Windowless Concrete Penthouse

What is up with that ~30 feet of blank concrete wall at the top of the Financial Center Building at 4th and Seneca? That’s a good three stories of wasted building height way up there where the views are best. Ten feet above roof level to screen rooftop mechanical equipment would not be unusual. So then what about that other 20 feet? A secret CIA detention center perhaps?

Even though it’s almost exactly the same color, Seattle Tower, built in 1929, provides a good contrast. As you would expect, the top floor window head height is roughly one story below the top of the facade. But of course, the much more glaring contrast is in the richness of design (yup, I’m stating the obvious again). The complex art-deco facade is immediately impressive, but there is also an easily missed subtle detail: the shade of brick gradually lightens moving up the building to mimic the play of light on mountains. And the cavernous lobby reinforces the metaphor, suggesting an alpine cave. (Is the Four Seasons building at 1st and Union a modern example of a similar architectural nod to nature?)

Some probably feel that Seattle Tower’s art-deco style is overwrought and has not held up well over time. But if nothing else, the building’s design reflects a passionate belief in something, whereas buildings like the Financial Center speak of a culture driven solely by dry utilitarianism.

In the present era, our culture has no unifying sense of beauty or pattern or pride that manifests itself to any substantial degree in our buildings. But there is some hope: ecologically sensitive design has great potential to bring some deeper meaning back into architecture. The Seattle Justice Center and the Ballard Library are two good local examples of compelling built form that embodies cultural values rooted in sustainability.

6 Responses to “Windowless Concrete Penthouse”

  1. joshuadf

    While personally I do not prefer the brutalist look, there are certainly have been those with lots of money and don’t want to be reminded they are 50 stories up (Howard Hughes).

  2. Matt the Engineer

    From above,
    I see a huge amount of intake and relief air openings, and a small area that likely houses cooling towers. As someone that designs mechanical penthouses, I’d be happy if an architect gave me something 1/4 this size.

    Take a look at this slightly less ugly concrete box a few blocks away. That’s the size penthouse they normally give us for this size building (ok, this one looks unrealistically small – I’m guessing part of the top floor is penthouse, and the boiler and chiller are in the basement).

  3. Sabina Pade

    Agreed that the Seattle Tower is a beauty. Three cheers for it – and for all the other Art-Deco piles remaining in downtown. Wish there were more of them!

    Oddly, perhaps, I feel considerable fondness for the Financial Center Building as well. Brutalism, as an architectural style, we may gratefully consider dead; and yet I find that some of its offspring have held up remarkably.

    We can’t accuse the Financial Center Building of abusing the pedestrian’s eye, for it doesn’t – indeed, of all downtown’s bank towers, it has perhaps the most directly accessible, most transparent sidewalk interface, with office space, rather than lobby or elevator core, in the foreground. Too, there’s a pleasingly decorative little garden. The Financial Center’s concrete facade has weathered gracefully like cut stone, its stucture is rational and lisible, its proportions are harmonious; the Classical principle of base, shaft and capital is observed. And I like its deeply recessed, only mildly reflective windows, that allow me to see in while suggesting that the people and transactions inside are nonethess securely protected.

    Dryly utilitarian? Could be. If we’ve a demolition wish list for downtown though, I wouldn’t nominate the Financial Center Building for inclusion.

  4. Alex Porter

    My boyfriend works in the building and has toured the facilities and the roof. The top floor of office is the 27th floor. The 28th floor is storage with no windows and the rest above that is mechanical. The roof is flat with no raised facade or fence.

  5. John Adams

    Matt, is standard procedure to place a blank floor between the top usable office floor and the mechanical equiptment?

    And would it be normal to have a cooling tower directly on the concrete slab which also acts as the cieling for the office space on the floor below? or is this a no-no?

  6. Matt the Engineer

    It would certainly be nice from a sound perspective to have a floor between the top office floor and the mechanical space, but I haven’t seen it done. If it was required for noise reasons, you wouldn’t need more than a foot of space unless you have some use for that extra floor (storage? computers? government employees?). Generally, we deal with noise and vibration by spring-isolating equipment and by adding concrete pads. Plus we try to put boilers, chillers, and pumps down at ground level for ease of replacement and to reduce structural loads.

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