Design Thoughts

Seattle Asian Art Musuem -- Art Deco Splendor in Volunteer Park (Part 1 of 2)

The Seattle Asian Art Museum (SAAM) in Capitol Hill’s Volunteer Park is a splendid building housing a magnificent collection of ancient and contemporary art. Designed by the Seattle firm Bebb and Gould (designers of many noteworthy structures in Seattle, including many prominent homes on Capitol Hill) and built in 1933, it originally housed the entire collection of the Seattle Art Museum. Set within Volunteer Park, SAAM shares its museum-in-the-park setting with other museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, whose home is in New York City’s Central Park. As private collections predated by centuries those offered for public view, the museum-in-the-park typology finds precedent in that of the manor house in the landscape of either a noble’s estate in Europe or that of the landed elite of the East coast of the United States. Both the museum and the public garden are places of leisure, and their pairing is sensible, for sure, and allows for a full day’s outing both in and out-or-doors. In this tradition, SAAM and Volunteer Park present no less compelling a pairing than their historic or big city predecessors.

Art-deco (approximately the style in which SAAM was designed), to my mind, has always had a somewhat precarious and undervalued place within the history of modernist design. It never garnered the serious attention paid to many other 20th century movements, because it was seen, perhaps, as only a pleasant if not too serious ‘scenic’ detour along the thoroughfare of the more rigorous, international style modernism that eclipsed it. Architects, especially, like to see modernism as the built manifestation of industrialization and of the Enlightenment’s goal of human progress. Modernism’s emphasis on functionality, abstraction, and a machine aesthetic are well known. While modernist, art deco was perhaps too populist an expression of modernism’s machine aesthetic ideology, leading to deco’s being ultimately and sadly dismissed by ‘serious’ practitioners and their academies in favor of more somber fare. Ironically, deco’s embellishment with organic motifs and stylized figures doomed it to a short life even if those embellishments were crafted in the same materials, precision, means of that modernism propounded. Given its rather short life and relatively meager legacy, we are fortunate indeed to have such a building as SAAM, and that it is open to all to relish in.

Among modern materials aluminum figures prominently, including in many art deco designs such as at SAAM.  While not a new material, aluminum’s manufacturing costs had been significantly reduced by the late 19th and early 20th century making it more readily available (until then, it was priced as was silver).  As important to its new, ready availability, was aluminum’s light-weight, corrosion resistance, and excellent casting characteristics -- the perfect combination of qualities for the ornamental metal work sought by art deco architects. Add to that the fact these qualities allowed it to be utilized in its pure and visually uncompromised form (by being either polished or clear anodized – not painted) and you have the almost perfect ‘new’ material for the ‘new’ architecture, with no Seattle example better (art deco or otherwise) than in the spectacular aluminum screens and doors that comprise the entry at SAAM. With its organic motifs, shininess, and casting precision, the entry screen ranks among the best architectural features of any building in our city. And, dare I say, many an architect’s current fetish with screening and de-materializing could learn much from the effectiveness of SAAM’s entry screens in achieving those same qualities, the full effectiveness of which are realized best upon entry into SAAM (so go ahead, go in!).

Upon entering SAAM, one is impressed by a lobby that is of a grandeur befitting not only the institution itself, but also of the powerful design vocabulary offered by art deco. Still in a relatively early stage of modernism, art deco had to resolve many new and modern functional requirements, oftentimes without the off-the-shelf products available to today’s practitioners. Things that are now easily ordered from a vendor’s product line were either unavailable or were sufficiently rare enough that the architect had to design those elements themselves. In the skillful hands of SAAM’s architects, such commonalities as air grills, light fixtures, clocks, or doors became objects d’art in-and-of themselves, and are a testament to a comprehensiveness of design mostly absent from today’s buildings. While it is true that standardization has made such objects much more attainable (and therefore useful), there is something lamentable in this loss of design-in-depth. There is no escaping the observation that despite their adding of flourishes to such functional objects, there is an underlying and guiding reliance on streamlined aesthetic resulting from industrial manufacture – an aesthetic that (is essentially the same and) holds its own against a more ideologically correct modernism.



