"Wagner's music is better than it sounds," wrote the 19th-century humorist Bill Nye (Edgar Wilson Nye), and the quip attaches just as easily to Paul Thiry's architecture. Thiry's work is deeper, richer, more carefully thought out than a casual glance suggests.
Thiry was the architect who introduced modernism to Seattle in the 1930s, and he enjoyed a long, distinguished, and controversial career here. He died in 1993, but made news freshly this spring when a beach house of his design in Normandy Park went on the market for $1 (plus some $200,000 in moving costs to save it from demolition). Sunset had featured the house on a cover in 1968, praising its "sculptured form that almost suggests a gull poised for flight." Several readers commenting on a Seattle Times story on the threatened demolition were less laudatory. "Looks like George Jetson's house, but without the charm,'ê wrote one.
Another went straight to the precast heart of the public's enduring antagonism toward midcentury modernism: "Can we all just move on from the era of poured concrete? ... I have yet to see [a concrete building] that didn't look just like State Built Housing, either from East Germany or the Soviet Union."
No one scooped up the Normandy Park house, and it was demolished.
Houses weren't Thiry's best work, and it's difficult to view them anyway — several in the Denny Blaine and Madison Park neighborhoods are all but obscured with landscaping. To best understand Thiry's under-appreciated contribution to modernism, take a perimeter hike around KeyArena and check out the immense concrete tripods that carry the roof load to ground.
This is structure as sculpture, and it's never been done better. The beams form a geometric fandango of creases and wedges that makes perfect sense structurally, and yet it's consciously emotional and beautiful as well. It changes dramatically with the play of sunlight at different times of day. This is what mid-century modernism was supposed to be about.
Thiry was born in Alaska in 1904 to French parents attracted by the Gold Rush. He started studies in pre-med at the University of Washington, but veered into architecture after the first cat dissection. He absorbed classical Beaux-Arts training at UW, but then wandered the world for a year, meeting pioneer modernists Le Corbusier in France and Antonin Raymond in Japan. When he returned to Seattle in 1935, he was no longer interested in the mock Swiss chalets and Renaissance revival public buildings that had largely occupied American architects up through the 1920s.
In an extensive oral history in the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Thiry recalls that "I was subject to a lot of ha-ha-ing and criticism ... they thought I just came over from some socialist society or something." But he believed that modernism offered expressive possibilities where the historic costume party had failed. Instead of squeezing a building's functions into a picturesque envelope largely dictated by its historic form, a creative architect could play with views, breezes, light, and shadow, and the internal functions its occupants wanted, and all these matters could inform the building.
In designing a room, Thiry told historian Meredith Clausen, "I thought of the moon and the shadows it would make. You think of gray days, you think of rain, you know, as an atmosphere. You have to think of shadows different objects cast — the leaves, the branches of the trees ... And if you design a room with the full consideration for all of the aspects of environment, why, you don't really design one room, you design a thousand rooms within a single room."
Thiry also had some progressive thinking at the urban scale, and Seattle might profitably have listened. He furiously opposed the Alaskan Way Viaduct, though when it finally appeared inevitable, he unsuccessfully offered to design it. When the I-5 slash through the city was approved in 1957, he saw another disaster in the making, but proposed sinking the freeway all the way through downtown and building a lid park over it. He was unimpressed with Lawrence Halprin's eventual five-acre Freeway Park, dismissing it as "a small park of no consequence, whereas the other would have been ... another Champs Elysees."
"He was a formidable guy," recalls Mercer Island architect Jerry Gropp, who worked as an unpaid intern in Thiry's office in 1944. "He took architecture as a very serious thing, and expected others to do the same."
One of Thiry's strongest designs is Tacoma's Christ Episcopal Church, and it serves well to illustrate the enduring disconnect between modernist theory and public affection.
It's a tough, raw concrete building that draws at least spiritual inspiration from Le Corbusier's chapel at Ronchamps, a building Thiry admired. Like Ronchamps, it walls out the world, creating a dark cocoon where the only admitted daylight squeezes through tiny stained-glass windows and one knee-high ribbon window beside a reflective pool and garden wall.
A great structural curve in the concrete embraces the chancel where the liturgy takes place, symbolically affirming its central importance. It's an easy building to respect but a tough one to like, and the difference between the two verbs, one connecting with the intellect and the other with emotion, sums up the problem with even the best buildings of that era (the worst are neither respectable nor likable).
Thiry's Mercer Island Presbyterian Church, built seven years earlier in 1962, looks like the work of a kinder, gentler architect. The walls are tilt-up concrete aggregate, but the roof seems to float weightlessly over a concourse of generous clerestory windows that welcome a universe of daylight. The roof itself — an extremely complicated "inverted hyperbolic parabola form," as Thiry precisely described it — issues from the same structure-as-sculpture impulse as those KeyArena tripods.
Thiry left a substantial array of significant work in the Puget Sound area, including the 1951 Frye Art Museum (considerably remodeled), the 1958 Washington State Library in Olympia (now the Pritchard Building, housing legislative offices), and the 1962 St. Demetrios Greek Orthodox Church in Seattle.
They all have merit, though none qualifies as an architectural icon. Nor does Key Arena — though it's a better building, both in function and intellectual integrity, than our all-too-prominent 21st-century icons, EMP and the Central Library.
Thiry was searching for a way out of the deceptively confining trap of historicism, and he tried a lot of different avenues. Some worked better than others. The Normandy Park house, honestly, was more cantilevered motel wing than gull poised for flight. But it's worth looking for the surprising grace embedded in many of Thiry's buildings.
They're better than we think.