October 26, 2006

Designers bet urban dwellers want more

  • The Escala project in downtown Seattle has several features designed to attract suburbanites, such as oversized balconies, semiprivate elevator vestibules, a grand entry and private club.
    Thoryk Architecture


    Urban living is becoming increasingly popular, but the marketplace still has a long way to go before it fully embraces the concept.

    Buyers have many concerns, not the least of which is space. For all the talk about the joys of downsizing and how having fewer things makes life less complicated and more fulfilling, people naturally are attached to their belongings. They may say they’re ready to part with many of their possessions, but when it comes time to actually do so, there’s a huge hesitation.

    Another hurdle is shifting from the single-family home to the downtown high-rise aesthetic. Despite what our marketing friends say, this remains a long leap — especially in our culture. True, many people have traded in the suburban for the urban lifestyle, but many more will have to be brought along for city living to go from hot trend to a fully embraced and accepted lifestyle.

    The entire design community, from architects to urban planners, plays a key role in meeting this challenge.

    Image courtesy of Escala
    Escala will reportedly be the city’s largest condo, with 850,000 square feet contained in 30 stories.

    Bigger is better

    With Escala, my first Seattle project, I have an opportunity to make a major statement and address various market issues. At 850,000 square feet, the $350 million, 30-story Escala is the city’s largest condominium project, so the size of the residences is not as difficult as in smaller projects.

    When it’s finished in 2008, Escala will have 280 homes. The largest will be a 16,000-square-foot penthouse, where space will hardly be an issue. The smaller homes start at 950 square feet and range to more than 3,000 square feet.

    Escala, a Lexas Companies project, has amenities that will help residents easily adapt to a fresh, urban lifestyle.

    The ultimate space-maximizing feature is the building’s oversized exterior balconies, which will help residents transition from suburban backyards to urban streets. The balconies range up to 1,000 square feet and, thanks to floor-to-ceiling windows, provide a dramatic extension of the living space.

    I included semiprivate elevator vestibules for the homes to provide the privacy of single-family homes. This also minimizes the amount of hallway space — something single-family dwellers are not accustomed to.

    Street appeal

    Escala’s location at Fourth and Virginia puts it in the heart of the emerging Midtown neighborhood, where the time-honored architecture of such icons as the Securities and Times buildings meets the modern stylings of The Westin Seattle. We’re working with Bellevue-based MulvannyG2 Architecture, the architect of record, to provide local perspective.

    Our goal at the main entry on Fourth is to present a grand façade so that residents and guests feel they have arrived at a notable place, but aren’t overwhelmed. We want the entry to be part of a lively pedestrian streetscape, so we designed it to encompass international-class retail shops and restaurants.

    The team sought to consider the needs not only of the residents and retailers, but also of passersby. The transparent glass will draw people into the foyer with 20-foot ceilings, a curved stairway leading to a city club, grand columns and a water feature.

    When I design, I try to incorporate the beauty of the outdoors. So often, architecture focuses on the outer façade or the interiors. I believe that a design is not complete without the inclusion of natural elements. At Escala, I incorporated a large mezzanine that includes an open courtyard with a variety of plants and flowers.

    A 25,000-square-foot private city club will occupy the entire second floor of the building. The city club includes a fitness area with pool, theater, wine cave with storage, conference center, and bar and lounge fronting a large south-facing terrace with a dramatic water feature.

    To provide the grand entry and ensure an attractive and engaging streetscape, the design team had to forego the temptation to economize by providing some of the parking above ground. Instead, the contractor will dig down eight stories to complete the second-largest excavation in Seattle’s history, behind that of the Columbia Center.

    International influence

    Escala, Spanish for “scale,” refers to the building’s architectural presence. Escala combines classic stone elements at the base and slowly transitions to a modern, reflective glass design at the top, which will have a light, airy feel with sleek, rounded ends to improve the views. I call this design style contemporary heritage.

    The design will allow the building to appear weightless and breathable despite its large physical scope. The goal is to enhance the Seattle skyline, not weigh it down. When complete, Escala will resemble a crystal coming out of a monolithic stone massing.

    I traveled around the world looking for ideas for Escala. While the dramatic, international influence is important in Escala’s design, MulvannyG2 provides great local insight that is equally necessary for the building’s architectural success.

    Escala is the latest in a long line of projects on which I’ve worked with John Midby of the Lexas and Midby companies. With our long working history, we have created a partnership that encourages open dialogue between architect and developer. With Escala, we’re also working with Lexas Companies’ Joe Strobele, and our daily dialogues have helped Escala evolve into the best design possible.

    Because of its unique contemporary design and deep respect for Seattle’s architectural history, Escala is being positioned as an instant classic in downtown Seattle. In addition, my opportunity to work in Seattle for the first time, as well as the ability to develop a forward-thinking design that will forever change the Seattle skyline, has been an ideal experience.

    Paul Thoryk is president of San Diego-based Thoryk Architecture. He has won more than 70 grand design awards in architecture and planning.

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