This being art deco, there is more to see than stylized architectural furnishings in SAAM. Gold foil, polished and richly veined marbles, and of course, curved surfaces abound. Despite this potentially chaotic assemblage of luxurious materials and forms, there is a skill in their assembly at SAAM that creates not only sumptuous spaces, but adds a dignity and refinement befitting of the art contained within -- which is the focus of the next post -- the architecture of the galleries themselves.


Project Profile: MCM Lakehouse

Schemata Workshop recently visited the MCM Lakehouse on Lake Sammamish for a construction tour.  This 1960s vintage home renovation project is nearly complete and the owners will be moving in next month. [caption id="attachment_3502" align="alignnone" width="687" caption="We started the tour at the driveway surrounded by the wooded site."][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_3501" align="alignnone" width="386" caption="From the driveway, the stairs lead to a courtyard surrounded by three glazed walls."][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_3503" align="alignnone" width="386" caption="The first space we entered was the two-story living room. The louvered wall and shoji screens above are original to the house."][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_3504" align="alignnone" width="687" caption="Around the corner from the living room is the kitchen. The steel moment frame provides support for the white quartz eating bar."][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_3505" align="alignnone" width="386" caption="Next, we ascended the original stairway with new treads that match the new second floor hardwood floors. The wood handrail is being replaced and will match the stair treads."][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_3506" align="alignnone" width="386" caption="The second floor bathroom is full of natural light. The red light fixtures are an unexpected color accent."][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_3507" align="alignnone" width="386" caption="The original closet drawers and shelves were able to be reused in the bedroom closets."][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_3508" align="alignnone" width="687" caption="Finally, we met outside near the lake. This vintage house now looks very modern!"][/caption]


Capitol Hill's Alley Experiments

As related in the previous post on Capitol Hill's alleys, their inherently less public nature creates a social environment distinct from that of their associated streetscapes. Furthermore, this distinct environment has fostered experimentation in the design of alley landscapes and buildings. While not in the avant-garde, these experiments can nonetheless be seen as a foil to the more ordered and regular streetscapes they are paired with. Some alley experiments are simply whimsical and relatively ephemeral in nature, others relatively daring in their re-conceiving of typical alley elements into bolder more modern constructs, exploiting the alley as a vehicle for design exploration.

One impetus for alley experiments is found in the blending & compacting of roadway, sidewalk, and landscape into an area of less girth than our streets, and, therefore, to lesser expectations for openness and transparency. An indicator of this variance with the normative can be seen in the retaining walls that frequently demise the alley, but at a scale and opacity rarely seen on streets. Such robustness results from the fact that alleys and their walls are frequently used to terrace grades along our hilly landscape. Charged with retaining massive amounts of earth, alley walls cannot be bothered with the niceties of pedestrian scale and detail that are incumbent street side, and are therefore able to more efficiently discharge their duty. Pictured below is a landscape wall that directly and unapologetically dispenses with its retaining chores, and is a good representative of the normative condition.

On Capitol Hill's alleys such large retaining walls often contain other service elements, including garages. Combining programmatic elements is perhaps only mildly experimental, and is much like the wall-garage combinations in Capitol Hill's Harvard historic district. The wall-garage combo pictured below deftly combines it various services, and to the extent possible, is traditionally detailed and landscaped. And though thoughtfully executed and within the stylist expectations of the neighborhood, such a length of predominantly blank wall would cause an outcry if it were on the street and would be seen as an affront to neighborliness. On the alley, however, such a carefully designed wall/garage/landscape can actually be seen to be in the best of taste.

Just up the alley  from the above example (next door to it, in fact) is a decidedly modernist interpretation of the same typology. And most likely for the same traditional type of home that the above serves. Bold in its geometry and Spartan in detail, its design is most certainly not derivative of the home is serves, and provides a contemporary counterpoint to what is typically seen on the street in this section of Capitol Hill. The only relief to the mass of the wall is the setting back of the three garage doors and one pedestrian door, both similar to the previous example, but again, lacking the architectural embellishments.

