Jon Talton is one of my favorite Seattle Times columnists. His latest big-picture piece in the Sunday Magazine ($) has a lot in it that I agree with, although overall it has a get-off-my-lawn tone.

But one sentence bothered me a lot:

Dull glass-skinned towers have replaced architectural variety.

For one thing, many of the new towers are anything but dull. Secondly, the best place to find architectural monotony is in the single-family neighborhoods, frozen in amber by law, where any differentiation beyond one craftsman after another is viewed as an affront to the “character” or “scale” of the neighborhood. Genuinely challenging new architecture is almost always despised by its future neighbors, going all the way back to at least the Eiffel Tower. Moreover, we’ve set up a design review process where the surest guarantor of success is copying whatever got through before.

Even in the absence of all this, there are surely economic incentives to build a certain kind of building in a certain style, and repeat ad nauseum.  But all of the process we’ve erected to police building style, and the kind of comments that come in as opposition, serve to reinforce architectural sameness and squash whatever individualist impulse might exist. It’s fine to be bored with one identical building after another, but it’s important to remember who to blame.

51 Replies to ““Architectural Variety””

  1. Meanwhile any skyscraper enthusiast is waiting until skeletonization to hear about 701 4th, the supposed next tallest building in Seattle.

    Just waiting on an MUP submittal… -.-

  2. Talton tells more a wishful narrative of a golden age that never existed than an actual history. History did not begin a few years after the settlers illegally burned down the last of the longhouses (which, BTW, would have been among the city’s most priceless architectural assets if they had survived the ethnic cleansing of the late 19th century.) Heck, Seattle’s history is a long string of ethnic-based wrongs. There was nothing golden about the Japanese internment.

    “Freattle” may have begun in the ’60s, which is to say the 1860s. Were all the people who moved out here for low-wage jobs not homeless?

    Talton worries about being called out for writing from a place of entitlement for a good reason. He realizes the kind of fiction he just wrote.

    1. This is not to say Seattle is a horrible place. It isn’t. Seattle, if it embraces its full history, including the ugly lessons, can become great …. for the first time.

    2. How could he write from a place other than entitlement? Isn’t that baked in by his privilege being a white male?

  3. If the author wants variety in architecture, he should be pushing for a variety in local architecture schools. As long as there is only one architectural school in town, Seattle is going to suffer from a structural tendency towards architectural monotony because many of the architects have had the same instructors. Sure, architects from other places can provide some variety in the marketplace, but the pressure to conform to a “good ole boy” attitude towards architectural employment will remain as long as there is just one school.

    1. That’s funny. Most of the architects I know in this town (and I know a lot of them, being in the profession myself) are from all over the country. Locally, WSU and Oregon also provide a good number of architects and architectural staff. Whatever problems there may be in the design profession relating to building design–the majority of which have to do with development money being conservative (safe) money–the location and number of architecture schools in the area isn’t even a blip. Prior to easing the reciprocity requirements nationwide, there was more of a “good ole boy” network in most places; that has changed dramatically over the past 20 years.

  4. I think the problem isn’t architects or the design review. It’s money. It’s cheaper and simpler to build a box cladded in metal than something that’s more interesting. I’m sure architects would rather build things that are more interesting, and the review board would love to see other designs as well. Still, some buildings manage to create interest. Amazon’s Doppler tower, though it will look very dated in 10 years, at least has some interesting designs.

    1. “Money” is also why we’re not getting more small-lot developments. It’s a lot more expensive to build parking, elevators/stairwells, and amenities for a small number of units so we’re left with full- and half-block buildings almost exclusively. There would be a lot more variety on the street and in the skyline if we had more small-lot developments.

      Further: “money” is also why we’re getting very, VERY little family housing. Studios and 1-br units are more profitable so that’s all we’re getting. Hip urban singles need housing too but what happens when they get married and have kids? They will all be forced to the suburbs.

      Units with more bedrooms would also make cohabitation possible. Living with roommates saves money and it makes meeting people in a new city much easier. We cannot let “the market” build us into a city of lonely isolationists. It’s obvious we need more incentives, more public investment, more regulation, or all of the above.

