Hallucinating on 1st Ave

How unfortunate that we all don’t have a stash of whatever it was that Charles Mudede was smoking when he wrote this Stranger piece on the new Four Seasons building on 1st Ave between Union and University. How fun it would be to look up at a stark, rectilinear glass and concrete tower that forms a massive barrier to sun, mountains, and water, and interpret it as profound connection to the natural world, a form that casts shadows like those from pristine alpine peaks because it is painted the color of mud.

Back here on earth, on the ground, what I see is a building that fails to embrace the street. As you can see in the photo above, roughly half of what the passing pedestrian encounters at eye level while walking along the building on 1st Ave is concrete wall. There are only two relatively insignificant building entrances along the building’s entire 1st Ave street wall (though it’s hard to tell if the opening at the north end is actually going to be a door). I wouldn’t have thought City of Seattle code would allow so much blank facade.

This building is not much interested in being involved with, or contributing to what’s happening on the street. Given the average income of the Four Seasons clientele, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. It’s an urban enclave, and as such, it’s an affront to the community.

Perhaps the facade all lit up in dappled light as in the photo above was what got Mudede all tripped out on how “the principle of the design is to incorporate the themes of nature into the colors and textures of the building itself.” But that dappled light is no design feature and there’s nothing natural about it — it’s sunlight reflected off the shiny glass and metal tower across the street. Did the NBBJ architects anticipate these reflections, and if so did that have any bearing the facade materials and colors? Not bloody likely.

But for sure, the canyon formed by the Four Seasons and SAM is an impressive space to be in. It’s pretty much 200 feet straight up on both sides of 1st Ave — nowhere else in Seattle is there such a tall pair of street walls so tightly spaced. One might assume that such a space would be oppressive, but I think the urban form works because it only extends over about half of a city block. There is this intriguing sense of compression and release you get when you move through block (…what have I been smoking?). Variation makes for good urban form.

17 Responses to “Hallucinating on 1st Ave”

  1. Josh Mahar

    Ahh! How true it is. I thought the same thing when reading that ridiculous article.

    To make matters worse, on the western side of the building there is a wonderful block of post alley that connects Pike Place to the Harbor Steps both of which are pedestrian only streets. I was so excited about this connection reopening but sadly, from what I’ve gathered, im pretty sure its just going to be the entrance to their parking garage with absolutely no pedestrian stimulation. Sigh…

    The big north hole there on 1st will be the main entrance with a little drive up valet loop.

  2. Sabina Pade

    Doubt I’d be moved to write poetry about this building, yet I confess I do like it quite well, thus far. It radiates well-made, and comfortable to live in.

    I don’t know whether it’s fair to expect residential buildings to persistently engage the street. Even in very succesfully urbanised Europe, most don’t. Not a few people prefer their home, which after all is their private space, to be… private. Crucial is that residential buildings animate the street, by putting pedestrians on it. And if we get an enclave of stinking rich taxpayers, all the more cash in the city coffers to pay for amenities elsewhere.

    Doubtless my sensibilities are conditioned by long stays in Manhattan. Hordes of stinking rich there, and canyons everywhere. I sense that Seattle is unsure. Seattle seems drawn to the idea of being a city that doesn’t look or function like one.

    P.S.: If you’re still feeling annoyed by the new Four Seasons Seattle, have a peek across Post Alley. Those $2000/ft2 condos open directly onto the Seattle Steam Works!

  3. Matt Goyer

    Good post about his awful article. I had to read it a few times and it still doesn’t make sense.

    The Four Seasons is an eye sore. Shame on planning and on us for letting it get approved and built.

  4. keith

    I wrote him a letter about this article, though it’s from a slightly different perspective. It is posted on my site as well as the link to his response on slog.

  5. Dan Staley

    Did the NBBJ architects anticipate these reflections, and if so did that have any bearing the facade materials and colors? Not bloody likely.

    I’d say that the NBBJ team failed to think about the street – not surprising as that is not the type of work they normally do. I do think that they met most other of their client’s objectives, however. The darker façade likely handles reflection better, e.g less annoying glare.

    As for the comments and discourse on Slog, these discourses do little to translate to good places if there is no one around to ensure these discourses inform placemaking. That is: someone forgot about this stuff in all the hubbub surrounding this project. Happens a lot. In my view, best to cut out thinking too much sometimes and step back. Not enough stepping back on this project.

