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Fred Bassetti's legacy: Modernism that feels good to the human hand

The legendary Northwest architect died this week at age 96. But his brand of warmed up modernism lives on.
The Henry M. Jackson Federal Building, a Fred Bassetti original.

The Henry M. Jackson Federal Building, a Fred Bassetti original. Photo: Flickr user brewbooks

Editor's Note: Fred Bassetti, a leading figure in Seattle architecture, died this week at the age of 96. What follows is a version of a story written in 2008 for Crosscut, attempting to define the influence Bassetti had on Northwest architecture.

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, Fred Bassetti was a key figure, along with his great architectural buddy, the late Ibsen Nelsen, and others such as Ralph Anderson, George Bartholick and Grant Jones. They were early, loud, persuasive, tenacious 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, for whom Bassetti worked briefly and who had a great influence on Nelsen. Aalto 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." Put your hand down on a Bassetti design (railings, door handles, edges) and it feels warm and rounded, often because it's a lovely piece of wood – a reminder of his mother’s Norwegian heritage.

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, alas, but 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 one of his last. It is a wonder. Click here for a slide show. And for a complete accounting of Bassetti’s work and life, read this fine essay/tribute by Marga Rose Hancock in Historylink.org.

But Northwest architectural regionalism 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. In came a dreadful style of bulky, characterless apartment buildings and "Ballardization." 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. We should have listened more to Fred Bassetti and his merry band of friends, with their irrepressible spirit of honest buildings springing from a profound Northwest sensibility.

David Brewster is founder of Crosscut and editor-at-large. You can e-mail him at david.brewster@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Fri, Dec 6, 11:57 a.m. Inappropriate

Fred Bassetti originally designed the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building with his signature red brick exterior, a nod to the Burke Building previously on the site. He was miffed when budget constraints forced a change from brick2 to concrete. Years later, he reflected that had he to do it over again, he would have designed a low-rise building surrounding a central courtyard and filling the complete block. The awkward red brick staircases on the East-West streets are a vestige of his original vision.

gabowker

Posted Fri, Dec 6, 4:08 p.m. Inappropriate

in 1970 I first met Fred Bassetti when he and George Bartholick, Ibsen Nelsen and Victor Stienbrueck were having lunch at a window table in the Athenian Inn in the Pike Place Market. In those days fred favored the bow tie; his lunch a simple cup of soup and a singular roll with water, no beer. Fred and the gang were champions of saving the Public Market and for a preservationist renewal of Pioneer Square. They met frequently at Brasserie Pittsbourg, drafting their plans for the future city on paper table cloths. Fred did the Triangle Building renovation in the Public Market and later the new US Embassy in Lisbon Portugal. I recall hearing of Fred and wife Gwen bicycling through parts of Italy when Fred was near 80! He was a complete person, not unwilling to learn from his mistakes. He told me during an interview for SCCtv of his first job after college, designing a home for Mercer Island . The Modernist aesthetic of his college days demanded that he put a flat roof on his design and sure enough the roof leaked due to the wet weather of the Northwest. Deeply embarrassed by this championing of style over context Fred vowed never again to be dominated by style over the needs of the project. If interested the complete 1/2 hour video of Fred Bassetti (2004) can be found at SCCtv.net; just under the heading ORIGINAL PROGRAMMING select ARTWORK and Fred Bassetti.....he's at his best. The humble houseboat he and Gwen live in says volumes about the man. A true Seattle great.

chapala21

Posted Sat, Dec 7, 8:18 a.m. Inappropriate

I interviewed Fred Bassetti in 2011 while researching my Space Needle book. We met at a Starbucks on Eastlake--he was still driving--and we talked about the architecture of the fair, Jack Graham, Victor Steinbrueck. He told me in detail about the collapse of the Bassetti and Morse fair gateway, and the last-second replacement with the "space age totem poles." About the Needle, he remembered bumping into Victor one day on the street and Steinbrueck saying he was designing a restaurant 500 feet in the sky. He gave me a panorama of the city that marked all his projects and I was blown away by the cumulative impact he's had on Seattle. But he was into so many other things: inventing toys, traveling the country consulting on bomb-shelter and nuke-proof factory design. You think about his contributions to the zoo, the aquarium, the market, our public buildings (federal, city, university), the Market, on and on. But there's so much more there. His legacy is mind-blowing.

Posted Sat, Dec 7, 8:28 a.m. Inappropriate

Fred Bassetti's legacy mind-blowing? Not hardly.

His service to his community, legacy of design and quality, and deep involvement, curiosity and intelligence and inventiveness isn't "mind-blowing", it's what helped make Seattle have personality, and allowed us to grow.

If only the generation in place and the one following had half his abilities, Seattle wouldn't be in such turmoil and downtown such a filthy mess.

Leadership comes from within, and that is missing.

Posted Sat, Dec 7, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

From colonial times most architects west of the Mississippi took their design sensibility from the East Coast schools and publications. They were/are cultural messengers from a more advanced society, where all the ideas, rationalizations and theories come from. I think the Bassetti firm transcended that model; their work pursued an aesthetic that was their own, at least as far as I know. They developed a recognizable and theoretically coherent design philosophy that, at its best (e. g., the UW Engineering Library) was beyond excellent.

The only thing I will miss about the Alaska Way Viaduct is the arresting view of the Federal Office Building in all its calm solidity; it makes most of the other tall buildings in Seattle look hasty and ephemeral. Someone wrote a poem about one of HH Richardson's buildings that seems to apply.. "..foursquare and proud she stands..", something like that.

kieth

Posted Sun, Dec 8, 12:46 a.m. Inappropriate

Holy cow, you people would've done great as delegates to some Soviet party conference, praising the latest five-year plan. Seattle architects have repeatedly hit this city with the ugly stick for decades and decades, and you want to praise the father of it all? How crazy can ya get?

NotFan

Posted Tue, Dec 10, 4:30 p.m. Inappropriate

His work wasn't that great. It looked good on paper. In practice, it sometimes didn't work out.

Take the Federal Building shown here. Nice enough from afar; rather like your middle-aged neighbor. But the steps at the southwest corner are a failure. They were supposed to be a place that people would hang out, a civic statement, but no one ever goes there. For one thing, there's very little sun. For another, they're cold and miserable to sit in. Like many design intentions, they are silly.

Posted Tue, Dec 10, 5:26 p.m. Inappropriate

As Fred himself said, it takes 2/3s of a lifetime to grasp your first sentence, and that's assuming the lifetime involved extends well beyond 90 years of age, which by then, fewer and fewer have time to listen, even in China.

afreeman

Posted Tue, Dec 10, 9:14 p.m. Inappropriate

From what's been written here, good ol' Fred sounds like he was the perfect "progressive" in these parts -- not very good at his job, but affable, and able to assemble a series of cliches that his fellow "progressives" chose to call profound. The federal building? It's an egg crate tipped on its side and cast in concrete. This is good architecture? Good God, you people are even worse than I thought!

NotFan

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