      As an environmentalist and an urbanist I absolutely understand why density and smart growth is so important. I just find it strange how so many people I would normally agree with on many issues seem to put all their faith on profit motive supply/demand market forces to solve this problem. We have a finite amount of resources (space) and limitless demand – when has the free market EVER been an equitable way of managing such a basic human need? We all agree safety, health, and education don’t solve themselves why should housing?

    2. This. It’s the same reason few movie/TV producers, for example, rarely push the envelope–too much money can be made simply by mass-producing crap. Architects are paid by clients, usually developers funded by large banks or real estate investment trusts (often overseas money here, nowadays), and those clients want a return on investment. If the people buying or renting those units are perceived to like (or accept) the style/amenities/whatever, the development and finance community will continue to put their money into those safe bets. Zoning and to a much lesser extent design review has some impact on design, of course, but it all comes back to money in the long run–and like everything else in a capitalist economy, we get what the most people will buy at the cheapest possible cost of production. Barman is exactly correct about that. Most people going to architecture school are quickly disabused of the notion the day they enter the workforce that they will work on amazing, awesome, city-changing projects. Nearly nobody is paying for those.

    3. I don’t see most urbanists taking a libertarian view toward land use. After all, who is supporting Urban Growth Boundaries?

      What I do see is a combination of more regulation and more Nimbyism in the City, and less in the suburbs, which is naturally pushing the sort of developments NIMBYs don’t like to the suburbs. Single-family housing is preserved in the city, and then filled with strangers living together because that’s what’s available to live in. Meanwhile, apartments, some of them taller than the pathetically short buildings going up around light rail stations, are getting built on the edges of the suburbs, where there is the least NIMBYshed. This is especially true of government housing, the most NIMBYed housing of all.

      It is no accident that Arrowhead Gardens, a senior housing complex, with taller buildings than most of Broadway, got built in the middle of nowhere, apart from existing neighborhoods. That’s the Invisible NIMBY Fist at work.

      The claim that urbanists worship the invisible hand is bizarre — as bizarre as the endless attempts to blame capitalism and developers for population growth. Do we have to bring in some biologists to explain how population growth works?

      To bemoan that large boxes appeared on a plot full of too many people instead of quaint gardens and well-to-do landowners takes the democracy out of architecture. We elect a city council for a reason. We don’t get to elect our neighborhood association attendees. And nobody truly represents the people being displaced by forcing developers (those money-grubbing scoundrels who build the housing where our children will live) to build undensely.

      You can’t get the Big Picture of how bass-ackwards land use is without following the anti-democratic NIMBY process.

    4. Small buildings are less expensive than large buildings. The problem is mostly zoning: all those parking requirements and setback requirements and minimum lot sizes add up and disallow or make impractical the kinds of buildings that were prevalent in the 1950s and 60s: compact 4-10 unit buildings in one story or two with some kind of courtyard or walkway. Height also has a cost: you have to use more expensive building techniques at the 5-, 8-, 13, and 40-story levels to keep the building from collapsing. The city allows no apartments in 2/3 of the land, so all multifamily developers are competing for the remaining land. Large developers outbid smal;l developers in popular locations, and they can asl;so afford to buy a lot or several contiguous lots for development, while ma and pop would more likely redevelop their house lot they’ve already paid off. Large developers also put in luxury amenities: one I saw yesterday had icopns advertisiong a yoga room, fitness center, fireplace corner, residents’ lounge, and rooftop patio. All that costs money to build, and ongoing money to heat and air condition. Structured parking is even more cost-inefficient, especially when it’a unbderground and requires deep excavatioon beneath it. If parking weren’t required, developers would provide some parking but seek to limit it because it’s ultimately a cost or low-profit center and they’re better off without excessive spaces. Ma and pop can’t afford to build underground parking at all.

      1. Accessibility requirements are another reason small multi-story apartment buildings have gone away. Federal and state laws require all developments over a certain size provide disabled access, which means elevators. Elevators are expensive and require maintenance which means you want as many units per floor as you can squeeze in.

        Paying for an elevator makes no sense in a 4-10 unit building.

