Best of 2010: Three new buildings point up 'The Skyscraper Problem'

High-rise architecture is still trying to solve the problem that the tall buildings rarely work when you get close to them and when they meet the street.

Crosscut archive image.

2201 Westlake, a LEED Gold status winner

High-rise architecture is still trying to solve the problem that the tall buildings rarely work when you get close to them and when they meet the street.

(Editor's note: As the year ends, we are reprinting some of the best stories of 2010 by Crosscut's writers. This story was originally published Jan. 14.)

On a bright day at Kerry Park on Queen Anne, Seattle’s skyline is among the Northwest’s most stunning sights: The natural spectacle of Puget Sound, forested islands, and Mt. Rainier is juiced by the heaven-storming quiver of skyscrapers flanking Elliott Bay. It isn’t hard, from this aerie, to convince yourself that for once, human ambitions are even-up with nature’s endowments.

But that’s the seductive con game of high-rise architecture. Modern city skylines are invariably more dazzling from a distance than up close. The vitality and grandeur we see at a distance is never fulfilled up close or inside the buildings. The composition is better than the quality of its components.

Most of those components are terrible.

Most skyscrapers fail their cities where they meet the ground, and only a few cut a sculpturally enchanting shape in the sky, in compensation. The tall building, despite 120 years of architects’ furious work on it, remains a problem unsolved.

Three new Seattle and Bellevue high-rises form exhibits A, B, and C in the saga of architects trying to attack the Skyscraper Problem. Three vastly different approaches, and at least two obvious struggles. The essential question: Do any of these buildings do us any good?

By far the most arresting member of the trio is Cutler Anderson’s Elements Too, a residential/office complex at 112th Avenue and 110th Street in Bellevue. Although Jim Cutler can offer a rationale for every weird plane and angle of these buildings, this comes off as exhibitionist architecture. It’s the strangest shape in any Northwest skyline.

There are two towers, a 13-story wedge streaking along 112th Avenue, and a 22-story tower with its floors sucked in by 54 feet on the south side and equally paunched out on the north. It looks like a concrete Slinky, or a building in the bloom of late-term pregnancy.

“It’s not willful,” Cutler insists, and goes on to explain how the tray-like residential floors in both towers will “activate” the plaza between them. Likely it will — although no one’s at home yet, and wouldn’t be sitting out in the rainy trays overlooking the plaza even if they were. But it’s easy to imagine vibrant summer life shuttling between ground and towers. That’s something that rarely if ever happens with tall buildings. Cutler has set a revolutionary stage for it here.

The plaza is also unusual because it’s fully public, not private. It’s off the street, slightly hidden among the Elements and a nondescript office box, and finding it is like stumbling onto Oz in a forest of giant file cabinets. Downtown Bellevue has plenty of pocket parks and plazas, but like its buildings, they tend to be pleasantly bland. Cutler’s is angular and jazzy. The architect says the plaza took form first, then he designed the buildings around it. That’s an unusual process, but our urban environments would be more livable if it happened more often.

Interesting as these buildings are, they’re far from beautiful. At street level the midrise wedge forms an appallingly long, forbidding wall along 112th Street, and the tall tower is defended by 15-foot-long concrete ramparts of deadly bleakness. And there’s that slinky-pregnant shape. There are forms that just instinctively make us feel uneasy because of their imbalance or weird proportions, and this is one. It commands attention, but not affection.

The newest Vulcan South Lake Union development is 2201 Westlake, another two-tower office-residential affair. This one was designed by Seattle’s Callison Architecture, and it’s all business — straight-arrow modernism, crisp and clean, a pristine glass and aluminum skin shrink-wrapped around a form with absolutely no geometric funny stuff.

This is architecture of immaculate composure and self-assurance and respectability. It won LEED Gold, the second-highest green-building rating. And it’s just as hard to love as Elements Too, for a different reason. It’s utterly anonymous. It’s devoid of personality or any sense of place; like most every other post-1950 tower in Seattle it could reside just as comfortably in Dallas, Dubai, or Shanghai.

Peter Krech, Callison’s lead architect on the project, says Vulcan wanted to project a cosmopolitan image with this project “to appeal to perhaps a little older, sophisticated, well-traveled clientele.” Its sense of place, he says, will evolve as it gets occupied and tenants’ activities, inside and out, enliven it. Its transparency will allow us to glimpse its interior life. Maybe; we’ll see. Is that a way of saying that the architecture itself is irrelevant?

The coolest feature isn’t a part of the building; it’s the planter-sculptures in the triangular plaza at Denny, Westlake and 9th Avenue, designed by landscape architects Walker Macy of Portland. Remember those old wooden rowboats you’ve seen all over the rural Northwest, left to biodegrade by the roadside after they’ve served out their useful lives? Walker Macy has reinterpreted them here, albeit in steel, half-submerged in the concrete urban sea. Like so many contemporary office buildings, 2201 has had to nuzzle up against sculpture for its character.

Exhibit C is Escala, a 30-story downtown condo at 4th Avenue and Virginia Street, designed by MulvannyG2 of Bellevue and Thoryk Architecture of San Diego.

From its third through 30th story, it’s a burly, broad-shouldered contemporary tower with rounded corners that relate geometrically to the dull drums of the Westin up the next block. But the two-story base belongs to a different universe. It weaves dreamily in and out along the sidewalk, and tarts itself up with a vaguely classical entablature and pilasters. And a decorative frieze that floats somewhere between Mayan glyphs and Art Deco abstraction. And Florentine cast-iron corbels to hold up the rain screens.

This is as silly as skyscrapers get, and it illustrates the most critical aspect of The Problem. What to do where a tall building meets the street and the pedestrian’s eye? How to keep it from slamming into the sidewalk with a colossal thud, oblivious to human scale and street life? Escala’s architects heaped on the gay decoration, and produced a carnival irrelevant both to our current century and the tower above.

The Art Deco skyscraper resolved this issue with ornament that started at the street and continued into the heavens. For all but a tiny fraction of high-rises, that’s impossible today, because it would be too expensive. So what do we do with the Tower Problem?

In 1896 Louis Sullivan thundered out the standard for the emerging tall building: “every inch a proud and soaring thing, rising in sheer exultation from bottom to top without a single dissenting line.” That perfectly encapsulated the idea of the skyscraper as monument to ego and power. But Sullivan didn’t address the humanity or livability of cities choked with soaring things, and didn’t foresee a time when most towers would rise in sullen indifference rather than exultation.

If we truly wanted a beautiful and livable Seattle, we would just quit building skyscrapers and work on reconnecting the city to nature — especially downtown to the waterfront. Bellevue likewise, with the lakeshore that its downtown resolutely ignores.

Obviously, this isn’t going to happen. We’ve invested too deeply in the notions that towers are power and the dense vertical city is actually a sustainability gesture. (That’s debatable, but a topic for another time.)

The second-best solution would be a new high-rise paradigm: not so proud and soaring, but more approachable, more modest in scale, taking more care with detail, giving back more to the street. In the 20th century skyscrapers came to be the ultimate symbols of civilization. Now it’s time to civilize the skyscraper.


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