Seattle’s Best Modern Skyscraper

is Two Union Square — at least that’s the word on the street. Designed by NBBJ, completed in 1989; 56 floors, 740 feet tall (third tallest in Seattle), with ~1,100,000 square feet of rentable space.

But there’s a pretty low bar for modern skyscrapers in Seattle, and to me, ranking them is sort of like ranking refrigerators. Modern skyscrapers are mostly about utility, with some nice sculptural elements or facade design thrown in on the best ones.

When we can put up a building like Two Union Square that’s naturally ventilated, perhaps using a curved facade that functions like a airfoil to draw air through the building, then we’ll have something worth raving about.

25 Responses to “Seattle’s Best Modern Skyscraper”

  1. Tony

    I agree that Two Union Square is probably my favorite. I think you hit the nail on the head though when you said that modern skyscrapers are mostly about utility rather than beauty.

    That, I believe, is the problem, and it’s not just an aesthetic problem, it’s a political problem, and ultimately an environmental problem. Here’s the connection: people don’t like ugly buildings. Judge all you want. Call them stupid. Tell them to $*#% off. It doesn’t matter. People don’t like ugly buildings. The reason this becomes a problem is that if nearly all big buildings are ugly, then people start to believe, by association, and because they don’t know anything different, that they don’t like big buildings.

    This is where you’re political and environmental problem comes in. You have pointed out, well, since this blog started, that dense urban development, i.e. big buildings, is more environmentally sustainable. It is, but if the public hates big buildings, then they will not allow big buildings (see the CAP legislation).

    The key here is to separate “big” from “bad”. If modern skyscraper architects were to consistently, repeatedly construct beautiful buildings, then over time people might start to change their opinion of big buildings and might actually start to welcome them in the city, not just downtown, but into their own neighborhoods.

    But architects don’t think about the long term political implications of the buildings they build. They only think about the building.

    This is an example of market failure. The public good would be served with the kind of architecture that is beautiful, artistic, and not purely functional, but the developer, property owner, and tenants (the ones who pay the money) want only functional. Thus the private good (cheaper functional building) takes precedence over the public good (beauty, and subsequently the political will to support density, and subsequently to that, the saving of the human race.) In a case like this, the government should put in place incentives to encourage beautiful architecture, because the market will only deliver 700-foot refrigerators.

  2. McBastard

    It is a beautiful building, and I wish that all developers/architects/owners would put forth the effort to build like this. If you are in any profession that requires a high level of detail like A/E/C, you live by the 80/20 rule. On a project like this, though, you might have to play by the 90/10 rule instead to get it exactly right. Sometimes, it requires superhuman effort to escape mediocrity and reach the level of functional, beautiful art in a building.

    I have a friend that used to work at NBBJ years ago who shared a tidbit about getting the building up. The legend was that the PM on the 2 Union Square project lost his shit while completing it, and ended up leaving architecture to become a Metro bus driver. Can’t confirm the story, but since my friend worked at NBBJ, it must have some grain of authenticity to it. Working in an architecture firm myself and seeing what some of these PM’s and designers go through, the story doesn’t seem too farfetched.

  3. JesseJB

    I think it has more to do with Seattle’s numerous restrictions that keep developers and architects from even bothering with beter design (since it’ll just get denied anyways).

  4. Dave

    And then one goes to Vancouver and becomes awe struck by the beauty of buildings and architecture. I was so on the verge of moving there this weekend.

  5. SeattleArchitect

    Agreed. Two Union is – hands down – Seattle’s best modern tower. Sadly enough, McBastard’s story is essentially true [on good authority]. There are many forces that work against architects and planners endeavoring to create meaningful, remarkable, timeless projects like this one … it give hope and lifts ones spirit to see that it’s possible.

  6. mike

    i’ll second the breakdown architect turned metro driver…

  7. will

    Wait…really? I think that has to be my least favorite of the large towers in Seattle. Almost every other prominent skyscraper in the city, whatever their faults, responds to the changing weather in interesting ways, and give a sense that they actually belong in a city like Seattle. Two Union Square, on the other hand, is a monument to utter blandness; I’ve always felt that it was transplanted wholesale from Houston.

