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February 5, 2003

505 Union's ambitious design is worthy of a tycoon

Special to the Journal

 505 Union Station
Photos by Tim Griffith
505 Union Station is a study in contemporary curtainwall construction.

Seattle’s venerable Union Station is a monument to rail transportation. 505 Union Station, streaming behind the historic building, is about velocity itself.

The shape of its glass and steel shell -- with its arcing, splitting geometries -- tends to vanish at close range, yet dominates the view at safe distance. In 505 Union Station, the technology of the curtainwall is unbound -- tilting and bending toward its practical and structural limits. It’s an impressive performance.

But like many of the more formal events of the millennium, the arrival of the 11-story 505 Union Station seems to have slipped by with little notice except some critical swipes for its cold shoulder over Fourth Avenue and its impolite lack of masonry or traditional lines. In the two years since it was completed, a lot has happened: the dot-com bubble burst, two of the world’s tallest skyscrapers were leveled and the country has sunk into an economic gloom.

505 Union Station,
505 Fifth Ave. S.
Vulcan, Inc.


Project size:
300,000 square feet

Completion date:
October 2000

Structural engineer:
Coughlin Porter Lundeen

Electrical engineer:

Mechanical engineer:
Holaday-Parks (mechanical/HVAC)
Stirret-Johnsen (mechanical/plumbing)

Curtainwall design:
Apex Curtainwall Group
CDC Curtainwall Design & Consulting
Curtain Wall Design

Bush Roed & Hitchings

Window washing consultant:
Citadel Consulting

Elevator consultant:
Lerch Bates & Associates Inc.

Lighting designer:
Lighting Concepts International

Acoustical engineer:
Michael R. Yantis Associates

Landscape architect:
Murase Associates

Owner representative:
The Seneca Group

Security consultant:

General contractor:
Baugh Construction

Jury comments: "Definitely outside the box. The curves and angles provide a sense of motion and 19th century machinery entirely appropriate to its setting as a backdrop to the King Street Station. The eastern plaza works well in buffering the International District from the transportation corridor, without overwhelming the streetscape."
"An interesting blend of contextualism and contrast, this bold design startles a staid downtown. Its metaphors of trains and speed are legible. The view of the building down Second Avenue is more successful than its adjacency to its neighbors."

Designers at NBBJ and owner Vulcan Inc., led by Paul Allen and Jody Patton, have taken great care to present their building as contextual and deferential to Union Station. But nearness to the historic building is not the primary design challenge the site presents. At the confluence of Second and Fourth avenues, 505 Union Station holds court with the landmarks of Pioneer Square and the International District, King Street Station and the two stadiums -- even the Space Needle, which anchors the view at the other end of Second Avenue.

Paul Allen and company cannot be accused of shy architecture. Along with his Experience Music Project, near the base of the Needle, 505 Union is a bold object set in a strategic site, a work of ambitious design, worthy of a tycoon of historic dimensions.

It’s also a study in contemporary curtainwall construction, continuing in the tradition of the Norton Building at First and Columbia, on the other side of Pioneer Square. In recent years, architect Peter Pran has built an international reputation by stretching the tectonic and expressive potential of curtainwall technology. At NBBJ he worked with John Savo, designer of Two Union Square, and with design architect Joey Myers on the design of 505 Union Station.

Unlike the Norton building, which reflects the Modernist dictum of simple and clear shapes, the walls that form the clashing volumes of 505 Union Station differ in character as well as geometry. Dominating views from three sides is the curving, sloping "waterfall" wall, with its contiguous blue-green glass. The other wall types are banded with reflective, opaque or semi-opaque horizontal strips that connect directly with floor plates. On the east side, two separate bays are largely enclosed in pre-cast concrete.

Faced with the challenges of joining the hills and valleys of 505 Union and marrying its multiple enclosure systems, the design team and contractor Baugh (now Skanska) recommended some modeling techniques usually reserved for much taller buildings.

Literally on the cutting edge, a laser technology called stereo lithography sends beams through liquid resin, making it possible to model a building based on three-dimensional drawings already in place. There was also a full-scale mockup of one section of the building’s shell in which four distinct types of curtainwall join at odd angles. This kind of experimentation brought the interests of client, architect and contractor into close alignment, according to principal-in-charge John Savo.

"What we are moving toward (at NBBJ) is object-based design -- building the building in the computer in three dimensions," Savo said.

505 Union Station
505 Union Station with its contiguous blue-green glass, shows why it has earned the nickname waterfall building.

In keeping with the standards of the newest office towers, the floorplate of 505 Union Station is virtually column-free, supported by the concrete core where elevators and services are located, and by an intricate system of lateral supports that tie into columns on the building’s perimeter.

The perimeter columns are woven into the curtainwall system, sloping and curving with the glass and steel skin of the building. On the "waterfall" side of the building, the exterior wall becomes a continuous skylight before terminating into the roof. With the four sides of each pane of glass joined independent of the supporting structure just inside, the effect from the inside is one of floating beside the Seattle skyline.

The structure has a separately owned concrete "pad" that originated with the planning and construction of the bus tunnel and its International District Station. So the builders of 505 Union Station inherited a foundation with two levels of parking and infrastructure in place. Structural supports within the pad were at the perimeter, ready to accept the loads of the steel columns. But the unusual angles of the exterior walls meant those loads would have to be transferred laterally, both above and below the surface of the pad, according to statements by structural engineer Terry Lundeen.

Stone gardens
Stone gardens by Robert Murase and sculpture by John Hoge invite the public to linger at the building's base. The site attracts visitors from the neighboring International District, and foot traffic from King Street Station and the nearby entrance to the bus tunnel.

The glass and steel building is visually anchored at the base by a landscape of stone composed by Robert Murase and enhanced by the sculptures of Seattle artist John Hoge. In combination with plantings and light fixtures as well as neighboring retail at ground level, the landscape at 505 Union Station invites tenants, neighbors from the International District and passers-by on their way to the stadiums to stop for awhile.

But walk around to the other side, and you might as well just keep going. There’s no way in, no break in the long expanse of curtainwall that would indicate -- or deliver -- access to the inside of the building. The visual velocity of the building and the fast traffic of Fourth Avenue pass each other without acknowledgment. In this direction, as in the view from downtown, it is mid-range skyline that counts, not the street.

From a practical standpoint, it’s just as well. The landscape and retail environment of 505 Union Station is attractive, but the invitation stops there. No one gets past the desk just inside the front door except tenants and their guests.

And the building knows who you are, and which areas you are authorized to use. It unlocks those areas but closes you off from others. So far, the loyal tenants of 505 Union Station have not opted to activate some of the building’s smarter electronic features, according to John Chandler of Trammell Crow, property manager for the building.

Photo by Clair Enlow
Scott Johnson, Lead Technical Designer (left); Irma Dore, Vulcan Construction Manager; John Savo (seated), Principal in Charge/Project Manager; Martin O'Leary, Skanska USA (formerly Baugh Construction); and Lindy Gaylord, Seneca Real Estate Group

But they are in full use at Vulcan Inc., on the top five floors. If you enter after hours when the lights are off, software connected to the lighting, heating and cooling systems will light your way to your desk and other common areas. At the same time, the nearest heat or air conditioning outlets produce the temperature you prefer. Each employee carries a card programmed with the necessary information.

But out on the plaza, the inside of the building might as well not exist.

"It’s used by everybody," said Vulcan construction manager Irma Dore, who works in the building. "In nice weather there are people -- young and old -- all around. It’s very alive, very vibrant. At the same time, it has a certain serenity."


Clair Enlow can be reached by e-mail at clair@clairenlow.com.

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