      2. A 4-story building, with 3 or 4 apartments per floor, however, can support an elevator.

        Sadly they’re banned in most of Seattle (and most of the US) by “zoning”

  5. Great comments, Martin. I agree with most of your points, although I find a lot of the houses in much of the city very interesting. Not in my neighborhood, necessarily — our lots are way too big — but in places like Wallingford, Fremont, Queen Anne and Capitol Hill. There is a reason why people fight so hard to preserve them. While some of them are interesting because of the sheer extravagance of the houses, a lot of them are attractive for the opposite reason. You have plenty of middle class houses built on relatively small lots that are quite charming. There is a fair amount of subtle variety, too, both in the design of the houses and the landscaping.

    But I completely agree with your bigger point. There are plenty of very attractive, interesting new buildings. Personally I find the Cascade neighborhood a great example of this. Which is why when I hear someone complain about the “boring buildings in South Lake Union” my advice is to walk up the hill. I love the crossing wood pattern, and curved edges of this one (https://goo.gl/maps/zcf7STRNvbJ2) across the street from the old brick building. Or how about the one I call the Airstream building (https://goo.gl/maps/n4bC17Fvk3x). Quite unusual and in general quite an attractive neighborhood considering 90% of it was built in the same era (recently).

    But the biggest reason there is so little variety and why so many building look ugly is because of the stupid zoning restrictions. In my book, the nicest building in Seattle not inside the UW campus is just a little ways outside it, here: https://goo.gl/maps/3dU8JQFPMe82. The picture doesn’t do it justice. It is really the way in which it fills the space that is so impressive. Nice ornamental touches, working with the triangle lot — facing the public, not hording the green space for itself. But in much of the city, it would be illegal. Even if they allowed such heights (Oh My God! Five stories — ahhh) it lacks parking. Parking, by itself, is responsible for so much of the ugly architecture that permeates much of town. Kudos for folks who manage to make something attractive when you need to use so much space for the spots — but don’t be surprised if the townhouses all look similar (they pretty much have to).

    Of course FAR limits also screw things up. Even when the city allows higher buildings in some areas (in an effort to encourage building diversity) they manage to screw it up with stupid FAR limits (https://www.theurbanist.org/2014/09/02/85-foot-and-125-foot-height-limits-are-a-missed-opportunity/), leading to all six story wooden buildings (until cross-lamination based lumber standards come this way).

    But the biggest problem is the fact that so many of the requirements are based on density, not height (or even mass). It is OK to build a huge house, but only if one family lives in it. So that means that in most neighborhoods you can’t build this (https://goo.gl/maps/12GdEeXhSns) or this (https://goo.gl/maps/zGXXBacEvA62) or this (https://goo.gl/maps/oybMf3PFgnG2). Those are all apartments, by the way, on the same street — a street with plenty of very nice houses. But I doubt anyone finds them ugly. We are all worse off when we don’t allow them, because we are screwing over those that lack wealth while making the architectural landscape worse.

    1. Zoning is a lot of the problem, and the McMansion loophole is arguable an abuse of single-family density. But about that triangular courtyard. It looks like a nice courtyard because of the two-wing building behind it and the triangular lot. But on a normal rectangular lot it would it would be a one-box building behind the yard, and that would make it a deep setback, or an uncharming dead space that nobody uses because it’s so open to the street and it ends up displacing people from the neighborhood.

    2. Great points on zoning. Any complaints about “boxy” or “bread-loaf” buildings is a direct product of height limits + FAR.

      Thanks for all the links – fun to check out some buildings in a neighborhood I haven’t spent much time in.

  6. David Pye’s book “The Nature and Art of Workmanship” has a good chapter on why a (for example) a parking lot full of gleaming cars doesn’t have the aesthetic qualities of a marina of fishing boats. It touches on architecture in places. I don’t think I can do his argument justice, but I’ll say the book is well worth reading.

  7. Dream Cities by Wade Grahm is a good mediation on why old cities all look different, but new cities all look the same. If you’re interested in the historical context of why everything looks the same, I’d strongly recommend it, it’s a good read & very accessible. Touches on both zoning and aesthetics (which are very much related.

    Short summary – blame Le Corbusier. Or more generally, the reaction to dirty, chaotic, dangerous industrial cities of the 1800s (think Dickens’ London).

