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January 17, 2006

Seattle's Silliest Architecture

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The Fiancée sometimes chides me for getting too negative in my posts. Her bête noir is my review of the new de Young Museum in San Francisco, a building she mostly liked. So I'm under a little pressure to take a sunnier outlook in my critiques. But not always.

Alas, this last weekend was spent rebuilding the software on my computer following its hard drive's untimely demise. After I posted about it, I had to spend a couple more hours dealing with tech support regarding internet connectivity in general and e-mail specifically.

The obvious solution to my pent-up frustration and rage is to take it out on someone or something else, right? Gentleman that I surely am, I would never dream of bullying someone smaller and weaker. Instead, I'll pick on huge targets -- buildings -- specifically, buildings that have the misfortune of looking really silly. In my opinion, natch. [Draws hex signs to keep lawyers at bay.]

I'll deal with three buildings that I have the misfortune of seeing almost every time I'm up in Seattle; out of sight, out of mind doesn't apply. Here they are, in my subjective ascending order of silliness:

Experience Music Project

The Experience Music Project (EMP) is one of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's gifts to his home town. Allen is a huge fan of Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) another Seattle guy who was/is more famous than Allen himself (who takes second-billing to Bill Gates when the subject of Microsoft arises). Allen spent some petty cash on Hendrix memoribilia over the years and eventually sought a means to publicly display it.

Experience Music Project.jpg
EMP, by Frank Gehry.

By the year 2000 the result was a Rock-oriented museum sited on the grounds of the 1962 Seattle World's Fair and designed by starchitect Frank Gehry. The site also houses Allen's Science Fiction Museum.

Locals were quick to observe that the place looks like crushed food cans. If you are driving south on Interstate 5 towards downtown, as you pass along Lake Union, look to the right towards the Space Needle. Near the Needle's base are lumpy, colored metalic objects that look like -- giant crushed food cans. That's the EMP.

I need to confess I've never been inside the EMP, so I can't say how well it works as an exhibition space. My gripe is strictly about the exterior. It looks silly and there is no serious reason why it has to look the way it does. (A semi-serious reason might be that it evokes one of Hendrix's famously smashed guitars.)

Seattle Central Library

Another starchitectural gift to the so-called "Emerald City" (I hate that moniker) is the Seattle Central Library building by Rem Koolhaas. It has received international recognition as well as almost nothing but praise from the Seattle Media/Cultural Establishment.

Seattle Central Library.jpg
Seattle Central Library, by Rem Koolhaas.

As for nyekulturny me, I gag every time I see it. I suppose the interior was the result of lots of deep thought and clever planning. But I think the exterior is simple-minded so far as the shape is concerned. The diamond-grid surface is bland, uninspired, boring and fails aesthetically every time the pattern reaches a fold or intersection with the ground or another part of the building. Worst of all, urban environment-wise, it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb. All-in-all, so awful that it goes miles beyond simply silly.

As best I can tell, it's Koolhaas' way of saying "Look at me, ME, ME!!!" I don't like being caught in the shrapnel of his ego-trip, thank you.

Seattle Municipal Tower

Originally built for AT&T, then housing offices of Key Bank, this 50+ story building now serves as office space for the city of Seattle's ever-growing bureaucracy that will be poised to "help" me should I move there after I get married.

Seattle Skyline - copyright GoNorthwest.jpg
Seattle Municipal Tower, by Fred Bassetti. It's the building towards the right with the gabled roof (downloadable image copyright For better views, click here and scroll down.

I think this is the silliest of the lot and, thanks to its size, the most visible too. As you might guess, the silly part is the multi-story gabled "roof" which actually is angled, mostly-glass curtain walls. Mind you, I have nothing against gabled roofs. Gabled roofs make lots of sense in Seattle's rainy climate. Plus, I like skyscrapers to have interesting tops, not simply being chopped off flat á la most of the buildings along New York's Sixth Avenue in the 40s and 50s stretch.

But the top Bassetti designed doesn't look like it belongs there. It looks odd, weirdly out-of-scale -- silly. In my opinion, he could have found better ways to top off the building.

I wish I could find the quotation, but Bassetti once gave a strange justification for the top in a newspaper interview. Paraphrasing, it went something like "I wanted the building to sort of say 'hello' to [the Washington Mutual Tower] building". The Washington Mutual Tower is the one towards the left of the picture with a pyramidal top. Notice the green glass windows on its sides. Bassetti's green glass gable supposedly spoke to the green glass of the other (and architecturally much more successful) skyscraper. For better views of the Washington Mutual Tower, click here.

Probably all cities have silly architecture -- I know the three building cited above don't exhaust Seattle's pool of silliness. What about your town?



posted by Donald at January 17, 2006


I can't believe the crushed can one. Surely you are making this up? Please?

Posted by: miriam on January 17, 2006 09:13 PM

Sorry Miriam, he's not making it up. Here are closesups of the sillier side and the slightly less silly side.

