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By Clair Enlow

December 11, 2013

Design Perspectives: Bassetti’s sunny activism and imagination will be missed

Special to the Journal

What would Seattle be without Pike Place Market and Westlake Park?

We take them for granted but we shouldn’t. They are part of a far-reaching urban agenda that owes a lot to Fred Bassetti. He was a shaper of Seattle’s skyline as well as its civic and design culture.

Bassetti died last Thursday at the age of 96. He was the founder of Bassetti Architects and principal designer of Seattle Municipal Tower and the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building, but he will be remembered most for his loving criticism of Seattle as a great city with room for improvement. He continued to advocate for making this a better city almost until the end of his life.

Photos courtesy of Bassetti Architects [enlarge]
Fred Bassetti was part of a group of architects that pushed to save Pike Place Market.

Beer and Culture Society

Bassetti and his friends, which included architects Ibsen Nelson, Ralph Anderson and Victor Steinbrueck, talked about “critical regionalism,” a practice of modern architecture emphasizing local materials and conditions. But they also made the city their passion.

In the 1950s and 60s, the combined forces of freeway construction and urban renewal shook them up. The Alaskan Way Viaduct had cut off the waterfront, and developers were planning to raze Pike Place Market to capture that prime real estate for a modern complex with hotel towers and parking.

Bassetti and other architects began meeting as the “Beer and Culture Society” (which became Allied Arts). Architect and former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck said they talked a lot about the space between buildings, and the importance of public places and civic open space.


(Editor's note: This story has been changed to correct the name of the "Beer and Culture Society.")

They saved Pike Place Market. They pushed for the creation of Westlake Park, and it was Fred Bassetti who first proposed a large park near South Lake Union. The idea was later promoted by Seattle Times columnist John Hinterberger, but a bond measure to fund it failed.

“This contingent of urbanists were idealistic. They had a romance about the city and what it could be,” said Peter Steinbrueck.

According to longtime friend Lee Copeland, “What Fred did was not a reaction, a fight. It was a positive effort.”

HistoryLink biographer and longtime AIA Seattle director Marga Rose Hancock stresses the informal nature of their role in shaping Seattle. “They were just having lunch and making trouble and drawing others into their circle to do the same.”

Touchable buildings

Frederick Forde Bassetti, activist architect and consummate urbanist, was raised in a small town near what is now Tukwila. He met lifelong friend Victor Steinbrueck (father of Peter) as an Eagle Scout. He told friends that his passion about Seattle’s future began to take shape during a trip to Turin, Italy, when he was a teen.

Bassetti hated right angles and cut off sharp corners, which makes the profile of his towers, like the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building, recognizable.

He designed buildings for Central Washington University and also the spaces in between, collaborating closely with landscape architect Richard Haag.

After graduating from the University of Washington and Harvard, he founded his own firm in 1947. It went by several names and partnerships before becoming Bassetti Architects in 1992.

He started his career as a designer of modern houses in the suburbs, but Bassetti became a booster for urban life at a time when many developers and architects had turned their backs on downtowns, and inner cities really had few champions.

Bassetti had the winning optimism of a Kennedy-era New Frontiersman. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knew him that he attended the inauguration of JFK, thanks to the intercession of his friend, Henry M. (Scoop) Jackson.

The Henry M. Jackson Federal Building was completed 1974 and Seattle Municipal Tower (built as a speculative office building with Herman Sarkowsky as the client) was completed in 1992.

Bassetti rebelled against some of the conventions of modernism. “He hated right angles,” said Peter Steinbrueck.

Marilyn Brockman — a friend and partner with Bassetti Architects who joined the firm after Bassetti retired — put it another way: He liked touchable buildings.

Whether it was the top of a skyscraper or the frame of a window, he cut off sharp corners or “chamfered” them, which makes the profiles of towers like the federal building or Municipal Tower recognizable as Fred Bassetti’s. And it has some practical results. Wind flows more easily around the towers, and water doesn’t pool on sharp sills.

In his own brand of critical regionalism, Bassetti held art and landscape architecture in high esteem. Landscape architect Richard Haag worked with him in the 1960s and 70s, and counts 25 projects on which they collaborated including the campuses of Eastern and Western Washington universities. Haag said the design work on those campuses “is so good you have to go to Sweden to find anything comparable.”

He paraphrased the reply of a Western faculty member who was being encouraged to expand the design program there: “Excuse me, we don’t need to teach architecture. When (students) walk through these buildings they are learning architecture.”

Though he was an international citizen, it was always clear that Fred Bassetti loved Seattle. He was not alone in his passion about the unique charms and possibilities of the place, but his sunny energy, his all-embracing imagination and perennial activism will be missed.


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

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