This may not come as a surprise, but over the years the Seattle style hasn’t fallen too far from the architectural tree.
Or maybe it will surprise you; Inhabited in one form or another for millennia, Seattle has seen a plethora of architectural styles come and go. Although Seattle’s conditions, style, and rate of growth may have changed, the urban version of Northwest Style has remained consistent.
What are the basics of the Seattle style?
According to local architect and professor David Miller of the University of Washington, it is less of a uniform appearance and more a school of thought or design style that is unique to a place and finds ways to express itself no matter what style it is used the greatest influence at the time.
For Seattle this means two materials compared to most others: wood and steel.
“Wood is obvious; it’s a low-carbon, very sustainable material,” said Miller, founding partner of Miller | Hull said. “But with a lot of shipbuilding, the aircraft industry, Boeing, Paccar – there is an industrial legacy and steel is something you see here.”
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These are fundamental building blocks of the Seattle area’s architectural style that allow us to bend other details of the Northwest. Miller ascribes the regional style: building in a simple form, exposing posts and beams, standing out from the country, opening up to the outside and bringing in natural light.
It is a philosophy that has presented itself a lot in the history of our city.
Seattle’s architecture, like any city, was influenced by time and trends. As Seattle grew, the new money (Your Yeslers, Dennys, Borens, and Blaines) flaunted their wealth with intricately lavish Victorian Gothic and Queen Anne style homes. The popularity of these houses on the hill gave the Queen Anne neighborhood its name.
But they didn’t define the city: Seattle expanded rapidly – after 34 years to create the first 168 subdivisions in King County, 500 subdivisions emerged between 1888 and 1891 – but architects were still rare. Plan and sample books were used to purchase houses, creating the Seattle Box and Craftsman styles.
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Both modified the existing styles to accommodate more windows or expand the house for an uneven lot.
According to Miller, a lot has to do with our climate.
“There aren’t many flat sites, so dealing with topography, different heights of the ground,” said Miller. “We’ve had fabulous weather here for the past few months … but we’re light challenged; we have those long, gray days. So capturing natural light is another thing you’d see in the world’s best northwest architecture.”
Because it’s so closely related to our climate, it explains why you’re more likely to see similar patterns between Seattle and Vancouver than between Portland.
“Portland is still in the Cascadia area, but it’s hardly,” Miller said. “Of course Tacoma, Seatle, Bellingham, Vancouver – we are in a unique climate zone. Our climate requirements for natural light have a major influence on the architecture.”
Of course, some of these standards lasted longer than the cities that were here: Miller points out that standards found in the modern movements for which Seattle has grown – open floor plans, wooden beams – usually the requirements as well for one longhouse were found in coastal American Indian tribes in Washington.
They also provided the blueprint to make efficient use of the materials available to us (like much wood). Architects from the region became known for this.
“Few architects have generated greater local affection,” said architectural historian Grant Hildebrand of local designer Ellsworth Storey.
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“In his most original and best-known designs, he drew a preference for chalets, handicrafts and prairie schools in the milieu of the region and found in this metamorphosis a restrained but original style that still seems wonderfully appropriate to the genius of the region . “
Although Seattleites may love these old artisan houses, the designs that really made the city the national architectural voice were modern in design. At the height of modernity (1950s and 1960s) the field gained international recognition and cemented our last legacy: simple.
“I think we’re all style influenced as designers – that’s not a bad thing. Style tends to reflect culture,” Miller said.
“But I think the Northwest style is more authentic at each of these stages, and not so much wrapped in decoration or excessive expression of style. There is a kind of reluctance that I think may be part of our heritage.”