Escala Is Latin For Embarrassment

No, it’s not finished yet, but enough is already known about Escala to easily justify its nomination for Seattle’s Most Embarrassing Condo Project.  The array of qualifications is deep, but let’s start with the base of the building shown above.  It has all the grotesque faux-classical decoration that you’d expect to find on the new strip in Las Vegas, which, fittingly, is the home town of The Midby Companies, Escala’s developer.

The project’s San Diego-based design architect Paul Thoryk waxes eloquent: “I call this design style contemporary heritage.”  And in case you were wondering how so much profound inspiration could end up in one building, know that Thoryk “traveled around the world looking for ideas for Escala.”  He could have saved a lot of time and money by traveling instead to any one of dozens of Florida beach resort cities that are littered with Escala-esque towers.  Completing the picture, Bellevue-based architect of record MulvannyG2 supplied the “great local insight.”

According to Thoryk, the key programmatic driver for the project was to provide extra large units and balconies to make suburbanites feel more comfortable downsizing, because, “For all the talk about the joys of downsizing and how having fewer things makes life less complicated and more fulfilling, people naturally are attached to their belongings.”  Apparently we all should be grateful that Escala will offer humongous condos because it will help the urban lifestyle become more accepted.

As can be seen in the photo below, the building is indeed loaded with scads of spatious balconies, some as large as 1000 square feet.  All those exposed concrete slabs projecting out into space work great as heat fins to suck heat out of the building and increase energy consumption — no surprise that energy efficiency is not a high priority in a building like this.  And if Escala actually is pursuing LEED certification, they’re keeping it quiet.  A high-end project like Escala could be expected to have the budgetary flexibility to push the envelope on green design; and if the developers truly wanted to embrace the local culture, a green building would have been the obvious choice.

Add two letters to Escala and you get Escalade.  Coincidence?  Not likely that it escaped the notice of whatever branding firm it was that undoubtedly got paid an obscene sum to come up with the name Escala.  One would assume it was perceived as a good association, but either way it’s just too perfect, because Escala befits Seattle about as well as an Escalade does:  an ostentatious, oversized energy hog in a city of understated Prius admirers.

If you can stand more, go have a look-see at the piece of work that is the Escala web site.  Bet you didn’t know that “once upon a place” Seattle had a “midtown.”  Judging from the content of most of the photos, either they are planning to offer steep buyer discounts to female underwear models, or they are expecting an high-class escort service tenant.  Remarkable, is it not, that the same advertising psychology applies whether it’s a multimillion dollar condo or a two dollar tube of toothpaste?

And behold Club Cielo!  “Desire everything.”  Those who may harbor lingering doubts over if and when Escala will become Seattle’s resplendent nexus of high culture, worry not — high culture, like any other marketable commodity, can be readily manufactured and spoon fed.

Ultimately, what makes Escala most embarrassing of all is its timing.  Escala is the love child of pathological excess, a manifestation of a world view that is in the process blowing up in our faces just as the project is set to make its grand debut.

Escala belongs in a bygone era:  when Reagan and his acolytes preached trickle-down economics and government is the problem; when smug MBA’s high-fived each other over Gordon Gecko’s proclamation that greed is good; when Clinton deregulated while we all bought tech stocks; when everyone everywhere was getting rich just by owning a house; when pundits could get away with bloviating continuously about how the free market conquers all; when we ignored the glaring statistics showing that the ultra-wealthy were the only ones getting ahead because we deluded ourselves into believing we all were on the verge of ultra-wealth.

Demand for condos in Escala is likely to cool as downsizing suburbanites find it more difficult to sell off their estates.  But I suspect there is still more than enough affluence in the region to fill Escala quickly enough for the developer to avoid serious pain.  One can only hope that given the times in which we are now living, the fortunate residents of Escala might feel some little pang of embarrassment over their exclusive gated community in the city, some vague but troubling sense that success is little less sweet when it is not shared by the community as a whole.

65 Responses to “Escala Is Latin For Embarrassment”

  1. Brian

    If you can dig up an old Sunday ad for the building you’ll see that it was supposed to look like an antebellum Mississippi whorehouse. So I guess the faux neoclassical redesign is an improvement, but to me the entire development is just too “Klassy.”

  2. justin

    just wait until the decks are full of furniture, what an eyesore.

  3. Bill B

    Furniture? If the economy continues its nosedive you’ll probably see laundry…

  4. Cow

    I read this, and laughed a bit, and thought, wow, how ugly. And then I went to the website and saw: they’re putting that thing at *4th and Virginia*? I can’t think of a single nice thing to say here. D:

  5. EeePC

    It DOES look strangely like a Vegas hotel. Icky…

    We all knew this was coming. Trump has expressed interest numerous times in building a Seattle tower, but at least he said it would be ‘green’. Oh well, none of this will matter when the revolution happens. (I’m crossing my fingers for next year).