    1. Partly. Le Corbusierian ideas started in the 1800s and threw away the evolved principles and viewed people as a kind of robots that could be sorted and put into architects’ cabinets, and that was scientific and everybody would love it. The early 1900s brought aesthetics like the International Style and geometric forms and the Jetsons-like Googie (designed to be seen from afar in a car rather rthan close-up from the sidewalk). But before the 1980s things were built individually by local owners who intended to keep the building forever. Tract houses emerged in the 1940s but they were still built by local developers and financed by local banks (i,.e., the community).

      In the 1980s with the loosening of bank, Wall Street, and mortgage restrictions, real estate became national. Absentee owners commissioned buildings as a quasi-stocks for their income streams (ongoing rents, unit-sale return, management services) or future sale profit (akin to a growth stock). If the asset underperformed the person would sell it and get another one, and the lowering asset value might affect the local managers’ maintenance/improvement budget. Or the asset would be structured presuming it would depreciate after a certain number of years. All this is without knowledge of the building’s residents or community, or the business in it and its customers. The building confirms to local laws but does not give any other benefit or concession to the community beyond that. And the local zoning laws are limited; they don’t require all the concessions/amenities the community might want, because the laws are decided at a different level and based on other considerations.

      Even local developers, who may have some commitment to the community, get financing from Wall Street, and that limits what they can do. There are about nineteen building types preferred by financiers at any one time, and each type is a standardized commodity to be traded, so variations are limited beyond what the local zoning requires. So they all end up looking the same. Also, from the financiers’ perspective, the building is worthless once its construction loan is paid off. This creates a short-term mentality of designing buildings for twenty years rather than a hundred, and presuming the building will be torn down after that and replaced with whatever the next fashion or market wants. If the building is not torn down, it stagnates and declines. Apartment buildings and houses last longer, but big-box stores are often presumed to be temporary, for twenty years. After that they will be fully deprecated and either replaced or left to decline. This affects the design and architectural choices. Don’t put a lot of money into a temporary building, just slap something up. In twenty years customers may prefer a different kind of business or a different kind of building.

      The large-scale googie style also had a long-term impact even though the stark angles are gone. Buildings are designed to look good from a car speeding along an arterial or highway. At that scale intricate designs are invisible, and people have two seconds to make a judgment whether to patronize the building.

      So it’s not only Le Corbusier and the modernists, it’s the rise of absentee ownershup and the change in financing. The new owners have different values and concerns.

      1. Mike, your third paragraph regarding developers and finance is spot on, in my experience. It’s also a symptom of the MBA-ization of everything, where today’s profit is far more important than long-term investment and steady growth (IMO one of the worst things that has ever happened to our economy and middle class is the MBA mentality). We see a ton of buildings where the developer is a “flipper” and has no intention of ever holding the property even as long as it would take to pay off the construction loan. Ironically, in a market like the current one that often leads to better buildings; we have seen many developers build new apartments to state Condo Act standards, in case the new owner wants to sell units rather than rent them; but generally speaking your description of the 20-year building is not far off.

    2. I read the Amazon description of Dream Cities. Anyone who likes it would also probably like “Makeshift Metropolis” by Witold Rybczynski. It helped me understand the difference between City Beautiful, Garden City, Radiant City, Broadacre City, etc,, which can seem to run together but all have different goals and several of them are opposed to each other. It also traces Jane Jacobs’ role in this area and her relationship to these.

      Roughly speaking:

      – City Beautiful is the beaux arts and art deco buildings that Seattle doesn’t have much of but some other cities do. The public investing in nice civic buildings for a civilized downtown. King Street Station is one example.

      – The Garden City was a way to countrify the city; i.e., small town-esque neighborhoods (walkable of course).

      – The Radient City is those big cabinets I was talking about: massive apartment towers, massive commercial and civic buildings, with nothing between them except highways and green space. (You don’t want to wealk do you? The park is for looking at, not for being in.)

      – Broadacre City is a decentralized “a farm/country house for everyone and farm stands at highway exits”.