Not all alley experiments are so willful. While it is hard to miss the above two examples, alley experiments appear in smaller, subtler ways, with the glass block wall below a fine example. Glass block and good design are not typically uttered in one sentence, glass block  perhaps the most abused of modernist tropes; yet, pictured below is an attractive use of this beleaguered material as one is to find on the Hill. Here, the adjacent bamboo blends in perfectly with the wall; its distinctive, modernist lines adeptly blending with the lines of the glass block.

Fortunately, such modernist expressions are not restricted to the landscape. Entire modernist buildings are realized in our alleys, allowing for the fulfillment of the latent modernist design leanings of homeowners -- leaning that they are otherwise too timid to express street side where they would be in full view of watchful neighbors whose design prerogatives most likely lean toward maintaining the decorum  of the otherwise traditional homes and landscapes. Alleys, on the other hand, are the perfect crucible for those having the vision -- but not necessarily the brashness -- to pepper a bit of contemporary in our neighborhood.

And it not simply modernist deviants that are to be found in our alleys. There are hyper-craftsman buildings  as well, where the vocabulary of the quintessential Seattle home is taken almost to extremes, and certainly closer to its proximate oriental influences. Not that such a finely crafted garage as picture below would be out of place on the street, but the fact that it is an alley dweller makes its discovery ever more delightful. That such care and craft would be expended on a 'mere' utilitarian object, bespeaks the importance of utility in our lives.

The most singular design example of alley experimentation I came across in this admittedly small section of Capitol Hill was perhaps one that expressed none of the previous mentioned dualities; in fact, it was an example of a home whose landscape and architectural expression on the alley make it indistinguishable from that on the street. Admittedly, it does take some means to maintain decorum on both street and alley frontages, but it also takes a bit of s contrarian stand, in that this homeowner does not feel the need to distinguished between servant and served . Those of similar means have chosen a different route, as witnessed by the to imposing garages at the beginning of this post, which are across from the one below.

Despite of, or perhaps because of, Capitol Hill's heterogeneous alley landscape the above building and landscape I found to be the most compelling. The simplicity of its form and the honest expression of its  utility are captivating, its patinaed brick cladding matching that of the alley and the low landscape wall. While not experimental itself, it forms the quintessential alley building/landscape prototype against which to measure those homeowners who are more experimentally inclined, making the above artist forays resonant, and grounding them within a larger cultural context.

Up next -- (one of) Capitol Hill's Secret Alley.


Capitol Hill’s Alley Landscapes, Planned or Otherwise

Alleys have a certain alluring, intimate quality to them, owing to their lesser width and traffic as well as their less intentional nature. Typically associated with the denser, more urban parts of a city, Seattle has an extensive network of alleys not only in its downtown but also in many of its residential neighborhoods, including Capitol Hill. Close-by Portland, by comparison, has only one sizable neighborhood with alleys, Ladd's Addition. Here on Capitol Hill, we not only have alleys, but alleys forming a network that is extensive and diverse, presenting fertile ground for the urban explorer.  In fact, the network is so diverse that today's is the first of several posts on the topic -- and all on alleys in only one corner of the Hill: east of 15th, west of 22nd, north of Thomas, and south of Galer.

First and foremost, alleys are about service, and are the home of utility poles, recycling bins, garages, and other sundries that allow us to not only efficiently run our lives but to do so in a manner that keeps streets presentable and less cluttered. This prescribed, service role occurs within a variety of landscapes, ranging from compacted gravel roads -- more akin to a country lane than an urban way -- to alley landscapes that are meticulously cared for and brick-paved. While any given street landscape may possess such variety, the alley landscapes depicted here possess it within a more compact range -- and sometimes only within a single block -- oftentimes belying the apparent uniformity presented by the associated street frontages.

