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By Clair Enlow

November 18, 2015

AIA winners manage to surprise and inspire

Special to the Journal

If you went to the AIASeattle 2015 Honor Awards at Benaroya Hall on Monday night to see the future, you might have been disappointed — but in a good way.

Most of the design moves that got this jury’s attention are not new, but they aren’t cliches either. The winners surprise and inspire without novelty.

In the private realm, their luxury is in their simplicity. And in the public realm, they give much more than they take away. They fit the site with precision and restraint. They induce excitement, but there’s no bling, no wasted square footage — and “no bad architectural behavior” toward the neighbors, one juror remarked.

If you are looking for some winning ideas from Monday night, here they are:

• Black box with cuts

You’ve probably seen it before: the modern “cabin in the woods” on the shore or in the suburbs. This version, Little House, is perfectly rectilinear and clad in light-absorbing dark material, with glowing floor-to-ceiling glass in places that makes it look carefully carved out. Little House (Honor Award, mw works/architecture + design) is a winner because its modesty belies the breathtaking views and light it selectively takes in. It has “just the right amount of cuts to actually expand out into the woods,” according to one juror. “It’s the Walden Hut for the beginning of the Third Millennium.”

• Bright moves inside a dumb corporate shell

It’s time to recycle many of the corporate campus and office park buildings from the 1980s or before. They’ll find new owners and new uses — or they can be rebuilt from the inside out by the original owner, like Microsoft Buildings 16 and 17 (Award of Merit, Gensler). They seem to have gutted these buildings and shifted the center of gravity with a new circulation plan. The new system of floors and partitions leaves glimpses of the old outer walls.

• Surprising or exquisite office buildings

Perhaps because they are rarely owner-occupied and driven by the short-term bottom line, design on big office projects often seems to get the short end of the stick. This year’s jury found two office buildings to love: one in Seoul and one in Seattle. One is Shinsegae International (Honor Award, Olson Kundig), cited for its intricate, visible structure and transparency. In Seattle, 400 Fairview (Award of Merit, SkB) got the nod because it is an office building with an adaptable personality and generous public space outside. Also, it’s not a tower. Instead of reverting to project type, it relates to the block structure of South Lake Union.

• Minimal in general

Economy of means — that is achieving more with less material, fewer resources and less space, but not less design — was a clear advantage in this year’s competition. That goes for the other Honor Award winners, which include Cascade Bicycle Club Headquarters (ZGF Architects), which drew the comment “This building is going further than it looks like,” and a simple, sensitive addition to a historic brick apartment building (Anhalt Renovation + Addition, Public47 Architects).

It also describes three more Award of Merit winners: Mercer Island Fire Station No. 92 and the UW Gould Hall Gallery (both by The Miller Hull Partnership) and The Junsei House by Suyama Peterson Deguchi, a deceptively simple abstraction of a traditional house shape.

“Do more with less,” said juror Toni Casamor of BCQ architectura barcelona, giving a verbal pat on the back to the assembled local architects. “We understand the difference between luxury and quality.”

The magic of the winning ideas is hard to explain, and some of the jurors’ comments were minimal, too: “They did something good,” said Casamor. “No?”


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

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