      The Radiant City and Broadacre City were never literally built, and some people believe they were impossible utopias. But the principles behind them led to suburban America. The radiant “towers in the park” became the towers in the parking lot, and isolated office parks, and dense-but-unwalkable neighborhoods like Dallas’ Galleria. The broadacre country houses became cul-de-sacs, and the farm stands at highway exits became gas station mini-markets and strip malls and big-box power centers, and the exurban sprawl on Highway 9. The Garden City transformed into New Urbanism, as in the Issaquah Highlands and Redmond Ridge and also the urban villages in Seattle and Bellevue/Redmond. The Garden City has kind pf a split effect, because it was lower density than the downtowns of the day (suburbanish), but it was pre-automobile so it inherited walkability and mixed-use. Some of its successors emphasize more the first and others the second.

    3. OK, I read Dream Cities. It talks about some of the same people and different ones. It gives a more in-depth look of their entire careert and has photo examples of their buildings and buildings influenced by them, and shows how their ideas changed late in life were incorporated in a diluted form in later buildings.However, Makeshift Metropolis gives more of a compact description and outline of what these things mean and how they relate to each other and other things, so I’d recommend reading both books because they complement each other.

  8. I can’t say I disagree with Talton, but maybe for different reasons. The houses of decades past (mostly pre-1970) are built with quality and shouldn’t be so quickly discarded. I’m left with a newer house that is made of cardboard – uh, I mean sawdust pressed together with wood glue. Do we really want to bulldoze houses that were built to last for centuries rather than decades? I’d be all for building some skyscrapers in suburbia to displace the garbage produced by home builders from 1970 to present. Who’s in?

    1. There’s a tension between preserving resilient old buildings and the excessive low density some of them have. I’m mainly thinking of one-story commercial buildings on one corner of a lot surrounded by parking and unused asphalt. Those are space-wasters and their aggregate effect is to force people to travel longer distances and to constrain the number of people who can live in a neighborhood. Houses that have excessively large setbacks or lots cause the same problem. In northwest Everett almost every front yard is so deep you could fit another house on it, and in Magnolia they’re almost that deep, and Aberdeen suffers from the same as do most American cities. One-story apartment buildings can fall into the same trap.

      On the other hand, a three-story compact brick apartment building is likely be worth preserving, and vertically-oriented buildings, and a reasonable number of small-lot houses that express Seattle’s history and are a model for future suburbia.

      I also like some small apartment designs like two sideways buildings going front to back around a center walkway or courtyard. Part of the zoning problem is the outlawing of small 4-8 unit apartment buildings, which ma and pop can afford to finance and own by themselves and charge lowish rents. The mimimum parking and setbacks and lot sizes preclude them, long permit processes make them expensive, single-family zoning prohibits them, and near transit hubs midrise developers outbid them.

      1. In places like Aberdeen, Chehalis, Kelso and Mt Vernon it is easy to see where those small buildings in the downtown area used to be part of a much more complete city block, but everything around them was torn down to make parking for what little was left.

    2. There’s a whole pile of these older houses in Portland’s central east side (between say, Clinton and Stark) that have been converted to multiple units. The only way to tell on some of them is they have multiple electric meters and several mail boxes. At least one of them has nine mailboxes.

    3. Those old houses built to last are also wildly energy inefficient. New housing construction, even when it looks cheap, is significantly more efficient.

      1. The place where I work is in a place that was once wildly inefficient. Before we moved in we put insulation in the walls and ceiling and replaced the windows. In the winter it will now only drop about 5 deg F or so overnight with no heat.

        Would have cost us a fortune to demolish and rebuild new.

      2. AJ, those wildly inefficient buildings built with extremely durable materials and quality craftsmanship can be pretty easily retrofitted to be efficient. I have an “efficient” house that is in need of new siding, new cabinets, has already had windows replaced, and is less than 20 years old. Had I not replaced those windows, it would be more drafty than one of those old inefficient buildings, because the seals on the windows had all failed. Please explain what part of this efficient house is sustainable.

      3. Highly efficient buildings have raised the problem of indoor air pollution, such as formaldehyde gas leaching from particle-board furniture. Inefficient buildings exchange the air hourly, efficient buildings take a day. So if you live in an efficient building, open the window once a day or so, especially if you have non-natural furniture and building materials.

      4. Newer efficient buildings are also built to meet certain standards for exchanging air to avoid “sick building” syndrome. Air to air heat exchangers mean this can be done without losing energy efficiency.