  6. Keo

    I still see it as progress. I’d glad people who are filthy rich will buy a hugeass condo in downtown Seattle where they can walk most places and support local retail, instead of buying a mcmansion in sprawlville where they have to drive everywhere.

    Yes the advertising is hideous, and LEED certification would certainly be a huge step foward, but I see it as one step at a time. Creating incentive for the ultra rich to give up their huge houses in the suburb seems difficult enough before you start asking them to sacrifice things like space for green certification, unfortunately :-/

    I think more than anything, it’s just embarrasing to live in a condo with a name, no matter WHAT the name let alone ‘Escala.’ Whatever happened to addresses? Say… 400 Virginia Ave? Isn’t that fancy enough? :-P

  7. David in Burien

    “Contemporary heritage?” Isn’t that an oxymoron?

  8. Matt the Engineer

    When I was working on design for condo towers in Dubai, I was impressed with the architect’s insistence on making the condos easy to break up into 2-4 smaller condos. Considering the top floor was made up of 7500 SF units, they were afraid they wouldn’t be able to find enough high-end buyers and need to break the units into pieces. I just hope MulvannyG2 had a similar plan.

    (oh, and thanks for including the bit about balconies being heated fins – this is a huge pet peeve of mine, especially in a heating climate that loves to build with concrete)

  9. Ellery

    Keo: The prob is that many of the future Escala condo owners will keep their McMansion in Sprawlville. The condo will just be a second (or third? fourth?) home. How many of Seattle’s downtown condos are really selling as primary residences?

  10. Chris

    “still more than enough affluence in the region to fill Escala quickly enough for the developer to avoid serious pain”

    that’s a reach…bets anyone?

  11. holz

    ooh! this one actually does make 1521 look good. sort of. ok, not really. but it is worse.

    this really makes me feel comfortable about not moving to san diego a few years ago. yikes.

  12. dan cortland

    Bill B: Not just laundry on the huge balconies, but vegetable gardens, their soil warmed by the interior-heat-extracting fins.

    Tent City should ask to camp on them.

  13. Larry

    I guess blog translated means “to bitch”. Good grief people complaining about the size of a balcony and if it has patio furniture on it (imagine that). You certainly have a right to an opinion but try and find something that actually has some real impact if you have to be negative.

  14. Ellery

    Larry: The impact is real. If we want downtown to be a viable living option for people and families, then we need to have units that provide some reasonable amount of affordability to make them within reach of more than just the richest of the rich. (Yes, I know concrete and steel is expensive, but there are degrees of affordability.) Escala’s claims to be sustainable because they will provide an option for wealthy folks is utterly false. There is no shortage of luxury condos downtown. They are just playing the sustainability card to win points, and it is as insulting to our region’s social and environmental values as that awful design is insulting to our regional aesthetic.

  15. rbj

    Larry in Burien: HA! Good Call! Didn’t even occur to me…

  16. JesseJB

    I could point out a sh*tload of unsustainable low-income buildings.

    But they don’t have any wealth for me to envy and hate, so I guess I won’t complain.

  17. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Indeed. I personally know four families including my own who would like to live in or near downtown (I’d prefer SLU myself since I work there). About two years ago someone from the city told me that developers are very aware that there is a big LIHI’s Denny Park Apartments meets “159 different items on the Seattle BuiltGreen Certification Checklist for sustainable design.” LIHI closed their 30-40% AMI waitlist at 6000 names.

  18. Joshua Daniel Franklin

    Wow, that comment should read:

    Indeed. I personally know four families including my own who would like to live in or near downtown (I’d prefer SLU myself since I work there). About two years ago someone from the city told me that developers are very aware that there is a big market for lower price condos but they make more profit on luxury projects.

    @JesseJB: Where’s all the low-income housing, sustainable or not? I know LIHI’s Denny Park Apartments meets “159 different items on the Seattle BuiltGreen Certification Checklist for sustainable design.” LIHI closed their 30-40% AMI waitlist at 6000 names.

  19. Chris

    I’ve got no complaints with the income level, its the design details and marketing that are obnoxious – we’ll have to look at that beautiful “contemporary heritage” design for years and years…. I think the club cielo concept is absurdly priced, but if people want to pay for it, more power to them.

  20. EeePC

    The days of an affordable downtown Seattle are long gone. Hasn’t that been obvious for at least a decade by now?

    Downtown Seattle, like in every single other major US/Canadian city before it, will get more and more exclusive and if you desire to live there, you’re part of the reason why.

