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A walk in the ol’ concrete jungle

Posted by joeabbott on November 9, 2014

WP_20141108_007Today my feet are tired. More than tired, they’re sore: we took a walking tour of Seattle architectural elements and while the time went quickly, it wore on me in a way that only feet-up time can address. So, while I’m sitting, let me tell you about it!

I very much enjoy learning stuff about Seattle … or really any place, actually. While on the tour someone leaned into me and asked, “are you a tourist?” While I’m not, during the tour I certainly acted like it! I had questions about historical context, questions about material sourcing, and questions about the significance of imagery. All answers were appreciated and yet I still felt there was something more to the story I could learn.

But I’m  happy with whatever explanation because there’s enough to learn that we should just move onto the next topic and there’s no need in me becoming a subject matter expert.

Suzanne got us tickets to a Seattle Architecture Foundation tour called Design Details: Lions, Griffins & Walruses, Oh My!; the description pulled me in:

Engineering makes a building stand up, but intricate adornments and elaborate embellishments makes one stand out. You’ll develop an appreciation for and understanding of the various types of stone, terra cotta, bricks, and metals chosen by the architects and you’ll see how these choices add to the overall character of the structure. Tour includes a complimentary stop at the Chinese Room & Observation Deck at Smith Tower.

I’d never heard of the Chinese Room at the Smith Tower but I was interested in what I could learn about Seattle architecture in general and the different qualities you could see street-side.

We met at the Seattle Architecture office and a young architecture-educated lady named Cassie took us around. She made a couple points quickly: Seattle had nearly burned to the ground in 1880, so there would be little in the way of truly historical (read: ancient) examples of architecture, and all architecture is influenced by its region … so our versions of, say, an art deco building may not appear the same as, for example, the Chrysler Building in NYC. And with that, our group of 20 headed out into the streets and started our afternoon of craning our necks and looking skyward!

While I’d love to detail the different buildings, the specific qualities they imbued, and the various architectural genres they embodied, I can’t. I have the memory of a wet noodle and all I have are my efforts at photographically capturing the telling bits. So I’ll share those and the few stories I have from the day.

WP_20141108_001Of terra cotta and glaze

WP_20141108_004We started with the Cobb Building (easy to remember, the name was cast into the door archway) as an excellent example of some style … it had a base, middle, and top, much like a Grecian column, but was most interesting for the embellishments around its top: massive Native American faces. Unfortunately for the architectural company who commissioned these, the firm supplying them only had access to Eastern US Indian tribes and cast a face that looks quite a bit different from Pacific Northwest tribesmen.

I’m not knowledgeable about the distinctions, so I’m giving Cassie a pass on the veracity of this statement and going along with it. While we were told the decoration was a nod to that past of this region, there’s some question as to the appropriateness in general and whether that sort of thing might ever happen again. I can’t see heading into the Brazilian rain forest, plowing over the trees, building a concrete skyscraper, and then giving a nod to the indigenous peoples by tossing their faces on the side of the building and calling things even. But, I digress into potentially murky social and political waters here, don’t I?

What I liked about the Cobb Building, is that it taught me to look at a building as a whole, seeing not just the symmetry and repeated design elements, but noting the overall appearance. Like equating the parts you see in the picture to the left to the base, shaft, and capital of a Greek column. Very cool.

Cassie also noted that many of the buildings downtown were faced with castings of terra cotta that was then glazed and hung up. The benefits here being that the volcanically-rich local soils had a lot of cheap material and the weight difference between stone and terra cotta made it easier to work with. The bad part was that weathered glaze will crack, exposing the porous terra cotta to Seattle’s very wet environment … causing a very big problem if not caught and corrected.

But that was just our first stop and it was time to move on!

