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

The Henry M. Jackson Federal Building, a Fred Bassetti original. Credit: 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.

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