The tyranny of the right, architecturally speaking

The regimentation of the right angle is making Seattle's streetscape tedious. Curves may be more difficult and costly to build, but a little nonlinear thinking by designers can go a long way.

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NBBJ's 505 Union Station building: trying a little too hard.

The regimentation of the right angle is making Seattle's streetscape tedious. Curves may be more difficult and costly to build, but a little nonlinear thinking by designers can go a long way.

Straight lines and right angles flow in and out of architectural fashion, and today we seem stuck in a stubborn round of straightness.

Perpendicular modernism is especially pervasive here in the Pacific Northwest, as you’ll readily see if you prowl the last several years’ online galleries of AIA Seattle award winners. In fact, if you could personally visit the three top honorees of 2008 — the Montlake branch library, a Federal Way teen center, and a 5,000 square-foot private residence — you’d find not one curved surface or other-than-right angle anywhere, aside from the porcelain thrones in the bathrooms.

“Curves cost more,” simply explains architect Joseph Herrin, a partner in Seattle’s Heliotrope. “And most projects have budget constraints.”

Heliotrope won one of the 2010 AIA awards, however, and it was the sole project among last year’s winners that prominently featured a curved form. It’s a private residence on Orcas Island, and Herrin believes the curve was worth the trouble because of the site. The house is a long, skinny box that mildly wraps in boomerang form around a prominent rock outcropping. If it hadn’t been for the geology he wouldn’t have done it; most of the firm’s work is right-angled and straight-arrowed.

The curve caused considerable extra effort, such as forcing the roofer to cut precise trapezoidal panels. But it wasn’t unreasonable. “We only interview contractors who are used to pain-in-the-ass projects,” Herrin says.

There’s an array of excellent reasons for architects not to indulge in tricky angles and swoopy lines. As Herrin noted, they add cost — and the choked budgets of the recession have surely reinforced the trend to boxitecture. Curves are an automatically inefficient use of space, since most furniture and cabinetry is designed to fit straight and vertical walls. Most city street grids and building lots are based on right angles, so oddly shaped buildings may not fit into tight urban spaces.

And where these restraints don’t apply, there’s evidence that architects tend to come unhinged from reality and create shapes that would better be left on the planet Mongo, from whence they came. A few star architects have come up with sculpturally elegant shapes for some of their buildings. Among the best is Santiago Calatrava, whose stunning Milwaukee Art Museum pavilion bridges the gulf between architecture and sculpture. But many more are kooky, self-indulgent, frequently dysfunctional expressions of ego, a striving for effect rather than beauty. It’s probably not necessary to point out the most lamentable local example, at 5th Avenue and Broad Street.

But still, the regimentation of the right angle is making Seattle’s streetscapes increasingly tedious and predictable. Walk through the South Lake Union district, the one urban neighborhood that’s sustained a construction boom through the recession, and what you see is a logjam of uptight boxes that stretches almost unbroken from the lakefront to Mercer. It’s like a symposium featuring a dawn-to-dusk lineup of droning professors. Some may have intelligent and substantive things to say, but the overall effect is soporific. You ache for some dramatic interlude, a wacko protester in a gorilla suit, anything.

The neighborhood’s two best buildings in the current boom are Miller Hull’s “Discovery Center” and the unnamed 401 Terry office building by NBBJ. Neither aspires to sculpture or that gorilla interlude, but the Discovery Center (the possibly temporary presentation building for Vulcan Real Estate’s SLU Monopoly board game) features a dramatic shed roof that at least begins to crack the tyranny of the right angle. The 401 Terry building greets the street with a nested concave facade extrusion that overhangs the sidewalk, providing a skosh of rain shelter, but more importantly jazzing up the block with elegantly curved forms in the sky.

This NBBJ building, in fact, demonstrates how much one  modest and relatively formal nonlinear form grafted onto a box can do to enliven a neighborhood. You don’t have to hire Calatrava.

It’s a slippery slope, though, as another NBBJ building, the Vulcan headquarters at 505 Union Station shows. This building’s colliding, spilling and tilting forms decidedly show off modern curtain-wall technology, but compositionally it’s an incoherent mess: too many big ideas all jostling and competing for attention. There’s also something inherently discomforting about an 11-story wall that leans and looms over the street, defying gravity and common sense. We’ll accept it if it has obvious functional logic or graceful sculptural beauty, but this has neither. Virtuosic technology sometimes sucks architects and their clients into believing that because we can build something extravagant, therefore we should. No, not necessarily.

The two most graceful curvilinear shapes in Seattle’s skyline both belong to the past century: the Space Needle, of course; and more controversially the Columbia Center at 5th Avenue and Columbia Street. For an experiment, mentally straighten the Needle’s gently curving tripod legs and replace its flying-saucer hat with the hatbox it came in. Crude? Decidedly; we’d have already torn it down. Columbia is not exactly cuddly — many Seattlites would be thrilled if they could erase it from the sky — but its classy curves contrasting with its silent, forbidding blackness give it power that a tall, skinny box just wouldn’t have.

When these buildings arose — the Needle in 1962 and Columbia in 1985 — Northwest modernism seemed a little more liberated, a touch more overtly dramatic, than the prevailing aesthetic today. In some compensation, the best buildings of the last 10 years have been more thoughtfully detailed, and there’s some pleasure to be taken in that.

But Seattle, of all places, is a settlement potentially blessed with boundless inspiration from its natural setting. The topography of hills and waves, the textures of the forest, the scooped and rounded boundaries where land meets water — all these argue for a more organic approach to architecture and the design of the city.

When Herrin contemplated that Orcas Island house, he looked at the land and it told him how to build. That’s where we start.


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