  21. JesseJB

    I just think most of these posters are overreacting. I know we arent’t NYC but they seem to do fine with having rich people living in their city. I think our local businesses could use having them around.

  22. mahanoy

    I’m about as hardcore a transit/density/urbanism supporter as there is. I practice what I preach. And I enjoy hugeasscity.

    But really, the only thing embarrassing is this post.

    Bad taste is not a sin. Just because you don’t like someone’s style doesn’t mean they’re evil or immoral.

    Affluence is not a sin. If you expect affluent people to feel some sort of obligation to live like working-class folk, then you’re never going to accomplish anything in terms of shaping our metropolitan areas. If you feel that affluence in itself is shameful, then you’ve got issues that go well beyond urban planning.

    The great irony here is that a couple living in a unit in a place like Escala probably has a much smaller carbon footprint than a couple living in a Craftsman in one of Seattle’s old neighborhoods. Should we look at the latter couple as selfish, despicable acolytes of Reaganism as well?

    The more that the city core puts up a “no thanks, you’re not welcome” sign to upper-middle-class and rich people, the less opportunity we have to make the city core relevant and vibrant. And if your concern is promoting pedestrian-oriented, transit-oriented development, I can hardly imagine anything more self-defeating.

    Memo to environmentalists: Can you please check your retro-Marxist class envy at the door?

    Memo to Dan Bertolet: dude, grow up.

  23. Matt the Engineer

    [eeepc], I’d argue that downtown is quite affordable if you consider more than just the purchase price. I did a calculation a while back that shows someone living in the exurbs can save $500k over 30 years by moving to the city, mostly from car costs (and I didn’t even include parking). Imagine the kind of home you can buy for an extra $500k.

  24. Joe G

    I happen to think that the building is quite interesting. It will certainly bring diversity to the architecture of downtown, which for the most part does and will (looking at everything proposed) consist of square buildings. Not to say that those buildings are not pretty as well, but at least something like this will add some interest.

    The thing that i always found funny about this project was that it is so small and so far from the water. I live on first and Stewart, and there is a lot of prosed buildings around me. I just thought that it was funny that anyone would want to pay all that money for a condo that wont have much of a view in five years (being optimistic). With the three towers planned on second between Stewart and Virginia, the tower at third and Virginia, the enormous towers that will sit right across the ally from Escala on fifth between Stewart and Virginia. The list just goes on and on. So for all of those who wish not to look at this building, i say, don’t fret, you wont have to see it for long.

  25. Sivalinga

    “Bygone era” LOL

  26. Michael

    Speaking of impact, how about the impact of patio furniture being blown off of a 40th story balcony down to the the street below when winds get crazy in November. Seems like the balconies on these types of projects are small for a reason, perhaps so that ’stuff’ can’t really be left on them or perhaps there are condo by-laws. Would the balconies actually be useful for all that ’suburbanite stuff’ or is the expanse of the balconies just a gimmick? Anyone have any thoughts?

  27. tb

    LEED certification for a building like this is a joke. The only good thing about it is the density it could add to the downtown core. As far as how many people who purchase units here would live there year round is something we’ll just have to wait and see.

  28. Matt the Engineer

    I have no idea what non-smokers do with balconies. Last time I had one in an apartment I used it as aluminum can storage, saving up to take to the recycling center for beer money. But maybe upscale condo owners have a better use.

  29. Keith


    Why is “LEED for a building like this a joke”? Just because it’s ugly and for rich people or because it’s a skyscraper or what? Such a building *could* mitigate stormwater, produce electricity, have rapidly renewable finishes and low VOC paints, and so on and so forth until it was LEED Platinum. Maybe the developers didn’t want to go this route — and for that they *should* be pilloried — but nothing about a luxury condo tower automatically disqualifies it from pursuing LEED.

  30. dan bertolet

    Sivalanga @25: OK. Bygone for the moment, at least…

  31. dan bertolet

    mahanoy@22: You’re reading way too much into what I wrote, and that says much more about you than about me. One way you could demonstrate how you practice what you preach would be to use your real name.

  32. jeff

    who’s supposed to be embarrased? No city leader anywhere in the country would be embarrased to see a high rise condo going up which brings in taxes. Here’s a news flash for you, YOUR SHIT STINKS TOO!!.

    If you want embarrassment how about taking pictures of some of the people and how they dress in Seattle. Then you can write an article about that… But you won’t because people with your like-mind are all about popularity.

  33. JesseJB


    I wish someone would write about that. I’m tired of coming up with theories.

