Recently, there was an event at the UW's Gould Hall showcasing the career of 87-year-old Seattle architect Wendell Lovett, whose work ranges from mid-century modern homes (like his house in Bellevue's Hilltop neighborhood) to contemporary geek gothic structures like the Charles Simonyi mansion ("Villa Simonyi") in Medina. The house was famous during the booming '90s when anybody who was anybody in the Silicon Forest had at least one construction crane marking their new domain. Today, ex-Microsoftie Simonyi can afford an even more precious status symbol: The billionaire has actually flown into space twice. Take that, Bill and Paul!
Too bad Wendell Lovett didn't design the International Space Station because he's brilliant with science structures, as evidenced by his lead design work on the UW's endangered Nuclear Reactor Building (More Hall Annex), a building that once housed a live "teaching" reactor. The Nuke Building is under consideration for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places and, sadly, on the university's list of structures to be removed. When I talked to Lovett last year, he was clear that he wasn't happy about the building's being demolished, and it seems weird that it would be given Lovett's stature and the fact that he's a proud homegrown product of the UW itself, having been both student and professor there.
Modern architecture preservationists hope to save it, and an architectural historian I talked to, Hank Florence from the National Park Service, which oversees National Register nominations, says they are intrigued by the building because it offers a chance to tell the nuclear story in an urban setting. Most atomic structures, like Hanford's historic B-Reactor, are in remote locations, by design. In the beginning, they were secret and isolated for public safety. Interest is growing in Cold War and atomic history, and there is much to be told about our role in both the peaceful and wartime uses of nuclear power. The status of the National Register application is that it is being updated by the state's Department of Archaeology and History Preservation. The UW is expected to issue a revised EIS soon.
Wonderful as it is resembling a kind of concrete suburban cabana where one might host a barbecue (as preservation advocates did last year), the Nuke Building doesn't do full justice to the Lovett legacy. One of the things that came through in the UW tribute (hosted by the college's library head and architecture scholar Alan Michelson and attended by Lovett himself) was that he is not a modernist minimalist of the Mies van der Rohe school but, as one of the presenters said, a maximalist.
Many modern homes seem like underfed fashion models: all edges and anorexia. Where's the life, the mess, the people? Lovett's projects have a playful quality, they aren't austere but are meant to be lived in, and Lovett is happy to accommodate by inventing everything from origami-inspired chairs to plastic tables to hooded free-standing fireplaces, all of which make habitation of his homes more comfortable and more stylish.
Architecturally he's an inveterate story-teller. A man who has worked with Lovett on many projects, Charles Williams III, told how he creates a kind of story with the way people enter and move through the living spaces. You might have to follow a hallway and pass through a room or two, for example, before getting to the main view, a choreographed exercise in "delayed gratification." Lovett has a way of leaving crumbs that draw you into a space, then compel you to keep going.
This is partly due to the fact that, as UW architectural Prof. Grant Hildebrand told us, Lovett believes that certain basic "natural" spaces belonged in every home, a sort of archetypal interior landscaping. Lovett's homes always contain a space that plays the role of a meadow, another that of the cave. These appeal to basic instincts. The architect is no slave to cold uniformity either. A Lovett dictum: "Symmetry equals death!"
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