A new building along Madison Credit: Nick Turner for Crosscut
Not too long ago, you could look around the metropolitan region and
lament the absence of color in new buildings. It seemed as if everything
being built was some version of grayness. Tan and beige tones were the standard go-to hues as the 1990s came to an end. (In dreary climates,
Large expanses of glass often reflected (sometimes literally) the
sky — looking like a uniform, fluorescently lighted ceiling. Each new
building appeared to extend this limited palette with more walls of pale boredom.
That was before the 2000 completion of the Museum of Pop Culture
— or MoPOP — the former Experience Music Project. Whether or not one considers it a top-drawer example of architect Frank Gehry’s prolific
body of international work, the structure created a definite splash
on the local scene.
Perhaps it broke the unwritten rule of architectural discretion through
the application of vivid colors, as well as sinuous shapes. It just took a
while for the regime change to fully occur.
As we emerged from the long stretch of depressing weather that broke
records from November onward, we saw that something quite interesting
had happened almost without anyone in Seattle expecting it. With
scaffolding and protective tarps taken down around construction, we
found ourselves seeing colors. Lots of them.
Along Dexter Avenue, Stone Way, Madison, Seneca and other streets
throughout the city, many new buildings have been enlivened by intense
colors. And not just token swatches or trim but broad brush strokes that
cover large portions of the exteriors.
In previous years, a handful of designers played with colors. But the
attempts were tentative and subtle. Perhaps a series of projecting bays
were finished in mustard yellow. But not much more.
Likely, the reticence was the result of development clients being fearful
of making a “wrong” choice in the marketplace — safer to stay with
muted color scheme.
Moreover, the specification of colors can be fraught with hazards. What
might look good on a small sample or in a simulated rendering could turn
out quite different in the full-scale presentation. And, by then, of course,
the work has been bought and paid for.
Some of the past reluctance to add color to architecture might have
come from the region’s roots in Scandinavia, where politeness and
deference is often the cultural norm. But for decades, buildings in
Scandinavian countries have used intense colors to create a unique
ambience in spite of their more adverse climates. For whatever reason,
Seattle has come late to the game.
But now, color is on us almost with a vengeance. Even temporary
construction enclosures on high rises are showing up with bright yellows
and blues. The increasing verticality of the city is being celebrated by
these rising collars of color.
And color has come not just in flat-painted surfaces. It has been infused
in glass. The clutch of towers for Amazon around Seventh Avenue and
Lenora Street fairly bristle with blades of colorful glass. Light passing
through them produces different effects depending on sun angle and sky atmospheric conditions, as well as with ambient light in the evening.
We are seeing a wholesale playfulness in infusing the skyline with
combinations of color.