggia of gigantic arches, and in 1977 positioned the Rainier Tower atop a concrete base tapering like a wineglass stem, seemingly defying gravity and the quakes of our future. But, in both cases, the towers themselves are so routinely ordinary, and the public spaces under their grand gestures so oppressively bleak, that the buildings are difficult to like.

That leaves the Pacific Science Center, which is not a great building but is a very interesting experiment in creating an almost otherworldly effect through insistent repetition of a single form — the pointed arch, which Yamasaki returned to again and again, like a leitmotif. The courtyard’s pools are enclosed by a lacy filigree of pointed-arch forms in various scales, and dominated by free-standing sculptural arches. Both the spatial effect and mood are unlike anything else in the Northwest, maybe the whole world. The geometric theme and relentless whiteness etch themselves onto the visitor’s retina, the visual equivalent of an earworm. It’s tedious and fascinating at the same time. Yamasaki took important steps toward integrating ornamental expression into modernism, and this is a document of that struggle.

University Unitarian Church, 1959

6556 35th Ave. N.E.

This is another Paul Hayden Kirk building, and another sly deviation from modernist orthodoxy. Contemplating it from the street, that external skeleton of 2×8 lumber thrusting into the sky seems like a perfect modernist fusion of function and decoration, an exposed framework that both holds up the sanctuary roof and serves to advertise the church’s presence. If you look closer, you see that it isn’t actually quite that honest — the real load-bearing posts are inside, and they’re steel, not fir. But by the time you figure this out, you’ve probably been bewitched by the building’s innate integrity in every other detail.

Like Mies, Kirk understood that refined details, even when executed in the most ordinary materials, could be beautiful. In this building he repeated a motif of vertical wooden posts or planks in different forms as a kind of theme-and-variations. They appear as walls, doors and decorative screens. In the exoskeleton and suspended choir loft pairs of vertical beams clasp a single horizontal beam in an intersection with a bolt. Piece by piece, the building explains how it’s built.

The interior of the sanctuary feels dated, partly because of the original molded plastic seats (so au courant in 1959) and more seriously because of a paucity of daylight. Would it damage the historic integrity to replace the seats and respectfully add a strip of clerestory windows on the east side? Not in my opinion, but that’s an issue for another time.

The Space Needle, 1962

How can we leave the Space Needle out? It’s the essence of the 1960s.

Yes, it’s kitsch — we can’t entirely dismiss Jonathan Raban’s comment that living with it is “rather like having to put up with a black-velvet portrait of Jesus on one’s living room wall.” But it’s also noble in the way it expresses the ambitions of a city and an era. And it’s better architecture than it’s given credit for. The cartoonish imagery of the flying-saucer trinket at the top almost doesn’t matter because the gesture of lofting it up there is so dramatic. The power is in Victor Steinbrueck’s legs. Compare the imitation towers that arose afterward in San Antonio, Calgary and Las Vegas, and you get it: The Space Needle is more verb than noun.

A few years ago the British philosopher Alain de Botton wrote a provocative book titled “The Architecture of Happiness” in which he struggled to tease out the meaning of architecture and its spiritual impact. “It is architecture’s task to render vivid to us who we might ideally be,” he wrote, which in truth is asking more than we can reasonably expect. Thing is, in the ’60s there were architects who believed this, and reached for it, and on a few luminous occasions came close. Those are the buildings we preserve.

Lawrence W. Cheek is an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects and a freelance architecture critic.