Art Deco – Pacific Northwest Style

While I believe I like art deco, I have to admit that I don’t completely know what that means. I’ve seen a bunch of Frank Lloyd Wright’s stuff and I like that; we have a replica of one of his sprite/nymph statues in our home. But we were shown the next few buildings as examples of art deco and I didn’t feel an immediate connection. Nice and all … just not what I would have strongly associated with “art deco”.WP_20141108_012


WP_20141108_016Tiered – like a cake

The next building we saw was an example of the reaction (lots of architectural themes are bourn of “reaction”) to concrete jungles: dense masses of buildings that cut out light and have people walking through canyons of brick and mortar. To address for that, buildings started to taper as they went up. I had thought this was purely driven by strength and stability considerations, so I thought it pretty cool to learn I was mostly so that it wasn’t dark and dreary on the streets!

WP_20141108_018And then it got brutal

Brutalism is an architectural style.

Yup, and it couldn’t be more apropos for the particular style it referred to: massive, fortress-like concrete bunkers. The style requires (I think) the exposed concrete structure and blocky faces. I’m not sure if the smaller the windows the better, but that seems like a fair bet.

It was a popular style among governments both for its cheap construction materials and for the defensive, powerful posture of the building; all as if to say, we’re in charge in here. Cassie pointed to the building in question (to the right) typifying this style and said she called it her “Can We Give Brutalism a Chance” example. While it may not be her preferred style, she was sensitive to it being a valid style and school of thought.

I’m not a fan but, I can see her point: it’s just a way of doing things and that’s just fine.

Bank row

While Seattle was building up, down on Second Avenue, we had a lot of bank buildings. Four or five multi-storied buildings all vying to be the resting place for your dollar and, to encourage your business, they went out of the way to show the strength of their integrity in architecture.


Pillars, glass, brass, and concrete all saying: trust us, we’re reliable. OK, fine, take my money and keep it safe. Thanks.

WP_20141108_029I am the walrus

And then there was the Arctic Building.

Way back when people had comfortably been making money off the Klondike gold rush, they needed a place to hang out and talk about it with folks of their ilk. Enter the Arctic Club and the Arctic Building.

In the Beaux-Arts style, it boast a lotta walrus heads and, where Cassie didn’t say as much, I would dare a bet that no other building has more walrus heads adorning it in the entire world. It’s a lotta walrus heads.

I asked if there was a significance to the walrus motif, other than it being an arctic animal, and Cassie knew of none. And I can’t think of one, either. That said, if I ever have a building created for me and my kind to hang out in and talk about our storied past, making plans for our startlingly bright futures, I shall not adorn it with an animal I commonly associate with fat, lazy, stinking, and lolling about. I’ll choose something, shall we say, just a touch more dignified.

WP_20141108_036The Smith Tower

The Smith Tower was our final stop and was a nice way to cap the day. The Smith Tower was completed in 1914 and was the tallest building west of the Rockies until the Space Needle was finished in 1962. At the time of its completion, only three other buildings were taller. It was started by LC Smith, the “Smith” in Smith-Corona, the typewriter folks, but he died before it was completed and his son finished it for him. The building became something of a legacy and, as a result, no expense was spared!

A jewel of a building and the interior is wonderful: rich materials, beautiful artistic touches, and a storied past. All made for a grand way to end the day. We rode the attendant-operated elevator to the 35th floor, the Chinese Room, and spent an hour walking about, snapping pics in all directions, and enjoying a picture-perfect Seattle fall day. We’d very much lucked out on the lack of rain.

Here are some snaps from that last stop:



WP_20141108_049 Stitch


The value on the day was exceptional: amazing weather, good company, and a knowledgeable guide taking us on a walking tour of Seattle and teaching us about architecture. Awesome.

If you get a chance to explore your town, learn something new about your local history, or just have a chance to take a nice walk, I hope you do. Thanks for dropping in.


One Response to “A walk in the ol’ concrete jungle”

  1. momma said

    I enjoyed this entry (but can’t admit to reading every word, as I’m decompressing from a two-week trip to Tucson/Sedona, AZ) and tired… but I did like to know that you and Suzy learned so much about your city’s architecture. A few years ago my BD Club and I took a long weekend trip to Chicago and (very adventurous!) stayed at a great hostel, and one of the perks was an architectural tour of the loop. Chicago has wonderful architecture and it was a most delightful morning. It’s such a delight to learn about the beauty that is created to embellish a city in a wonderful way. We humans are quite amazing, aren’t we? Momma

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