  34. Franklin Delanoe Snurd

    What a great blog! It’s so refreshing to find a site willing to discuss the issues associated with architecture in our urban environment. AND, what a great rant! (I have now used my 2 exclamation points, and will not exceed this limit). Those who worry about the faux vegas look of the base, don’t worry, it won’t last more than 20 years if that. I believe that, generally, those fortunate enough to have the means to afford to live in such a place, as they mature, so do their tastes; they will sooner than later ponie up to remove the embarrasingly public display of kitsch. The balconies are another matter, they’ll be sucking heat out of that building until it’s finally torn down.

  35. Alaskalainen

    I remember biking by something under construction downtown, which I think was this building, and noticing that part of the facade, from a certain angle, looked like 666666666. Interesting choice.

  36. gene

    Dan at 31 – I don’t agree with you that mahanoy is reading too much into what you wrote, because I had the same response. And I don’t think whether or not someone uses their full name on here in any way validates or invalidates their points — that was a cheap shot.

    Look, I think Escala is really tacky too, but so what? I will be happy to see wealthy people moving into a condo downtown instead of some even tackier mansion in the burbs. And I don’t know that Escala is as out of touch with the city as you think. Yeah, there may be a lot of Prius drivers in Seattle, but I see plenty of big fancy gas guzzlers around here too (Have you ever checked out Belltown on a Friday night? It’s not a Prius driver’s scene, trust me).

    And unlike NYC of SF, there is room for the middle class in our downtown — I live in the same neighborhood and paid about $200K for my one bedroom, albeit it almost ten years ago. I am happy to see this development, and all the others, in my ‘hood.

  37. Sivalinga


  38. holz


    LEED is, itself, a joke. i really am looking forward to when Passivhaus and Minergie standard are adopted, as they require achieving real benchmarks, and not just the appearance of sustainability.

  39. Silverstar98121

    One of the problems of having buildings like this downtown is that it brings in taxes. And also raises the assessments of all the buildings around them. Which makes taxes unaffordable, which makes people sell buildings, which developers then buy, knock down, and build more upscale condos. Which further prices the poor and lower middle class, the people who would really benefit from living close to work, out of the area.

    Seattle Housing Authority is trying to bring it’s buildings into energy efficiency. We just had new windows installed in our apartment building, which lowered our heating costs tremendously. And raised our rent, dammit.

    What we could use as part of the stimulus package is money to retrofit some of the lovely old buildings in the Belltown (and probably other areas) with energy efficient windows and doors, and insulation.

    P.S. I hate Escala because it has made me cross the street in my wheelchair, and then recross for over a year now. It’s rude, just like most rich people. People with a Lexus will try to run you over in an uncontrolled intersection, people in a beater Honda won’t. They can’t afford the ticket, or to pay your medical bills.

  40. Jeff

    Hey Dan I’m hoping this post was all about the architecture alone, because you were right about that. But I think the general consensus is that you are out of line in relation to the socioeconomic aspect of this development, which you mentioned in the blog was geared towards the wealthy. This is just one building, remembert, that happens to be close to one the best hotels in the city. There is a LOT of open lots around that area that are in desperate need of developement. You are overreacting big time. Let’s not forget that just across the street from that hotel is a one story McDonald’s occupying one expensive-ass piece of real estate…You call that dense? LOL SEattle ain’t dense AT ALL.

  41. Chris Stefan

    I for one have no problem with seeing luxury buildings built. Some of the nicest buildings from past eras were intended as luxury apartments, luxury hotels, or high-end office space.

    However even at the high end of the market, especially in residential and hotels I can’t say much for what has been built in the past 50 years or so. Is any of it likely to wear as well as a luxury apartment or hotel built in the 20’s or 30’s?

    Why must we accept crappy design and architecture? Especially when the developer has clearly spent lots of money on something that is tacky and tasteless?

  42. eric

    I agree with Holz @ 38. LEED is not a performance criteria. You can easily build a LEED certified building that is less energy efficient than one which does not meet LEED standards. The main problem with LEED is that it’s a national standard that tries to create a one size fits all solution. Heating and cooling issues vary greatly across the country.

  43. Spencer

    @ 42, 39

    I’m kind of with you both too. I’ve never been a fan of LEED mainly because it works more like a check list than a guage and challange. I have heard that the nxt round of LEED coming on line this summer will address some of the short comings we are worrid about. Stay tuned, but keep raising a ruckus to keep LEED improving itself.

  44. michael

    I’m not a LEED enthusiast or expert, but I do want to point out that @42 is wrong to assume that LEED doesn’t address differences in heating and cooling demand across the country. It does in fact address variations among climate zones in several ways, including varying requirements based on climate zone classification and allowing projects to follow local energy codes if they, at a minimum, meet Dept of Energy standards for energy efficiency.

  45. Kathryn

    Topping off of condo tower marks end of high-rise boom (the PI)

    I saw it from my dentist’s office and it actually looked pretty cool. Those old towers on the other hand…

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