The case for revivalist architecture in Pioneer Square

With a number of large sites waiting to be developed, it's time to ditch Modernism and mesh with the neighborhood's historical style.
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Cadillac Hotel, sensitively restored after the Nisqually earthquake

With a number of large sites waiting to be developed, it's time to ditch Modernism and mesh with the neighborhood's historical style.

Future development in Pioneer Square, an urgent issue in these hard times for the Square, needs to be more sensitive to the fragile nature of the district'ꀙs historical roots. Modernism is not a successful strategy for compatibility. Property owners and designers need to look to the past for answers.

The economic vitality of Pioneer Square is struggling, as poignantly evidenced by the district'ꀙs most famous retailer, Elliot Bay Books, which has relocated to Capitol Hill. Starting in December 2009, Seattle'ꀙs Office of Economic Development (OED) began an initiative to revitalize Pioneer Square. With OED'ꀙs help, along with local volunteer groups and the folks from the national Main Street program, the district is gathering around a series of attainable strategies that will help it regain its place as one of Seattle'ꀙs most desirable urban neighborhoods.

Pioneer Square is Seattle'ꀙs first neighborhood, and its collection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings is not only unmatched in our region but, outside of the Eastern Seaboard, is one of the most important historical districts in the country. In anticipation of future growth as we emerge from the current economy, and as Pioneer Square is able to tackle its other social and political issues, it is a good time to reflect on what has happened from a growth standpoint in recent decades and what needs to be considered for Pioneer Square to once again flourish. I think we can all agree that in order to preserve the neighborhood's character, the rehabilitation of existing buildings as well as the construction of new buildings must be done in a way that is appropriate to their very specific surroundings.

There have been a number of fine examples of sensitive restorations completed in recent years, including the Cadillac Hotel (almost destroyed in the Nisqually earthquake), the Washington Shoe Company, and the recently completed Pacific Commercial Building on South Main Street and Second Avenue South. These outstanding examples demonstrate what is possible in Pioneer Square and have added greatly to its legacy. The Pioneer Square Preservation Board (PSPB) deserves a lot of credit for work they have done to ensure the high quality of these sensitive restorations.

By contrast, new buildings have been less sensitive additions to Pioneer Square's delicate tapestry. Buildings like the King Street Center, the 505 First Avenue, and the Olympic Block feel like new neighbors that really didn't understand the nature of the existing neighborhood. Even though efforts were made to design the facades to be compatible with their adjoining buildings, the differentiation from their neighbors became more apparent than any similarities.

The most obvious problems are issues relating to scale. While the majority of the buildings in Pioneer Square have a street frontage of 40 to 60 feet, these buildings are at least twice or three times as wide. Developer Liz Dunn commented at a recent Urban Land Institute event that repeating the rhythm of building width was vital to maintaining the feel of the existing urban fabric of Capitol Hill. The same is most definitely true for Pioneer Square. One could even go so far as to suggest that moderately taller buildings would be more viable if the street frontage rhythm carefully matched the existing storefronts.

Smaller-scale details are of critical importance too. Unlike the older buildings which are expressive in their language, the newer buildings are often abstracted and flattened, eliminating detail and hierarchy. Modernism, for all its genuine successes, has provided the 'ꀜexcuse'ꀝ of minimalism to less capable designers and builders to create cheap-looking and flat architecture. For example, windows in original Pioneer Square buildings are predominately double hung or casement. Those styles are even encouraged in current guidelines.

But modernism suggests that windows in new buildings should be near-floor-to-ceiling sections of glass with aluminum frames. All of the layers of complexity as well as the detail and beauty that a punched window brings to a facade are lost when walls are dissolved and replaced wholesale with glass. As a result these buildings don't seem to have a connection to Pioneer Square.

Unfortunately, the approach of constructing 'revivalist' architecture has provoked disapproval from many practicing architects and preservationists over the last six decades.

One could argue that they could have been built anywhere in the rest of downtown Seattle or, for that matter, any of number of other cities in the nation. In allowing these buildings to be built, a process of erosion has been accelerated. Over time, as other important development sites are filled with inappropriate designs, the cohesiveness that makes Pioneer Square unique will likely disappear forever.

There are a number of critical large-scale sites yet to be developed. The most significant is the half-block site along Occidental Avenue South bordered by South King and South Washington streets. The second site is the large open parking lot on the corner of Occidental Avenue South and South Washington Street. The third site is the quarter block across from the fire department on Second Avenue South and South Main Street. The owners and architects of these important sites should adopt a strategy of designing buildings that closely resemble the prevailing styles in Pioneer Square. By doing so they will be able to sustain a sense of continuity and language with the district.

Consider the possibility of a single block-long monolith along the east side of Occidental Square. Such a building would certainly would be out of scale with the surrounding buildings. To alleviate that, the facade should be segmented to provide more architectural interest and to break down the monotony and scale of a 200-foot-plus facade. The goal should be to create compatible designs without replicating any one building in the district.

Unfortunately, the approach of constructing 'ꀜrevivalist'ꀝ architecture has provoked disapproval from many practicing architects and preservationists over the last six decades. In fact, in what may seem to be an apparent contradiction, constructing period-correct architecture actually runs counter to mainstream preservation guidelines including the Secretary of the Interior'ꀙs Standards for Rehabilitating Historic Buildings, the de facto guidelines for preservation nationally. But looking at a longer view of history, before modernism, designing new structures that relied on traditional forms is what most architects had always done. An early but well-known example is the addition on the Campidoglio on Capitoline Hill in Rome, by Michelangelo in 1537.

Since the 1940s, modernism has been accepted as the style of our time. The argument continues that deliberate imitation of any previous style is considered untruthful and false because it is 'ꀜnot of our time.'ꀝ Today, a growing group of current architectural practitioners have revived traditional architecture and urbanism, allowing us to remove the straight jacket of modernism as the only contemporary style. If, collectively, we feel that traditional solutions are more appropriate in order to sustain the continuity of a particular place, then we should not be constrained by guidelines that may not be relevant.

We preserve not only because buildings are of historical significance and windows to the past, but also because it is where we want to work and live. This does not mean that we want to live in the past. It simply means that historical buildings offer benefits and qualities that newer buildings do not provide. Pioneer Square is appreciated and loved not just because of its historical roots but because it offers a truly pedestrian-centric urban neighborhood, built at a human scale, surrounded by beautiful buildings.

The style works for Pioneer Square, why discard it? We should be leveraging it — redoubling our efforts to preserve and strengthen this legacy for generations to come.


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