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At UW, computer science & nuclear history spar

Historic Nuclear Reactor Building on UW campus. Credit: Abby Martin

Back in 2008, a group of University of Washington students and preservationists rose up to oppose the demolition of the More Hall Annex on the UW campus. Otherwise known as the Nuclear Reactor Building, the annex is a very cool piece of architecture and history.

Built like a mid-century concrete cabana, the Nuke Building was the result of an unusual collaboration of the university’s top architectural talent of the 1960s — architects Wendell Lovett, Gene Zema and Daniel Streissguth. The trio designed a structure that could safely house a small “teaching reactor” for student nuclear engineers, but also included enough windows to make the secretive process of generating nuclear energy literally more transparent.

It was shedding light on what goes on in the bunker.

Architecture critic Lawrence Cheek tried to describe the building’s quirkiness in the Seattle P-I: “It’s the most bizarre and anomalous building on campus, a structure that vaguely resembles a ’60s swoop-roof diner with fins flying out from under the eaves — all executed in concrete. To some of us, it’s the bastard love child of Brutalism and Burger King.”

To others, it’s powerfully reflective of the 1960s’ hot-house era of science and engineering. It has stood as a kind of quiet, pioneering model of technology and innovation in the wake of Sputnik, not to mention a show of the UW’s own design talent. Still, the building is unused and unloved by the university. It planned to tear it down for new construction.

But, in 2009, the preservationists, led by then-grad student Abby Martin, pushed back on demo plans and got the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places over the objections of the university. The UW subsequently shelved demolition plans, took down the white board, and the structure has remained standing and neglected since—the plaza around it looks to be used as a kind of outdoor smoking lounge with cigarette butts all over. Nevertheless, the building still awaits some kind of creative repurposing. Suggestions have included a museum devoted to Washington’s atomic era.

There is growing interest in preserving Cold War era structures and telling the tales of the Atomic Age. Late last year, for example, Congress approved the creation of a string of new National Park sites related to the Manhattan Project, including Hanford, Oak Ridge and Los Alamos. Hanford’s B Reactor is already a national landmark.

Now, however, the old UW demolition threat has returned. The university, in the midst of a construction boom, is hoping to build a new $100-million, 130,000 square-foot Computer Science Engineering facility on the site. (The project is called CSE II, an expansion of the Paul Allen Center across Stevens Way.)

The demand for computer science training is increasing, according to Rebecca Barnes, university architect and associate vice provost for campus planning. “Computer science grads are highly sought after,” she says, and there is strong support at the UW, from the Legislature and within the tech industry for expansion. Barnes says more undergrads with non-engineering majors are also expected to take classes in computer science and the new facility expands classroom space.

The More Hall Annex site, which is adjacent, is an attractive potential location for the new building, which could be connected to the Allen Center by a tunnel. LMN architects has been selected and the UW has asked the Legislature for $40 million for the project. The balance, some $60 million, would be raised from other sources.

That could very likely mean demolition of the historic structure. A State Environmental Policy Act Scoping Notice for the new project should be issued shortly, with a Draft Environmental Impact Statement to follow. Those documents should lay out potential impacts on the building and evaluate the pros and cons of alternative sites. The public will have a chance to comment.

Members of the preservation community have been advocating that the old structure be preserved and possibly incorporated into a new building rather than be destroyed. The project is still in the very preliminary design phase.

Historic Seattle, the public non-profit heritage group that rescues and re-purposes historic properties, is advocating for the Nuclear Reactor Building. On Feb. 13, the group organized a preemptive, pre-Valentine’s Day “heart bombing” of the facility, designed to bring attention to the fact that the annex is again at risk.

Preservationists, students and some UW staff and faculty came to express their love for the building holding heart-shaped signs. “Dear More Hall Annex,” one read, “My Love for You is Concrete.” Others were equally pun-laden: “Radiating Love for Architecture,” “You Make Me React,”  “It’s Hard to be Brutal-ist” and “UW Have a Heart.”

Signs of Love: Historic Seattle’s heart-bombing of the Nuke Building. Credit: John Shea
Signs of Love: Historic Seattle’s heart-bombing of the Nuke Building. Credit: John Shea

Martin, who successfully applied for historic status on behalf of the Nuclear Reactor Building seven years ago, made a case for the importance of the structure. In it, she wrote, “Although memory is inconvenient, the physical repercussions of nuclear technology have been embedded in the modern world. The Nuclear Reactor Building, as a public nuclear structure, is an artifact of a period which it is our obligation to remember….”

As old Cold War tensions are revived (see Russian and the Ukraine), as the reality and legacy of nuclear power and weapons is still with us, as the relevance of remembering both the good and bad of technological innovation is greater than ever, especially on a campus that is increasingly devoted to advancing technology and engineering and the commercialization of it’s research, the Nuke Building has more to teach us than ever.

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