Some alley landscapes differ little from street landscapes: a manicured lawn, fence for privacy, a flight of steps; rubbish bins and vehicles tucked within a garage and out of view. Other alley landscapes lack any apparent order, with life’s detritus arrayed in full view.When structures are present, they are may be reflections of those of their street-counterpart, being made of the same materials and details, and of similar proportion and form. Oftentimes, such alley-structures occur within lush landscapes one expects of the best cared for gardens, enveloping the alley. In such instances, the building-landscape combination creates a spatial intimacy unrivaled on Capitol Hill.


In addition to providing functional space on the alley, Capitol Hill’s alleys provide functional space above the alley, as witnessed by the many pruned trees, which allow for utility lines to pass unimpeded. Rough in execution and unsatisfactory in appearance, if there were no alleys to host utility lines, our robust, heatlhy, and prevalent street trees would be shorter and less healthy, yielding to the pruners of utility providers.

Landscape, however, is not always what yields. Left unchecked, many of the elements within the alley yield to landscape, their useful life expired. Once amenities to homeowners, such artifacts provide a narrative to the way we conducted our everyday lives. Even without the moss and decaying concrete, built objects in the alley inherently have a landscape quality to them; or, a primacy and unassuming beauty that blurs the distinction between natural and constructed. Much as one may consider a rural landscape scenic for its teetering barns, coops, and sagging fences, the evolution of built alley into landscape furthers romantic sentiments.

This reclaiming of the built by the landscape is not limited to smaller utilitarian objects. Walls, stairs, and even entire buildings can be seen in various phases of reclamation. Without the societal scrutiny that streets receive, and even in this affluent section of Capitol Hill, such reclamation is common and not unexpected within the alley environment.

Once the landscape has taken hold, constant attention is warranted to fend off its tireless advances. Attention that a homeowner typically exercises -- with greater societal relevance and effectiveness -- on the street side. This difference in stewardship echoes the dichotomy between servant and served, between alley and street, and between back and front.

Being screened from the public’s full scrutiny has lead to another interesting and wholly unexpected characteristic -- one of experimentation in landscape and building -- where one finds newer constructs of a totally differing characteristic than expected, and the subject of the next post.

Volunteer Water Park Tower

The design of infrastructure – public works – in the United States is lacking the civic qualities one finds in other countries, notably those in Europe. A contributing factor to the differing continental approaches in design can be understood as the differing rules of decorum between the state and the populace (in Europe a heritage of monarchy, while in the United States a heritage of limited government). These two opposing traditions translate into the built environment; in the case of Europe an acceptance of the former to visibly display its prowess and acumen to the later, while in the United States grandeur in public works is associated with government that has exceeded its mandate. And though Europe is now composed of democracies, their heritage lends itself to an artistic license that is essentially absent in the United States.

Otto Wagner’s impressive Nußdorf Weir and Lock (a flood control project on the Danube River, in Vienna), is a classic example of royal patronage of the civic architecture. Wagner was Austria’s leading architect in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, and typical of that era and place such talent was sought after by the country’s rulers to not only design a functional public work, but to also create one that reflected the ruler’s superior tastes and command of public resources. While the United States may lack the royal patronage that fostered such impressive structures, Seattle is fortunate to have a noteworthy collection of well-designed public works that are not only pleasing to the eye, but also prompt exploration by the public who funded it. The Hiram M. Chittenden Locks on the Lake Washington Ship Canal, with their associated public gardens, concrete gate houses and promenade, and fish viewing platforms are a Seattle favorite, and in some ways like the Nußdorf Weir and Lock (minus the lions, of course) in that they are both water works. Here on the Hill, we are fortunate to have the Volunteer Park Water Tower, another water related piece of infrastructure.

The water tower, built by the no longer extant Seattle Water Department in 1906, stands 75 feet 6 inches above the adjacent road (Capitol Hill's highest point), about the equivalent of a six to seven story building, thus making the top of the tower 520 feet; or, a couple of hundred feet shy of the Space Needle. One could actually say there are two towers in Volunteer Park, the brick outer tower and the steel-plate inner tower where the real business occurs. Seattle Public Utilities is now the steward of the water tower(s), which is adjacent a reservoir, another attractive piece of city infrastructure. The tower plays a vital role in our drinking water supply, as it provides pressure for the water pipes serving the needs of our Capitol Hill Community, some extra storage capacity, and doubtless some other functions as well.

