Preserving Interiors

A Welcoming Patina -- an Opening Salvo to Preserve Our Interior Environment

While much effort in architectural design -- and its evaluation -- revolves around the exterior of buildings, it is the interiors that have the most intimate impact on our lives. This dichotomy is understandable, as the exteriors of buildings, and their surrounding streetscape and landscape are fully within the public gaze. We must not, however, forget the interiors behind the facades, especially those that have the special characteristic of a  'welcoming patina', a quality resulting from age and/or use that make one feel especially comfortable within them. In addition to qualities of age and use, I would add  vernacular design, the resourcefulness of the interior's designer's ability (professional or otherwise) to assemble disparate, often overlooked elements in successful and unique ways. Driven by a lack of resources (and, perhaps with a conscious eye to resisting the corporate, sterile design that pervades our society), these artisans craft a pleasing aesthetic experience from materials that may have otherwise been discarded by others. They resist the impulse to make something 'better' by giving it a fresh coat of paint, a shiny polish, or, by replacing it with something new, and instead revel in incorporating (or letting be) worn paint, mis-matched furnishings, and unfinished walls. Art figures in as well, be it oil on canvas or discarded bottle caps.

On Capitol Hill we are blessed not only with a fine urban (exterior) street-scape, but also with many patinad/vernacular interiors that were not necessarily designed by architects or interior designers, but perhaps by the owners, tenants, artists, and patrons of the space themselves. Interiors by happenstance, as it were.  Thus formed, our shops, restaurants, cafes, and theaters reveal the brush strokes of their many creators, including that most ineffable of characteristics, the patina of time. As Capitol Hill prepares for its next round of development, it is precisely these slightly worn and dusty places that are the types of spaces that we will pine for the most should we lose them, as they are the most difficult to re-create.

Bauhaus Cafe is as fine an example of a welcoming patina and vernacular design as one could find on the Hill. In February 2002, when I was in Seattle for a job interview, Bauhaus cafe was the first Capitol Hill business I entered, and I remember it well. It not only sold me on Seattle, but especially on Capitol Hill, for any neighborhood that could support such a vibrant, gorgeous, interior was certainly where I wanted to live. Three weeks later I left Manhattan for Seattle.

There was obviously design intent and careful consideration in Bauhaus's layout, yet it feels as if it evolved over time, and has a great Northwest vernacular; it is as if it were shaped by the customers and baristas within, with their collective energy somehow contributing to a space that was meant to be.

In addition to its patina and vernacular, Bauhaus Cafe also has a nice variety of spatial types. From the large, main cafe space with its large windows fronting Pine Street, to the more intimate mezzanine and the still more cozy western sliver of a space that looks west, over Melrose Avenue. Finding space where available and making it work, is I suppose another quality of this kind of space. Divorced from planning done by remote corporate headquarters, such spaces adapt to the eddies and flows of their environment, grounding them to their site in a manner impossible to achieve without recognizing the potential in eccentric space.

There is a fine array of materials defining Bauhaus's spaces. The most robust is the wood of the grand bookshelf, which even includes one of those cool rolling ladders. The size of the wall provides an excellent and generous space from which to display the art work that hangs against it. The language of the bookcase nicely morphs into that of the staircase that leads to the mezzanine, which has a classic, load bearing masonry wall on its southern end, and a guard rail/wall affording one a prospect from which to look out over the main cafe space. And though there is an amazing amount of variety within a relatively compact space, the tones and materials blend together in a way so as not complete with each other or for attention. The dark floors, walls, and furniture, emphasize their contrast with the large bright windows. Glare, usually a nuisance and detractor from a space, here heightens one's awareness of the textures and spatial variety.  So complete is the Bauhaus experience, that even it fading exterior sign and crooked storefront proudly proclaim its patina to all who pass.

Although relatively new in its present location, Bimbo's Cantina has many of the above said qualities, yet in a more festive, polychromatic display. Here the interior is an apt reflection of Bimbo's eclectic and tasty offerings. No muted browns and blacks, as at Bauhaus, but vibrant and bright colors reflecting both the food and patrons (who are always a fixture around its welcoming bar). Empty fruit cases, dime-store piñatas, and (every color of the rainbow) sombreros adorn the interior, with an understanding of execution and display of creativity that no suburban, theme-restaurant could ever hope to achieve. And perhaps that is because at Bimbo's, it is not a theme at all, but an exuberant expression of those who created it -- an earnest expression of the people who both own it and work it  -- no a foreign expression of one who does not live the themes display.

Of particular fancy are the bottle-caps, re-purposed in as many ways as there are colors of the caps themselves. I will need to take note over my upcoming visits if these are a dynamic work whose breadth expands with each emptying cerveza. It is more than the objects themselves that are interesting, in fact one could argue that taken singly, they have no real interest in all and would actually be akin to the aforementioned suburban thematic restaurant. What differentiates Bimbo's and other like establishments on the Hill in their use of objet trouvé is in their compositional arrangement, where either through their repetition or assemblage (into forms far divorced from their original), they take on a new and visually pleasing appearance. Such insight into the latent potential of fruit cases is certainly beyond the grasp of an Applebees or Chili's.

By no means are the two above examples even close to representing the depth of Capitol Hill's patinad interiors, they just happen to be the two I visited one Saturday in March. So readers, please offer me your favorite places, with an eye toward continuing this call to action, a call to conserve the best Capitol Hill has to offer.