    Now, did Planning do the best job at plan review? We don’t know. Should they have tried to negotiate better ped-level architecture, treatment and amenities? Yes. But did they trade off these for something else? We cannot say. We do know that powerful forces came together to make this building the way it was, and who knows whether anyone in DPD saw fit to oppose some of these forces to get something for the rest of us. That’s the way it works.

  6. LisaB

    Wow, that building is… uh… intense. And very serious.

    Why were they not required to have retail at grade – are they not in a downtown/commercial area?

  7. Brian

    One block away from the largest and most pedestrian-intensive tourist destination in the state of Washington and they “forgot” about the street? No way. That streetscape is the tinted-window SUV of 1st Avenue and not an accident. Doesn’t mean the designers were incapable of better, but regardless of who decided/allowed it, the total lack of contribution to street life is still inexcusable.

    You don’t always have to give the street a big hug, but you also don’t have to give it the finger.

  8. Cale

    I really feel what Mudede is trying to say about this building. I try to explain to people how much I love the building but most just don’t get it. Oh well, it’s my joy to have alone I guess.

  9. JesseJB

    ehh…I dont know.

    Maybe the streetscape will make it look nicer. Like how the 5th Ave side of the Fairmont is. Its a long brick wall but theres such nice stuff to look at inside.

    BTW I know that Fran’s Chocolates is opening up in the FS…is it going to be inside or at the street?

  10. Brian

    It’s true, the building isn’t finished and the street level is not yet occupied. We should of course see how things turn out. But the concrete is the concrete, which I happen to love as a material but I’ve yet to find a way to walk or see through it.

    The changing grade too is always a challenge for multiple entrances, changing floor levels, etc but welcome to Seattle.

  11. Ryan

    I’ve become more and more disappointed with this building and NBBJ the further the project goes along. The initial renderings portrayed a light, gleaming, abstract glass cube. What they built is dark, heavy, and boxy; dare I say even jail-like. It seems to virtually suck the light out of that intersection with the dark panels and small windows of the hotel floors. Most disappointing is that there was seemingly little thought given to the street-level interaction on First. The building may be the location of private homes, but it’s on one of the major intersections of our city, and they could have done better by those of us who live outside of, and have to look at, this thing.

  12. dan bertolet

    Sabina @2: Yes, there is a place for residential buildings without retail on the first floor. First Hill, for example, has lots of them, and those streets have a nice quiet feel to them. But that’s not what 1st and Union is all about, as noted by Brian @7.

    For the record, I think the building is interesting to look at. I like the colors and the materials and the design. It’s an expensive project, so it’s not surprising that it has high quality details. Somebody just paid $7 million for one of the units.


    To help command those prices, this project takes full advantage of surrounding amenities like SAM, Pike Market, and Harbor Steps, but gives almost nothing back to the public realm. Yes, there will be big property taxes coming from those units, but that’s no justification for allowing it turn it’s back on the community.

  13. Sabina Pade

    It might be worthwhile to do a careful photographic documentation of the Four Seasons east elevation, at pedestrian level particularly, once the building and sidewalk are completed and occupied.

    One can agree or disagree that this elevation is aesthetically handsome and its defensive posture appropriate.

    One can argue back and forth as to whether the hotel itself constitutes a significant public amenity.

    Certain, however, is that the interruption of pedestrian-level street-wall transparency presented by the building’s spine does not find its counterpart in extent elsewhere along 1st Avenue. Further, that this interruption is -very- blunt. Rare will be the pedestrian that does not experience this interruption as inappropriate.

    Documentation with local examples illustrating the value of pedestrian-level street-wall transparency could help prevent a recurrence of blankness.

  14. Fredrickson

    The architect and developer were actually quite restricted with what they could do along the east elevation. There is a covenant running with the land that was imposed when washington mutual sold them the property. Things like height, right of way overhangs, and materials are all spelled out in it. That is why there is the less reflective material on the east side and the building is a few floors shorter on the north. Washington mutual and the museum didn’t want the glare and they didn’t want their rooftop deck along 1st to have an obstructed view.

  15. Dan Staley

    Sheesh. So much for my site and plan review conclusions in 5. Didn’t even think of restrictive covenants in that area. And the architects’ work? Sorry, Bonnie. I feel a little a-holey, not to mention perturbed at land-use attorneys.

  16. Rbj

    “This building is not much interested in being involved with, or contributing to what’s happening on the street. Given the average income of the Four Seasons clientele, this shouldn’t come as a big surprise. It’s an urban enclave, and as such, it’s an affront to the community.”

    That’s hitting the nail on the head!

    Thank you.

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