  8. joshuadf

    There’s a lot more to architecture than the outside, though. Personally I think the Washington Mutual Tower looks better outside than the new WaMu Center, but if you’re inside there is no doubt that the WaMu Center is better to work (“live”) in.

  9. Spencer

    I wouldn’t have singled this building out as the top to my list but it’s pretty good. It just seems a little too serious. I’d call it a metrosexual building. It looks “hot” but it also looks thin in substance. So, I agree with Joshuadf. There needs to be more context to this setting. But then again I appreciate the old SAM too and I really like the Meisian building on 1st.

    Having never worked on this building type I’m curious about how many architectural drawings go into the set? In my mind it looks like not a lot because of all the consultants, but I’m certain it’s not. I’m just curious. Anyone got an idea?

  10. Sabina Pade

    I agree with Will that Two Union is oddly bland. It’s pretty, and of charming airiness; it has a handsome public plaza at ground level; yet it vehicles neither a specific corporate identity, nor, as Will points out, a particular locality. Impossible to devine what business is being transacted inside, or where Two Union hails from.

    Whether architecture has a local dialect for Pacific Northwest is of course open to question. Perhaps Seattle’s cool grey climate indeed wants big plate glass framed in foresty tones to admit the dim light; albeit myself, I get excited about dense juxtapositions of saturated colour and texture, coupled with generous weather protection for pedestrians.

    Even more useful than energy-efficient buildings, in my opinion, is excitement-generating architecture, of a sort to spontaneously attract the density of human activity we’d like to see. Two Union certainly avoids giving offense; but I’ll third the breakdown architect turned Metro driver, and concur that we shouldn’t have to lose our marbles over the erection of a million-square-foot soporific.

  11. michael

    best place in Seattle to give blood
    55th floor, sweeping views of the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains-highly recommended

  12. Matt the Engineer

    Spencer, it really depends on the design team. I’ve seen highrise buildings with 30 sheets and others with hundreds. Being shell and core helps quite a bit, but complex fascades can add sheets.

  13. Paulish

    Umm. Clearly no body told you people that the Rainer Tower is Seattle’s best skyscraper.

    Hands Down.


  14. Sabina Pade

    Rainier Tower certainly is the most memorable of our post-Smith Tower office piles, the most utopian and most original. My personal favourite.

  15. Matt the Engineer

    A few subtle features of Two Union are worth mentioning. First, it’s connected to Freeway Park and the Convention Center, which makes it really easy to go for a lunchtime walk and access events and food. Second, there’s a pedestrian tunnel that connects to Rainer Square. This is really nice on rainy days, and would be perfect if they had only brought it one more block to the transit tunnel.

    Actually, Rainer Square is kind of failing, due to lack of foot traffic (the interior stores are all but invisible from the street). I wonder if digging a tunnel to transit would be a good investment for them.

  16. Michael

    I’d say the new WaMu Center and Rainier Square (the tower, not the lowrise mall) are the best. 2 Union is ok and has some nice landscaping features (the big courtyard between it and 1 Union tower), but it screams ’80’s in its color schemes and weird materials (i.e. weird plastic column capitals). WaMu and Rainer are ver clear diagrams, from a designers point of view. I’d also venture that WaMu Center is about as efficient as they come (occupies 100% of the ground plain, large boxy fkloor plate), but the articulation of its various boxy volumes is quite nice and diminishes its perceived bulk.

  17. dan cortland

    There’s some conflict between size and E efficiency, no? Don’t small floorplates make major contributions to efficiency through increased daylighting?

    Two Union is one of the few modern buildings in town where the use of curved surfaces is not an aesthetic disaster, I think.

    I love the skin on the building to the left of Two Union in the photo.

  18. Sabina Pade

    DC, that’s One Union. And me, too – I’ve enjoyed that cladding since the days I watched the building go up. Hasn’t aged, is still thrilling.

  19. Matt the Engineer

    I have a view of two union from my office, and I just noticed something very strange. See the line of glass that runs up the middle, stopping about 10 floors below the top? It’s made up of religious-proportioned crosses. I wonder if this was an accident, or if a church funded the construction.

  20. tiptoe tommy

    Two Union is better than most of the dreck in Seattle, but a friend once pointed out that if you took the old Washington Natural Gas neon blue flame that is now at MOHAI and put it on top–Two Union would look just like a Cricket lighter.

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