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August 21, 2012

Nakano remembered for talent, spirit, friendship

  • Architect Les Tonkin says of Kenichi Nakano: “He just had a knack for understanding people, listening and producing good work.”
    Journal Staff Reporter

    Kenichi Nakano, founder of the Seattle landscape architecture and urban design firm Nakano Associates, died Aug. 8 at home after battling a rare form of gastric cancer, his firm said. He was 67.


    A memorial service is being planned for September.

    Nakano founded Nakano Dennis Landscape Architects in 1989 with Dale Dennis. When Dennis retired, the firm became Nakano Associates.

    Earlier this year, the practice expanded the management team as Nakano started working part time in a move toward retirement, and began treatment for cancer.

    Nakano was a landscape architect for more than 30 years, specializing in urban design and campus planning. His recent projects included urban design for the Bellingham Arts District and the landscape for the Library Media Center and Maier Hall at Peninsula College in Port Angeles, as well as improvements to the campus entrance. He also worked on the Puyallup Elders Center in Tacoma, for The Puyallup Tribe of Indians.

    The firm said Nakano was best known for reworking the International Fountain at Seattle Center, which was installed for the 1962 World's Fair. His design changes in the 1990s made it more accessible to the public.

    “He was an absolutely amazing designer, an absolutely amazing mentor and friend,” said Audrey West, managing principal with Nakano Associates. “He's going to be greatly missed.”

    Colleagues described him as interested in other people, passionate about the arts, and instilled with a strong sense of community.

    West said that for decades Nakano played rock and roll with a local band made up of friends he'd known most of his life. They called themselves the Soul Deacons, and Nakano played keyboards. “When we had an office on Capitol Hill, they used to use the parking garage to practice,” she said.

    Karen Kiest of Karen Kiest|Landscape Architects in Seattle said Nakano supported others in the field. When Kiest started her firm in 2002, Nakano tipped her to a project he felt was too small for his firm but appropriate for hers: an inventory of downtown Seattle parks to see how they could be better managed. It was the first project for her firm.

    “I always credit Kenichi with tipping that ball in my court,” she said.

    Nakano was very social and liked to know the direction of landscape architecture in the city, Kiest said, and how others in his field were doing. “I think he was renowned for having lunches with people. He used lunches as a way to try to connect to people, which is extremely rare. When you run a little office you don't necessarily talk to another landscape architect again.”

    Kiest said she worked with Nakano in 2003 on a team led by ZGF Architects that was planning Sound Transit's North Link. Her firm was the urban designer and his was the landscape architect.

    Nakano enjoyed the meetings and had a fantastic staff, she said. “He really liked being the public face of the firm. He was really engaged and interested in the planning and debates that go on in terms of public work.”

    Les Tonkin of Tonkin/Hoyne Architecture & Urban Design worked with Nakano on redeveloping Rainier Vista in Columbia City for Seattle Housing Authority from 2000 to 2005.

    Tonkin/Hoyne was lead consultant and Nakano Associates helped with the master plan and also did some of the landscape architecture.

    Tonkin said Nakano did a wonderful job on the project that included designing pocket parks and a central park.

    He described the landscape architect as soft spoken and easy to work with. “He just had a knack for understanding people, listening and producing good work.”

    Nakano was born at the Tule Lake Relocation Center in northern California and raised in Fife. He earned a bachelor of landscape architecture degree from the University of Washington and a master's of landscape architecture from Harvard University. He taught for years at the University of Washington.

    In a 1998 article in The Seattle Times, Nakano said he developed an early interest in landscape architecture because of his grandmother, who had a beautiful garden.

    Before founding Nakano Associates, he worked with Richard Haag Associates on Gasworks Park, and also worked with Robert Shinbo Associates.

    Nakano was a fellow of the American Society of Landscape Architects and an honorary member of the American Institute of Architects Seattle.

    Kris Snider, principal in charge of the landscape architecture studio at Seattle-based Hewitt, said he knew Nakano for years, and worked on Sound Transit projects with him, including the Tukwila station.

    Snider said Nakano seemed to be drawn to public projects. “The thing I always respected about him was his ability to contribute to any design process with always looking toward the bigger good — not just the project but the context in which the project was being inserted.”

    Snider described Nakano as sweet-spirited, a bright light.

    “You could always count on Kenichi to be cool under pressure and level-headed and really happy,” he said. “I never ever saw him angry even when I was angry and tried to draw him into it. He'd just give me that big smile. He was one of those rare people. He just had that happiness gene.”


    Lynn Porter can be reached by email or by phone at (206) 622-8272.