      5. Another name for air to air heat exchangers is “heat recovery ventilator” or “energy recovery ventilator”, and they should be standard in new buildings and retrofits.

    4. Isn’t it the case that the old buildings that weren’t built to last have already been torn down and replaced?

      1. Old buildings were usually built to last; they just require ongoing maintenance. Wood needs to be repainted occasionally, cracks sealed to prevent moisture from bringing mold and rot, etc. The early 12900s teardowns you see are mostly buildings that have been unmaintained. Also, after WWII when the federal mortgage guarantee was created to promote housing construction and home ownership, only white neighborhoods and suburban greenfield development were eligible. People in minority neighborhoods like the CD and Rainier Valley couldn’t get loans to rehabilitate their houses so they couldn’t do the maintenance and the buildings deteriorated.

      2. True, there has always been cheap, built to make a quick buck, construction. Very little has survived from previous eras as these were often the first buildings torn down.

      3. Yeah, photos from the 1890s, 1900s and 1910s show an awful lot of tin-roofed, tin-walled shacks; or sometimes tarpaper shacks. Lots and lots of SUPER junky buildings. Most of them were demo’ed by the 1920s because they simply didn’t last very long.

    5. Your timeframe for construction quality is a bit off. Seattle’s houses that have stood the test of time were mostly built between the 1890s-1930’s – this was the era where Craftsman and Victorian styles were in fashion where there were ornamentary features included in the house design with lots of different angles and variation in rooflines that made them interesting and added character. The entire post-war era coincided with the cheap construction you’re criticizing that was heralded in the early days for being efficient, economic, and affordable – those houses were unfortunately built everywhere and usually lack character or the quality that will help them last – they resemble a lot of the Los Angeles suburbs precisely because they were built around the same time that LA experienced its boom with the same construction practices, materials, and tastes…or lack thereofin my opinion.

  9. -“Secondly, the best place to find architectural monotony is in the single-family neighborhoods, frozen in amber by law, where any differentiation beyond one craftsman after another is viewed as an affront to the “character” or “scale” of the neighborhood.”

    Stop with the hyperbole already! Have you been to these neighborhoods lately? Frozen in amber by law? What I am seeing is a lot of tear downs turning into boxy mansions that take up the entire lot and have no resemblance to a craftsman home. And I don’t hear a lot of outcry over these; likely because they are SF and legal under current zoning. Frankly, I would much rather see small to medium sized apartments than these, so I support single family up-zones. However, I heartily disagree that this is going to solve the affordability problem. See barman’s comments above- he is dead on.

  10. To (mis)quote Justice Potter Stewart when it comes to determining whether the architecture of a building is pleasing or not:

    “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it, and a lot of the new buildings I see being built today are not that.”

  11. I’d love if someone could explain how design review somehow ends up defending a big ugly triangular parking garage in the middle of Pioneer Square. Yes, it is relatively unique, architecturally. But only NIMBY concern trolls can pretend to love the form, or pretend the garage is historically significant. The function doesn’t fit the limited-SOV-space and plentiful-transit character of the neighborhood. This is a case where the status quo needs design review. Sadly, there is nothing we can do to get attendees of a neighborhood association to check their entitlement baggage at the door, or to be honest about their motives.

    1. I assume youare speaking of what’s know as the sinking ship (bounded by Yesler, James, and 2nd). When has design review defended that?

      1. Indeed, and it’s a fine example of what happened before design review and preservation/historic districts.

    1. Why wouldn’t that get through design review? It’s got creativity and isn’t some cookie cutter design signed off by a cut rate architect. It’s look awesome in the Seattle skyline.

  12. It’s not really variety that’s the issue. Do we really feel better around these newer growhouse buildings? Are they beautiful? Some of the older stuff is cookie cutter too but it doesn’t feel as alienating (“dull”) as the glassed bunkers. It tends to feel cozy and welcoming rather than harsh and forbidding. That allows an urban feeling, urbanity itself to arise.
    This type of modern architecture is far from new so the Eiffel tower argument doesn’t really count either. What counts is the empirical evidence which suggests that the glass/steel developments have a very hard time generating truly urban spaces.

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