November 6, 2008

Local architects break out of the box

  • A dozen firms are using innovative modeling, unique project delivery and cutting-edge design to wean Seattle off the Northwest regionalism mold.


    Two years ago in an Arcade magazine article entitled “New Talent — Where is the Next Public Generation?” I wrote about younger local architectural firms that could and should be getting public work, but weren’t. The article presented six offices to the public sector players who might hire them for public work.

    After I joined AIA Seattle’s executive board, new Executive Director Lisa Richmond and I raised the possibility of an exhibit of up-and-coming young individuals and firms, building on the Arcade article. We agreed we wanted to go deeper into the profession in terms of younger, innovative firms. We wanted to find the new blood that would make a difference in the architecture of the region, challenge the status quo and re-frame the ongoing debate on the nature of architectural practice. And we wanted firms with an edge. To broaden the search and reduce subjectivity in the selection process, a curatorial team was formed consisting of Ed Weinstein of Weinstein AIU, Eric Cobb of E. Cobb Architects, Carrie Schilling of Works Partnership Architecture of Portland, and myself.

    The team formed criteria for selection that included firms with a body of built work, firms that had “wrestled with the beast” as Cobb stated, and firms with little built work, but were risk takers. Age was not a criterion.

    We each produced lists of firms to review while AIA Seattle sent out a call for submissions.

    Photo courtesy of Chadbourne + Doss Architects
    A worker at a high-tech design firm enjoys some private time in a “writable office” designed last year by Chadbourne + Doss Architects.

    After reviewing all of the firms, we chose the 12 we felt made best use of innovative modeling technology, had unique methods of project delivery and pushed the boundaries of architectural design across disciplines.


    One of the most fascinating discoveries about the state of these firms is how they have embedded sustainability in the way they work; it has become a baseline for them and they don’t need to promote themselves as “green.” Locally, many established firms promote sustainability like motherhood and apple pie. The next generation of firms doesn’t seem to need to do this and is already moving on, with sustainability built into their practices.

    HyBrid Architecture is deeply involved in serious research on how to make the 100-year-old promise of prefabrication really work. It is investigating every way one can make buildings of wood, steel and cargo containers. The company has a wonderful prototype — Cargotecture — in the Northwest woods.

    Workshop for Architecture|Design is pushing the Byzantine codes of Seattle’s building department to produce a very rational and sustainable neighborhood residence without the usual front driveway filled with cars.

    Chadbourne + Doss Architects used two cargo containers to create a delightful espresso stand called Java Stop on Route 66 in Illinois. It’s become a local landmark in addition to being a simple adaptive reuse of existing resources.


    Another amazing aspect of this group is the complete lack of “Northwest regional” idioms in its work. These practices are thinking and acting globally, not locally. This could challenge the many Seattle-area firms who have based their careers on “local craft and influences.” Architectural practice is now global and these young firms are acutely aware of this. They get it.

    Pique Architecture is an office of three people who get up every morning, turn on their Web cams in two states and two countries and make vigorously inventive designs of small terraces and large institutional projects. Their video of a house in California demonstrates a complete command of the way architectural space is formed and presented.

    Hutchison and Maul Architecture has gone from doing “architectural installations” to a recently completed $5 million house on Mercer Island on an incredibly narrow and steep site. And it is working on two projects in China.

    Graham Baba Architects came out of Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen Architects and is working to define its own architectural language. The firm pays serious attention to systemic sustainability in its designs and you sense it will quickly develop an urban style free of regional constraints.

    Practice and implementation

    Photo courtesy of Pique Architecture
    Designed by Pique Architecture, this 3,700-square-foot house in Bend has multi-season outdoor rooms and a high level of transparency to stitch it into the Central Oregon landscape.

    Many of these young firms are challenging the traditional methods of how architectural services are delivered. For millenniums, building construction has been about meeting with the client, figuring out the budget and trying to keep the project on track as a contractor builds it, with his own ideas of how to do that. Now there are architectural firms that are taking over the process and making it work for both them and the client. Design-build is a buzzword, but it has real meaning in a context of design imperatives and tough budgets. These firms are taking on the challenge of vertical integration in the architectural arena.

    Pb Elemental Architecture does it all. It develops, designs, engineers, builds and markets its own buildings. It has a traditional architectural practice on the side, but is primarily known for its spec work. Pb achieves an impressive feat: It produces a staggering amount of buildings, while maintaining a very high level of quality

    Build LLC has taken on the same delivery model as Pb Elemental but with a more refined sensibility. Build’s Park Modern on University Way is, in my opinion, the best project of its type built recently in Seattle. It is market driven, but superb in its execution; a mixed-use urban infill project that gets everything right.

    BLA is a small firm with a couple of house renovations to its credit. But it also has entered the tougher developer game and is designing a number of market-driven projects where it doesn’t have total control. BLA understands the need for architecture to reach down to the market and still sustain a high quality level. And it has the California sensibility of bringing the outdoors indoors.

    Mixed practice

    The delightful thing about writing about the future of architecture is that there are many models for architectural practice. The profession, finally, seems to be free of the fetishes (social modernism, post-modernism and rationalism) it has indulged in for many years and architects today are happily practicing their craft.

    Heliotrope Architects is the one young office that has been able to make serious inroads into public work. It also is finishing construction on four delightful houses on Orcas Island.

    Zero Plus Architects is a very interesting and peripatetic office. It has great potential to deliver highly refined buildings and is fascinated by the intersection of technology and movement.

    Lead Pencil Studio started its career doing art installations, gallery designs and small offices. It is now poised, after having the Rome Prize, to become a complete player in the real architectural world.

    A final observation about these groups is that four of them are couples, personally as well as professionally, reflecting an increasing and positive diversity in architectural practice.

    These groups of talented young firms are filled with optimism and they suggest the future of Northwest architecture will be very rich and inventive.

    David Spiker is an architect and associate principal at CollinsWoerman, where he builds mixed-use projects throughout the Northwest. He recently served as chair of the Seattle Design Commission and sits on AIA Seattle’s Executive Committee.

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