Street Critic | The Diabolical Diagonal — the architecture of the angled streets that climb Capitol Hill

Capitol Hill streets and building parcels are almost uniformly delineated by an orthogonal grid; however, when confronted with the second part of our neighborhood’s name the ubiquitous grid revealed its limitation as an all-inclusive planning tool and left city planners little choice but to utilize diagonal streets to ascend and descend our heights. Diagonal streets present a foil to the well-ordered grid, yet most buildings conform to the grid even when the site is an unconventional shape. There are reasons to stay square when designing a building, but design opportunities are sacrificed when the only nod given to an atypical, non-orthogonal site is to design an orthogonal building and treat its diagonally bounded site simply as a remainder to be ‘planted-up’.

The Hill’s longest and steepest diagonal street, Belmont Avenue, exhibits a variety of design solutions to the grid’s disruptive diagonal. The first approach, illustrated in two variants below, plays to both diagonal and grid in a manner that preserves the conflicting geometries. The third solution is a rarely seen hybrid approach where the geometries of grid and diagonal are blended and create unexpectedly complex forms. which gave us a pair of delightful mid-century apartments. Continue reading

Street Critic | Capitol Hill’s concrete sentinels

The Shannon View from Southeast (Images: John Feit)

Cast-in-place concrete was the touchstone modernist material. When combined with steel reinforcing it allowed for the long-span and tall buildings that late 19th and early 20th Century architects dreamt of. Furthermore, and unlike the steel buried in its slurry, concrete did not corrode or lose strength in fires allowing for it to have a forthright expression without the need for any protective paint, coating, or enclosure. It was able to be left bare and pure as both structure and enclosure. It achieved, in other words, all that could be hoped for in a modern material. Its apogee in the United States was from the late 1950’s until the mid-1970’s and Belmont Avenue East has three consecutive mid-rise condominium buildings – the Shannon, the Highlander, and the Lamplighter – that pay homage to that era. Their mid-century designs have a surprising upside, too. Continue reading

Street Critic | Brutally lovely on Capitol Hill

The Dome and (back of) the Bema on 16th Avenue at Temple De Hirsch Sinai

I have always been uncomfortable with the architectural term brutalitist. Part of the rub is, I suppose, that the name is a perversion of Le Corbusier’s most treasured design element, béton brut; or, rough or raw concrete. The story goes that Corb was dissatisfied with the stewardship of some of his early, pristine, white buildings. Owners did not provide the level of upkeep required and the buildings showed their age more than Le Corbuiser (Corb) found acceptable. In a seeming about-face, he decided no longer to incorporate smooth and precise materials in his work but rather use them in a less finished, natural state. Concrete was an obvious choice. It required little upkeep -not even painting. His decision to raise what had hitherto been primarily a structural element to an architectural has been tremendously influential on generations of architects, particularity from the mid-1950’s through the early 1980’s. But alas, brut became brutal – and as one may suspect, brutalist. Continue reading

Street Critic | What’s your Capitol Hill sign’s story?

An acute lack of imagination is displayed when a building owner arrives at no more interesting a building name than its street address. When there are so many possibilities for story telling – including a neighborhood’s history, its geography, or its cultural landscape – why should a building settle for “The 1620 12th Avenue Building” when it can proclaim itself as “12 Ave Arts” and add a rich narrative to a neighborhood? Business do have names and frequently a good story to share, but it often remains untold because its branding – its sign – fails to weave a narrative into its design. Both buildings and businesses, through their signs, have the ability to inform their neighbors by providing signs with a story or message that entertains, educates, and enriches. Continue reading

Street Critic | On Capitol Hill, the Pleasure of the Sign(s)

Hopvine Pub Capitol Hill SeattleHopvine Pub Capitol Hill Seattle
15th Avenue East

It would be a bold assertion if any designer stated they could replicate the visually tumultuous, yet spectacularly successful assembly of signs on 15th Avenue East. With no sign resembling its neighbor, it is in fact the signs’ varieties of shapes, colors, and sizes that contribute to 15th Avenue welcoming public realm. The signs add a transparent and varied – even enveloping – secondary scale within which pedestrians and seated patrons can take comfort. That they have accomplished their raison d’être with ease and even a bit of dash doubtlessly has to do with their organic and intuitive arrangement. The patina of age, be it faded paint or a bit rust add to the signs’ many charms, as well as to 15th’s historic narrative. Furthering this narrative are the varied fonts, colors, and artistic flourishes of the signs. Despite this variety of attributes, no single sign draws undo attention – an intriguing show of unity through dissonance. Hopvine Pub, Angel’s Shoe Repair, and Jamjuree are but a few of 15th’s well-loved contributors. Continue reading

Street Critic | Kerry Hall, a palace on the Hill

Kerry Hall East Elevation (Image: John Feit)

