With The Seattle Times
forced to make cuts, I hope they will continue being an unusual paper that puts out a Sunday magazine, with the local version called Pacific Northwest
. One good example is an interview with Seattle architect Fred Bassetti
, now 91, talking charmingly about life aboard the lovely, wood-embraced houseboat on Portage Bay that he has remodeled over the years.
Bassetti is now a sage, saying such things as "no architect should be designing a house until he's 60 or 70," since before that age an architect hasn't lived enough to know how to build a home. As to where architecture is headed, Bassetti says quietly, "I can't say there's any improvement coming."
It's worth recalling that Bassetti was, ever since the 1960s, an outspoken civic scourge and goad for "improvements." In the early days of Seattle reform politics, starting in the late 1960s with the effort to save the Pike Place Market and toss out the greybeards of the City Council, Bassetti was a key figure, along with his great architectural buddy, the late Ibsen Nelsen. They were early, loud, persuasive voices for urbanism and urban planning, and Seattle owed a great deal to their advocacy.
There was more at stake than saving old treasures like the Market and Pioneer Square, funding the arts, and making streets pedestrian-friendly. Bassetti was a leading advocate for the kind of humane modernism that lay just outside the more severe modernism of the European heartland. A prime example was the Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, a great influence on Nelsen, and one who could make the stripped-down International style appear warmer and more beautiful, without recourse to old-fashioned symbolism.
I remember Bassetti once instructing me that his kind of modernism "felt good to the human hand." Where you put your hand down on a Bassetti design (railings, door handles, edges), it feels warm and rounded, often because it's a lovely piece of wood. As for the regional references he also favored, they were subtle but not literal. He loved to articulate the way rainwater flowed down a roof and alongside buildings, using modern forms rather than historic references to barns or Indian longhouses. He liked buildings that tell the passerby how they were made, reflecting a simpler time of good craftsmanship and skilled Scandinavian carpentry.
For a few decades, I used to hope that this kind of warmed-up modernism, sometimes called "critical regionalism" (as opposed to the more provincial and literal variety), would produce a Northwest school of architecture, with room for many creative geniuses elaborating this vision. Didn't happen. There are two places to see numerous buildings all expressing this spirit. One is the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham
, with strong works by Bassetti and Nelsen and others of their circle. The other is the Hilltop community on the Eastside
(where the modernism is earlier and more uncompromising), settled by many notable local architects who built their homes there.
The most wonderful expression of all is Alvar Aalto's library at Mount Angel in Oregon, one of only two Aalto buildings in America and once of his last. It is a wonder. Click here for a slide show.
But it was not to last, not to be. Instead, what happened was that Seattle architectural firms grew very big and developed strong international business, particularly in Asia. Out went the regional echoes. The bold visions of a Bassetti and Nelsen came to seem quaint. They didn't travel well. And so as Seattle went global in a brutally rapid way, we outgrew our regionalist vocabulary.
Some might think that progress. Not me.