[caption id="attachment_2897" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Tower from the South East"][/caption]

All well and good it is to store our water, but the ‘civic-ness(?)’ of the tower lies in the fact that it performs the above functions while simultaneously being great piece of public architecture, much in the same way as the Wagner and Chittenden Locks do, but in its own Capitol way and in a manner that fully exploits its advantageous location. The first hints of these beyond utility aspirations are in evidence in the pair of matching entries (on the north and south of the tower): each with its own proud, pedimented entry. And each made of that most robust and permanent of materials -- granite. And the text on the frieze -- Aqua Pura MCMVI – directly references to those ancient builders of the world’s most enduring water works, the great aqueducts of the Roman Empire. A bit haughty perhaps, but certainly appropriate.

[caption id="attachment_2895" align="alignnone" width="703" caption="North Entry"][/caption]

Another material flourish that raises the tower above mere utility is the clinker brick cladding. Clinker brick is a brick that has been fired at such a high temperature that it forms a glaze on its surface, and is often deformed in the process. Denser and stronger than typical brick, clinkers are typically used only as architectural accents in a larger field of simpler brick (they are a trademark of Capitol Hill’s Anhalt’s); however, the designer of the tower felt that the robust and rough appearance of the brick was appropriate to the underlying utility of the entire edifice, thus conveying a sense of age, while simultaneously of permanence. The shadow resulting from the deformed profiles of the clinkers, along with their stunningly rich and complex earth tones, help to dematerializes the structure; which, despite its height, fits in perfectly with Volunteer Park’s Olmstedian landscape. As an unintended bonus, their deformed profile lends them a convenient surface to grasp and rest one’s foot, a quality not lost to many a neighborhood rock-jock.

[caption id="attachment_2898" align="alignnone" width="652" caption="Clinker Brick"][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_2896" align="alignnone" width="513" caption="Climber"][/caption]

One-hundred-and-six (or is it seven?). That is the number of steps one must climb to reach the viewing deck – the great prize that Seattle Water Department gifted to us in the planning of the Tower. The steel steps emit a hollow-ringing sound as one ascends,  reverberating throughout the serpentine stairwell -- a nice warning that others are approaching. There is a pair of stairs, one for reach entry, which spiral around the water tank, double helix style. Once inside the stairwell, one can see the inner, steel tower, as the water contained within presents far too great a structural load for the brick to handle. The steel plates are riveted together as was common for steel fabrications of the period. I am not sure of the thickness of the plates, but I am sure it is measured in inches, not fractions thereof. And just look at those rivets, there must be thousands of them! And although I cannot be sure of this either, the tower assembly rests upon a mound, in an effort to conceal as well an enormous foundation, as well as related plumbing gear.

[caption id="attachment_2902" align="alignnone" width="525" caption="Stairs"][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_2901" align="alignnone" width="588" caption="Rivets"][/caption]

Once at the top, there is a real surprise for first time visitors and a justification to regulars who slog up the steps. Historic plaques, comfortable benches, and a generous number of large windows make the viewing platform a popular destination and pleasant place to rest, gaze out over the landscape, and learn some local history. The tectonic lessons are not over either, as the great steel tank does more than hold millions of gallons of water. It also helps to hold up the roof, or is it the other way around? In either case, there is some structural interaction between the two, as the mid-point of the trusses spanning the view platform has a pair of rods going down to the tank. I think the rods may actually brace the trusses that in turn brace the top of the brick wall, keeping the latter form falling over, in the same manner the rods that join the steel tower to the brick tower in the stairwells. But that is just a guess. The trusses themselves provide an opportunity see  uncommon, radial framing.

[caption id="attachment_2903" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Interior"][/caption]


[caption id="attachment_2899" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="Roof Truss"][/caption]

Yet even an enthusiast for architecture and civic design must confess that all the above is mere hyperbole, compared to the tremendous 360-degree view one gets of our gorgeous city.

[caption id="attachment_2900" align="alignnone" width="700" caption="View"][/caption]