I've been inside EMP. It feels like a warehouse interior. Or a cave. Above all else, the place is DARK, due to the complete lack of windows. There's a couple of tiny skylights here and there, the inside walls are black and the interior lighting is totally insufficient to the situation.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on January 17, 2006 11:10 PM

Arg, I HATE that if I don't put quotes around the URLs the links fail. The links I was trying to make were: and

Posted by: Glen Raphael on January 17, 2006 11:14 PM

Heh. I rather liked the Experience Music Project when I visited Seattle in 2001. In fact, I saw it when riding the monorail, which goes right through (or maybe right next to, I can't quite remember) the building. It's very unorthodox, to say the least, but sometimes a dose of the unusual is a nice thing to have. Besides, it fits in better in the Seattle Center grounds than it would in downtown.
Speaking of downtown Seattle, it was full of obvious tourists when I was there, and for some reason a fair number of the tourists seemed to be country-hick types who were staring slack-jawed at the tall buildings :)

Posted by: Peter on January 17, 2006 11:23 PM

I wonder how bad a building would have to be before no one liked it at all. Everyone of these posts about eyesore architecture has a comment thread that cruises along nicely, until someone says "I kind of like it, actually."

The second one looks like a furnace and should be held together with ginormous duct tape.

Tear 'em all down!

Posted by: Brian on January 18, 2006 12:42 AM

Please do bear in mind that the EMP (Gehry's 'crushed can') is situated on what is essentially an amusement park. So the rules about what makes a good urban building don't apply quite so much.

Is the EMP goofy and screaming "look-at-me?" You bet. But that's the nature of amusement parks.

Posted by: David Sucher on January 18, 2006 02:03 AM

We have a Frank Gehry creation here in Chicago at our new $500 million dollar Millenium Park. I think it pretty silly, but I guess a lot of people like it's novelty and size. Its a bandshell, and it cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 million to construct. Its funny to look at the bandshell from the rear, where you can see the odd steel trusses that had to be constructed to hold the thing up. It looks like a bowl of spaghetti!. I call it the Millenium Falcon.

Bad Mod architecture is all the rage these days. How thankful we can all be for the critics and academic doofuses who promote this junk! I would say that these things look this way because its cheaper to construct. However, even that last sensible excuse falls flat when you look at the final price tag. This is the highest artistic fruit of America at its zenith. Wake me up when it's over.

Posted by: Brian Minder on January 18, 2006 03:13 AM

You're arguing about a bunch of square boxes. You
might as well be posting scathing critiques of the aquafina water bottle as it compares to the Dasani.

Posted by: NateB on January 18, 2006 03:36 AM

The library reminds me of the toolbox on my pickup truck. Except my toolbox is functional and pleasing to the eye. That EMP is execrable. What kind of sick mind can call that a building? Are there no grownups in Seattle?

Posted by: Robert Speirs on January 18, 2006 10:34 AM

Question: Probably all cities have silly architecture . . . What about your town?

To me an extremely important consideration is the location of the building. A "silly" building like the Experience Music Project is OK by me -- and maybe even desirable as a mind expanding experience -- when it is located in a park. However, something like the Rem Koolhaus library in an urban location seems worse to me than just "silly" -- it seems destructively anti-urban.

It seems to me that in NYC one of the "silliest" (destructively anti-urban) buildings on the horizon is the Calatrava train station on the WTC site. This is really, in my opinion, a structure more appropriate for a World's Fair site or an airport -- and indeed it strikingly resembles a famous train terminal that Calatrava designed for a French (?) airport (the name escapes me at the moment, Lyon-Satola?).

Particularly tragic, in my opinion, is that this train terminal is 1) totally unnecessary (a big waste of money), and 2) is an anti-urban monument to "starchitecture" (a free-standing, single-use structure with no street level retail) and 3) is located in an area that has probably more distinctive truly urban visual icons per square mile than any other business district on earth. Furthermore, these icons, along with the area's handsome "background" buildings, all work wonderfully together as an ensemble and together communicate, "This is a true functioning city, and this is NEW YORK," while the Calatrava building is another step along the way to the creation of a district that says, "this area is no longer a true urban area, but a suburban "office park" that could be anyplace on earth." (A brief list of the high-level urban icons in the immediate vicinity: St. Paul's Chapel (1766?), the Woolworth Building (1911?), City Hall (1811?), the Brooklyn Bridge (1886?), Trinity Church, American Stock Exchange, New York Stock Exchange, Castle Clinton (a fort from the around the time of the War of 1812), U.S. Customs House (Beaux Arts "palace" at the foot of Broadway), Federal Hall National Monument (Greek Revival "temple" w/ statue of George Washington on steps), and so on and so on!

Another "silly" (destructively anti-urban) building, in my opinion, is Calatrava's proposed apartment tower, also in Lower Manhattan. I don't have a photo/link, but it kind of looks like Moshe Safdie's Habitat'67 as it might be redesigned by El Greco.

And no list of "silly" destructively anti-urban buildings in New York would be complete without the new Norman Foster-designed skyscraper atop the landmark Art Deco Hearst Building. (This is a building pictured in MB's essay about the negatives of reflective buildings.) This building is not only silly/destructive in of itself, but it also a vandalization of the landmark Hearst Building (by Joseph[?] Urban) and a vandalization of the existing city scape (the Hearst Building itself is, as I understand it, to be gutted and left empty as a base for the Norman Foster tower).

