The tyranny of the right, architecturally speaking

The regimentation of the right angle is making Seattle's streetscape tedious. Curves may be more difficult and costly to build, but a little nonlinear thinking by designers can go a long way.

Curves are a focal point of the design for this award-winning Orcas Island residence.

Curves are a focal point of the design for this award-winning Orcas Island residence. Heliotrope Architects

NBBJ's 401 Terry Building breaks from the right-angle rule, greeting the street with a nested concave form.

NBBJ's 401 Terry Building breaks from the right-angle rule, greeting the street with a nested concave form. Lawrence W. Cheek

NBBJ's 505 Union Station building: trying a little too hard.

NBBJ's 505 Union Station building: trying a little too hard. Lawrence W. Cheek

Straight lines and right angles flow in and out of architectural fashion, and today we seem stuck in a stubborn round of straightness.

Perpendicular modernism is especially pervasive here in the Pacific Northwest, as you’ll readily see if you prowl the last several years’ online galleries of AIA Seattle award winners. In fact, if you could personally visit the three top honorees of 2008 — the Montlake branch library, a Federal Way teen center, and a 5,000 square-foot private residence — you’d find not one curved surface or other-than-right angle anywhere, aside from the porcelain thrones in the bathrooms.

“Curves cost more,” simply explains architect Joseph Herrin, a partner in Seattle’s Heliotrope. “And most projects have budget constraints.”

Heliotrope won one of the 2010 AIA awards, however, and it was the sole project among last year’s winners that prominently featured a curved form. It’s a private residence on Orcas Island, and Herrin believes the curve was worth the trouble because of the site. The house is a long, skinny box that mildly wraps in boomerang form around a prominent rock outcropping. If it hadn’t been for the geology he wouldn’t have done it; most of the firm’s work is right-angled and straight-arrowed.

The curve caused considerable extra effort, such as forcing the roofer to cut precise trapezoidal panels. But it wasn’t unreasonable. “We only interview contractors who are used to pain-in-the-ass projects,” Herrin says.

There’s an array of excellent reasons for architects not to indulge in tricky angles and swoopy lines. As Herrin noted, they add cost — and the choked budgets of the recession have surely reinforced the trend to boxitecture. Curves are an automatically inefficient use of space, since most furniture and cabinetry is designed to fit straight and vertical walls. Most city street grids and building lots are based on right angles, so oddly shaped buildings may not fit into tight urban spaces.

And where these restraints don’t apply, there’s evidence that architects tend to come unhinged from reality and create shapes that would better be left on the planet Mongo, from whence they came. A few star architects have come up with sculpturally elegant shapes for some of their buildings. Among the best is Santiago Calatrava, whose stunning Milwaukee Art Museum pavilion bridges the gulf between architecture and sculpture. But many more are kooky, self-indulgent, frequently dysfunctional expressions of ego, a striving for effect rather than beauty. It’s probably not necessary to point out the most lamentable local example, at 5th Avenue and Broad Street.

But still, the regimentation of the right angle is making Seattle’s streetscapes increasingly tedious and predictable. Walk through the South Lake Union district, the one urban neighborhood that’s sustained a construction boom through the recession, and what you see is a logjam of uptight boxes that stretches almost unbroken from the lakefront to Mercer. It’s like a symposium featuring a dawn-to-dusk lineup of droning professors. Some may have intelligent and substantive things to say, but the overall effect is soporific. You ache for some dramatic interlude, a wacko protester in a gorilla suit, anything.

The neighborhood’s two best buildings in the current boom are Miller Hull’s “Discovery Center” and the unnamed 401 Terry office building by NBBJ. Neither aspires to sculpture or that gorilla interlude, but the Discovery Center (the possibly temporary presentation building for Vulcan Real Estate’s SLU Monopoly board game) features a dramatic shed roof that at least begins to crack the tyranny of the right angle. The 401 Terry building greets the street with a nested concave facade extrusion that overhangs the sidewalk, providing a skosh of rain shelter, but more importantly jazzing up the block with elegantly curved forms in the sky.

This NBBJ building, in fact, demonstrates how much one  modest and relatively formal nonlinear form grafted onto a box can do to enliven a neighborhood. You don’t have to hire Calatrava.

