At last: Seattle architecture crushes on color

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At last: Seattle architecture crushes on color

Not so long ago you could look around the metropolitan area and complain that there is no paint in new buildings. It seemed like everything that was built was a version of gray. Light brown and beige tones were the standard tones as the 1990s drew to a close.

Large areas of glass often (sometimes literally) reflected the sky – they looked like a single, fluorescent-lit ceiling. Each new building seemed to expand that limited palette with more walls of pale boredom.

That was before the Museum für Popkultur – or MoPOP – the former Experience Music Project was completed in 2000. Regardless of whether you consider it a prime example of the productive international work of architect Frank Gehry or not, the structure took care of you significant sensation in the local scene.

Perhaps it broke the unwritten rule of architectural discretion by using vivid colors and sinuous shapes. It only took a while for the regime change to be complete.

As we emerged from the long, depressing weather that broke records in November, we saw that something quite interesting had happened, almost without anyone expecting it in Seattle. With scaffolding and tarpaulin removed from around the building, we saw colors. Many of them.

A trendsetter? The Museum of Pop Culture, formerly called EMP. Credit: a href =

Along Dexter Avenue, Stone Way, Madison, Seneca, and other streets across the city, many new buildings have been brightened with intense colors. And not just fields of color or decorations, but also broad brushstrokes that cover large parts of the exterior.

In the past few years, a handful of designers have played with color. But the attempts were preliminary and subtle. Perhaps a number of protruding bays were done in mustard yellow. But not much more.

The reluctance was likely the result of development customers fearful of making the “wrong” choice in the marketplace – safer if they kept the muted color scheme.

In addition, the specification of colors can be fraught with dangers. What might look good on a small example or in a simulated rendering might turn out to be very different in the full presentation. And by then, of course, the work has been bought and paid for.

Some of the reluctance to add color to architecture in the past could be due to the region’s roots in Scandinavia, where courtesy and respect are often the cultural norm. For decades, buildings in Scandinavian countries have been using intense colors to create a unique ambience despite the less favorable climate. For some reason, Seattle was late for the game.

But now color is directed towards us almost with all its might. Even temporary structures on high-rise buildings are bright yellow and blue. The increasing verticality of the city is celebrated by these soaring colored collars.

New townhouses tend to use colors more boldly. Photo credit: Nick Turner

And color didn’t just come to us in flat painted surfaces. It was poured into glass. The Towers for Amazon around Seventh Avenue and Lenora Street are pretty full of colored glass blades. The light passing through them creates different effects depending on the angle of the sun and the atmospheric conditions of the sky as well as ambient light in the evening. We see a great playfulness in filling the skyline with color combinations.

When asked about this seemingly sudden change, the architect Ed Weinstein from Weinstein EU attributes the change to the economic recovery, which has given us “a new exuberance of architectural form and color that aims to create a new identity and a new expression”. John Savo, architect and builder at NBBJ, cited the arrival of the many new companies that “are multicultural organizations … looking for their environment to express their difference, creativity and energy.” He explains that many of these cultures are colored in Accept buildings.

Not all aspects of the dramatic changes we saw recently in Seattle have been universally recognized. In some quarters there is a persistent fear of density and the dominance of some corporate empires.

But despite a collective fear, we are seeing a whole new attitude towards buildings that are significantly – and refreshingly – more expressive and colorful than ever before.