One of my favorite Capitol Hill buildings is Kerry Hall, home of Cornish College for the Arts’s Dance and Music departments, on the corner of Harvard Ave E and E Roy. The sole extant building of Cornish’s original Capitol Hill campus, Kerry Hall was built in 1921 in the Spanish Colonial Revival style and was designed by Seattle architect A. H. Albertson. Its Mediterranean-inspired design reminds me of the work one of my favorite American architects, Irving Gill, as well as one of my favorite buildings, the Doge’s Palace on the Venetian Lagoon, in Venice, Italy. Kerry Hall is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Continue reading

Street Critic | Report from the Central Hills Triangle Collaborative Collab 1

The Connections team highlighting the extant urban design plans proximate to the CHTC study area

The Central Hills Triangle Collaborative (CHTC) was the recipient of a $48,000 City of Seattle Department of Neighborhoods grant in 2017. The CHTC is a joint initiative by Lid I-5 and the Pike Pine Urban Neighborhood Council (PPUNC).

The CHTC is bringing together seven teams of design professionals and community members to reimagine what Interstate 5 would be if it were covered over (a term generally referred to as ‘lidding’) and contained open space, commercial uses, and housing.

Pairs of teams are working on three sites; which, from south to north include:

  • Marion to Pike (open space focus)
  • Pike to Olive (commercial focus)
  • and Olive to Thomas (housing focus)

The seventh team, Connections, is charged with seeing the opportunities to connect the three sites to each other as well as to the surrounding network of transit, bike and pedestrian paths, as well as other urban design initiatives such as the Melrose Promenade and the Pike Pine Renaissance.

A site’s area of focus does not preclude it from having other uses, such as having housing above retail. Lid I-5 has not been advocating for any particular uses on any of the sites; instead, the CHTC’s providing areas of focus within defined limits ensures that a wide range of land uses, topography, and urban typologies are investigated. This range will enable the broader Seattle community to see a variety of options on what is hoped to be the future lid. Continue reading

Street Critic | Tight squeezes

(Images: John M Feit)

(Images: John M Feit)

One of the great joys of urban exploration is the variety of scales one encounters in the built environment. While that range on Capitol Hill is generally restricted to small to medium building types, even such a limited offering provides some startling juxtapositions. As a bit of an architectural taxonomist, I notice several potential causes for these juxtapositions: those resulting from a change in zoning, those built on very small parcels of land, and  those that are simply the result of finding a good deal on rent.

Possible zoning changes are exhibited in two neighboring buildings on 18th Ave E, north of E John. For the uninitiated, zoning prescribes not only how big and what uses a building may have, but also dictates how far it needs to be set back from the street and neighboring properties. In the examples below, there may either have been no zoning when the apartments were built next to the single family homes; or, the zoning may have changed to allow such a proximate mix in uses. The closeness of the buildings to one another certainly would not be allowed under today’s building and zoning codes, at least not without significant changes to their designs. The tight fit between the buildings provides a finer weft of the built history of our neighborhood because they are nearly contemporaneous, and do not contrast in appearance as buildings whose construction is separated by many decades. Continue reading

CHS Street Critic | 19th Avenue: Back to the Future

CHS Street Critic is a new semi-regular column focused on street level architecture and design from a longtime CHS contributor.

19th Ave is Capitol Hill’s most eastern shopping street. Its buildings house an eclectic mix of independent businesses ranging from professional services, health care, education, restaurants, to a martial arts studio, intermixed with single and multifamily housing. Part of 19th’s vibrancy and commercial health lies in the daily contribution made by one of the two private school’s that are proximate to it, adding some 1,400 students. A mix of children and teenagers (who either walk, drive, or are dropped off), faculty and staff swell the activity at the intersection of Aloha and 19th, the neighborhood’s busiest. Despite the twice daily ritual of pick-up and drop-off, the intervening hours have a leisurely aspect to them, and are mostly the domain of locals. All of these qualities of 19th Ave serve as a model, I believe, in how a diversity of uses and housing options in a predominately single family neighborhood add richness to the residents’ lives.

The most concentrated mix of uses and housing types are found in the middle of the stretch between Madison and Galer. At 19th and Republican, El Cuento Spanish Immersion School and The Country Doctor Community Clinic face each other in quiet repose. El Cuento is one of several educational establishments along 19th and is tucked into the ground floor of an apartment building of early 20th Century Vintage.

The Country Doctor has been on the Hill since 1971 and provides a full range of primary care medical services for folks of all ages, cultures, and incomes. The clinic occupies several buildings that share some of the architectural elements of El Cuento (bay windows and ground floor  storefront the most obvious). Part of County Doctor is actually two joined buildings —  a single story and two story structure. The taller of the pair is a rare commercial structure whose size as more a response to fulfilling immediate needs rather than investment prerogatives. Its abundant glazing relative to its small stature gives it a proud presence on the street.  Continue reading