12th Ave and John Street (via CHS Seattle)

This isn’t something we usually dabble in but it absolutely hit a nerve when I read this article on CHS Seattle last week. As someone who loves old buildings in Seattle (I live in one of the buildings used in the post) and aboard as well as modern European architecture particularly in The Netherlands, Germany and all of Scandinavia I get extremely frustrated when people insist that every build must have “modulation” to look good. Modulation does not necessarily equal good design and in this post John Feit does a great job of unpacking this issue, using old and new buildings from around Capitol Hill as examples.  

Contrary to what you might hear, boxy buildings are okay. Even relatively big ones. What is not okay, however, is anti-box propaganda founded upon misrepresentation. There was a time, we are told, that there were no boxy buildings, that buildings were neither massive nor unarticulated, and that in order to have new buildings be good urban neighbors, they need to acknowledge this pre-box precedent. Living in a world of make believe, these Tinkerbells of design (to include architects, Design Review Boards, developers, and concerned citizens) spread their anti-box fairy dust, hoping to achieve the kinder, gentler architecture which existed before big, boxy (i.e. modern) buildings desecrated Neverland.   

The fact is many (most?) of Capitol Hill’s best heritage buildings are boxes, with barely a change in massing or material, and elevations that remain remarkably the same from one corner to another. These best buildings are in fact, about as boxy as a box can be.  

Despite ample, recent built examples to the contrary, the Tinkerbells continue to believe that the modulation of a building’s mass, both horizontally and vertically, and composing it of as many distinct materials and colors as possible, leads to good design. This has not worked, and it is definitely not precedent-based. What this modulation and material mayhem is, is design by check-list. As long as each box is checked, the final result seems to be irrelevant. What is lost in this paint-by-numbers approach is the detail — literally. For it was (and is) in the details of a window opening or in a material transition that human scale and texture of our heritage (and modern) buildings was achieved. It was (and is) those elements of a building that can be held in one’s hand, that can be understood at eye level while passing by, that add scale and ‘humanity’. Not design approaches that, due to their grand gestures, can only be comprehended from across the street or down the block. While it is true that color, material differentiation, and expressive massing can add interest to a building, it is no substitute for the richness added by detail and craft. In fact, I would be more than happy to see buildings such as the one below (designed by pb elemental, on 12th Ave and John) that have some nice detail and are volumetrically and materially expressive. But let’s stick to basics first before we venture into more adventurous design, and have a look at a range of Capitol Hill boxes.  

Go here to read the entire post.

23 Replies to “CHS: In Defense of Boxy Buildings”

  1. What’s this artsy-fartsy nonsense? I want more surface/transit vs tunnel and rail vs BRT flamewars!

    Joking aside, I spent much of my time nodding as I read this. I love Pioneer Square aesthetically for many of the reasons outlined in this post, and I’d totally live there if it weren’t all going to fall down in the the next big quake.

    1. If you’re a rail fan of Seattle, try looking at the 100 year old maps on Paul Dorpat’s website – guaranteed to waste an hour or more of your time. SODO was nothing BUT rail lines!
      I even found the phantom tunnel under 5th Ave people mentioned in passing years ago. Also, check out the building footprints and construction (brick, stone, wood)

  2. I am one of those anti-box people. Yes, the old ones do look very nice, but even they are built all the way up to the sidewalk, especially on Capitol Hill or on University Avenue. That leaves narrow sidewalks for all the pedestrians–then you add in the trees that take up a third of the sidewalk, then the a-frame signs for local businesses, and you’ve got precious little sidewalk for actual pedestrians. And you know that the sidewalks are never going to get wider because they would have to take it from the roadway. Give me a little setback from the sidewalk(one of those pictures shows bushes/shrubs between the sidewalk and the building-very nice!) and I will enjoy my walk much more. But, if you can’t have the building be set back a bit, then at least have windows and interesting architecture at eye leve, please!

    1. Building setback and modulation are different design aspects. Setbacks are essentially a line in the ground (or sky for podium setbacks) at which the building can not cross. Modulation is an attempt to limit the area of a facade that is on a single plain.

      1. Then it is definitely ‘modulation’ that I am talking about. I love the old buildings even if they come up to the edge of the sidewalk because they are interesting to look at instead of a flat ‘wall.’

      2. I don’t know much about modulation. Maybe I don’t understand it, but what is important to my eye is depth of facade, even if it is done with varying materials rather than much actual modulation. In other words, I think the goals of modulation can be largely accomplished by spending some money on the facade. I don’t think you actually have to do much modulation to increase visual appeal. Details do matter.

  3. Like all creative endeavors, architecture goes through fads and fashions. Many, if not all buildings now on the Historic Register were denounced by discerning people of their own time as being ugly, ridiculous imitations of styles of past centuries.

    One generation’s boxy, bleak, and soulless was an earlier generation’s clean and liberating. I’m seeing many buildings I really like built in the last couple of years. In the ’80’s, however, we got some real monstrosities. Anybody remember the villain in “Betelgeuse?”

    The important thing to me is that a building be comfortable, which is more a matter of the correct use of space, rather than the shape of it. I like daylight and fresh air, and it’s especially important that the place smell right.