It’s a slippery slope, though, as another NBBJ building, the Vulcan headquarters at 505 Union Station shows. This building’s colliding, spilling and tilting forms decidedly show off modern curtain-wall technology, but compositionally it’s an incoherent mess: too many big ideas all jostling and competing for attention. There’s also something inherently discomforting about an 11-story wall that leans and looms over the street, defying gravity and common sense. We’ll accept it if it has obvious functional logic or graceful sculptural beauty, but this has neither. Virtuosic technology sometimes sucks architects and their clients into believing that because we can build something extravagant, therefore we should. No, not necessarily.


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Comments:

Posted Tue, Mar 29, 9:14 a.m. Inappropriate

As a person who has done the electrical construction in these buildings as they go up, the one cost that never is mentioned is the cost of maintenance. In Sound Transit’s Tukwila Station, there are four lights that, when the lamps burn out, the cost to change the lamps will cause the lamps to never be replaced, i.e. close the rail down, bring a crane in to lift a boom style manlift onto the tracks and change the lamps. Another building that architects like to crow about is the Seattle main library. Several lights in this building will need extensive staging to replace lamps when they burn out. All at a tremendous cost not just in dollars but also in down time for that area of the building. When we, as craftsmen mention these issues to the architects in meetings, the standard response is “we know, and we do not care, to modify, as it would change our building statement.” I am all for square buildings, especially public structures which should last for six or seven decades. Keeping down maintenance is a reasonable expectation of our public officials.

Posted Tue, Mar 29, 10:28 a.m. Inappropriate

I see what you mean. It's like changing a major arterial into a park, and then complaining about all the motorists who are honking their horns..?

jmrolls

Posted Tue, Mar 29, 11:13 a.m. Inappropriate

I think the author needs to take another run at what may or may not be troubling Seattle architecture.

Curves are not necessary to be pedestrian friendly, which, in theory, is what Seattle says it's now all about.

Many, myself included, covet Portland's classic, pedestrian friendly Main Library set substantially back from the street on all sides graced with heritage trees that were never an afterthought. Background buildings are again something else, where curves are not the heart of the matter, although certainly not forbidden.

What South Lake Union still lacks is a centerpiece that makes sense of a growing collection of large background buildings, and that takes a reason for being. Raising the height limits, now the rage in the surrounding area, if not SLU, misses the mark too.

I do agree that background buildings have gotten better over the years, inside and out.

afreeman

Posted Tue, Mar 29, 5:56 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with Larry Cheek about curves, but hope Seattle has had its fill of the corn-cob fad that gave us the Westin twins.

Posted Wed, Mar 30, 2:25 p.m. Inappropriate

Now THOSE are Seattle icons. (Seriously)

mhays

Posted Wed, Mar 30, 4:05 p.m. Inappropriate

NBBJ's building leans over the pedestrians on 4th Ave daring them to walk past the building. What a design that basically says "you people down there are small and powerless." It's the FU school of architecture that prevails around here. Buildings that for their owners are castles to their wealth.

The Experience Music Hall shows why curvilinear buildings don't work. It's all swoopy outside but inside the surface is coated in fire proofing which looks like old spiderwebs gone bad, and the interior rooms are square, sort of stuck inside however they would fit. It totally doesn't mesh with the exterior.

As for the electrician, it's too bad trades people and architects can't work together better. Because things like unreachable light fixtures could have been fixed on the CAD program. It's not that hard and it doesn't ruin good design to make it maintainable.

GaryP

Posted Thu, Mar 31, 8:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Thanks for "elevating the design discussion" in Seattle. Seriously, this article has sparked speculatively discussions about the value of curves verses right angles and the whether light fixtures shall always be within OSHA accessible heights. How do they change all those hard to reach lightbulbs, like on the Space Needle? What a thought provoking editorial.

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Posted Mon, Apr 4, 8:49 a.m. Inappropriate

Seattle architecture should take a cue from Mr. Cheek's writing style. Vivid imagery enhanced by metaphor and simile and dotted with words that surprised and stimulated the brain. I had to scroll down to see who the writer was before finishing the article.

Posted Thu, Apr 7, 11:02 a.m. Inappropriate


This is why the network of cul-de-sacs in the suburbs is far more natural and a better traffic softener than the "urbist grids" that the density hucksters keep pushing.

Learn from Kent, Seattle.

jabailo

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