    It does seem to me that many older buildings score better on every one of these points than many newer ones. I think energy-saving measures of the last few decades, or misbegotten attempts at same, leave brand-new buildings smelling moldy as the crypt.

    Transit-related cases in point: the air quality in Sound Transit’s offices in the beautiful old train station is relatively good. But the ventilation in my workplace four years ago in what used to be called the “Opus Building” put the whole staff to sleep from oxygen-deprivation while giving everybody permanent respiratory infections.

    Would like to see a law that every building have windows that open, or legal immunity for breaking one to save lives and health. Meantime, Ballard and Columbia libraries are both great!

    Mark Dublin

  4. Meant to say “Columbia City” Library. Also should note Beacon Hill Library, which in addition to being bright and comfortable, has a beautiful winged boat sculpture above the roof, and a wonderful hinged rainspout that looks like a giant crow’s beak that opens and dumps tons of water in a rainstorm.

    Both are easy walks from Columbia City and Beacon Hill LINK stations respectively.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Having literally grown up in a house made out of hay bales(no joke), I can say that boxy designs can be made palatable for home design, though I admit to favoring other past tried and true methods.

    By that I mean the old boxy designs of late 1800s to 1940. Quality in general has gone downhill in my opinion, so most stuff house-wise built these days is garbage.

  6. The picture above shows the possibilities and tragedies of the box design in one building. On the right side there are friendly colors, vertically oriented windows, a surface that is not completely flat (except from the flat wall on the side street), more permeable, ornamented. On the left side there is a big menacing ‘chimney’ with horizontal bunker windows, depressing colors, an impermeable surface like an aquarium.

    That’s the criticism the I level at most of the newer box buildings described in the CHS post. They aren’t well done. There is little attempt to break up the flat surface or the absolutely straight line – my eyes are turning into rectangles. The colors are ugly and overall they don’t spread a good mood. A few modifications could do a lot to move those boxes away from the aquarium/bunker/greenhouse template.

    1. I enjoy the contrast of the the building above. We have too many buildings that just going for the bland NW faux craftsman style and it is very refreshing to see bold, strong line and colors in a building. The things that I like in buildings are honest materials and materials that add detail and texture to a building. Below is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. The building is a black box, but the texture of the brick makes it an extremely interesting building.


      The take away isn’t that flat facades are the solution, its that simply calling for facade modulation doesn’t get you a nice building.

      1. If it were an office building, I would be lavishing praise upon it.

        But that atrium seems very out of scale with the building’s purpose as a home.

      2. Interesting building. Not just the brick pattern but also how the architect opens up the building with the asymmetrical windows.

        I think the CHS post posits a tautology i.e. every building is a box – duh, almost every multi-story building is a derived cuboid – and constructs a false equivalence between old and new ‘boxes’.

        simply calling for facade modulation doesn’t get you a nice building. = “simply calling for rail and buses doesn’t get you a nice transportation network.”?! Sure, it’s not a sufficient requirement though it is a necessary one. And Baroque, Hundertwasser etc. aren’t the solution. But the past decades have made it clear that barren, inactive, monotonous buildings don’t work. They kill urbanism.

      3. @Ansgar Good points. It sounds like you have a much more nuanced understanding of architecture than most people and elected politicians. I don’t think you’re the intended audience of the post.

        I would say that “barren, inactive and monotonous building” come in all shapes. As a society we certainly think of soviet style block when we think of unmodulated facades, but I can point out lots of building in seattle with lots of modulation that are absolutely horrible. focusing on either modulation or boxiness only have a tangential relationship to quality of design. I think that is the value of this post. There are other things, probably most important the relationship of the building to ground uses, that determines how successful a building is.

  7. I’m not a big fan of the all-residential brick monoliths that he features (The Biltmore, The Granada, and the building on Bellevue.) I just think buildings with either ground-level retail or multiple residential entrances are more approachable than big buildings with a single elaborate portal. I guess it’s not so much the boxiness as the hostility to people walking by and the single use that I don’t like about certain buildings, whenever they were built. Still, I’d take any of these over apartments surrounded by huge parking lots, or strip malls with no residential space.

    1. I totally agree. The most important thing for me is for the building to contribute to the pedestrian environment, which seems to be more about retail, or if that’s not viable then at least plentiful entrances, more than anything.

  8. For Seattle, I guess the comparison with the Netherlands, a country built under water is appropriate. I mean, Seattle after all is a set of isthmuses and peninsulas, forever restricted in growth by these natural barriers (well, unless you’re going to go all Sealab 2020 and build at the bottom of Elliot Bay.

    Seriously, people act as if the border of Washington State was Issaquah.

    Hey, there’s like a whole two other European countries of land to the east that we can build the type of single family homes that people actually want to live in and for 1/4th the cost of these Frankenstein from Architectural Digests.

    1. Hmm, seems like plenty of people want to live in Capitol Hill. According to Apartment Insights Washington, as of October 2010 vacancy rates in Capitol Hill are under 4%, whereas SE King County was over 7%.

      If you’d like to live in a single family home in “the east”, go for it. To each their own. But don’t insinuate that no one wants to live in Seattle, because it ain’t true.

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