The new Penn Station (with a gigantic radio telescope "crown") would also have ranked up their among the silliest/most destructive buildings in New York, but luckily that plan was withdrawn.

Another silly/destructive building would have been the decon vandalization of (a parabuilding addition to) the wonderful Art Deco NYC Pavilion from the 1939-1940 World's Fair. Although this building is in a park already, the parabuilding would have been more than just silly as it was a vandalization of a wonderfully handsome Art Deco building that should be treasured both for its architecture and for the fact that it is the ONLY building remaining from the 1939-1940 World's Fair. (I believe the original vandalization by a starchitect, whose name I forget, has been withdrawn. I don't know what the new plans look like.)

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 18, 2006 11:52 AM

No list of silly Seattle buildings would be complete without the upside-down Rainier Tower designed by the city's native son Minoru Yamasaki:

The dumbest decision in his career was omitting a spire from the World Trade Center, a sacrilege for the tallest (at the time) building in Christendom. It is comforting to know he was capable of a design that had a point, so to speak, and in his hometown to boot.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on January 18, 2006 02:22 PM

You want silly? I got your silly right here. The original Denver Art Museum, situated right next to the neo-classical Civic Center Park, looks like a high rise prison. Its new expansion, designed by Liebeskind, is a typical member of the shattered-crystal design school.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 18, 2006 03:14 PM

The EMP's "organic" nature works much better where the monorail goes through it. It doesn't work well at all from the sidewalk. Seems like it was meant to be appreciated at a distance. From the monorail, maybe from the Space Needle. More pics here and here.

Posted by: Glen Raphael on January 18, 2006 03:45 PM

Speaking of silly, don't the locals call the Municipal building "the penis tower"?

Meanwhile, the Washington Mutual Tower is very cool. From top to bottom. Great all-the-way through, open-floor, East-West views on the top floors.

Posted by: ccinNYC on January 18, 2006 05:19 PM

'Speaking of silly, don't the locals call the Municipal building "the penis tower"?'

No. They don't.

Furthermore, would that imply that someone has a problem with penises?

Many year ago I heard someone refer disparingly to a new tall building in Seattle as "simply a phallic symbol," as if nothing more need be said. I was young then and I accepted what seemed to be the profound wisdom of that statment. But as I thought it over I asked myself, "So?" While large buildings of any kind are obviously a symbol of power, I am curious why some people suggest that displays of maleness are somehow humorous, silly, "bad," or whatever etc etc.

Posted by: David on January 18, 2006 07:25 PM

No, David, it's more than just the rectangleness.

Doesn't the gabled roof remind you at all of a glans?

Maybe it's a West Seattle thing.

With regard to penises (sp?), in fact, I don't like seeing any but my own. That doesn't strike me as a problem or even as abnormal. Why do you think they put up those dividers in men's rooms; to stop the splash? The shape of the urinal usually takes care of the splash.

Or try another tact, how come we don't see doorways shaped like vulva's?

Posted by: ccinNYC on January 18, 2006 08:46 PM

Glen and Peter -- Thanks for your reactions to the EMP interior. Unless I get my arm seriously twisted I'm not likely to visit the place. But I might take in the Sci-Fi museum if I only could remember to do so instead of my usual bookstore browsing.

David -- Valid point about the EMP setting. It might have fitted in even better had more of the temporary fair building remaineds. Still it is right next to the carnival area.

Brian -- Interesting point about construction costs. One strong justification for those curtain-walled boxes is initial cost. But how much per square foot does it cost to build a Gehry showpiece? How might that compare with a new building done in, say, Deco style?

Benjamin -- I haven't been to the WTC site in 2 years and not much was visible where the subway station ought to be. And the fate of the Hearst Building is disturbing, but on par for a basically ruthless town like NYC. I was around to see Joseph Urban's Ziegfeld Theater before the wrecking ball got to it; too bad it couldn't have been saved.

Reg -- Ah yes, Rainier Square. The most common description when it was built was that it sorta looked like a giant pencil shoved into the ground. Interestingly, The Fiancée's dad was on the team involved with financing the building.

Doug -- Not only is it silly, it also seems dangerous.

cc & David -- To me the building that's closest to the mark is Norman Foster's "Gherkin" (as local folks call it) in London's City. Though it reminds me more of giant lipstick case.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 18, 2006 11:12 PM

Uhm, Donald...what is that older white building on the far left of your Seattle cityscape photo, with the odd tower that's almost too tall for the rest of the building but is now dwarfed by the modern skyscrapers? I should know this -- I've been to Seattle and I've seen that building close-up and had it explained to me by my lovely and amiable hostess. (Some years ago, I made several trips to the Seattle area to visit my now [alas] former Ladyfriend, who then lived in Olympia.) Unfortunately, I've since forgotten what she said about the building, although some vague memory tickles the back of my mind that typewriters were involved. (The Remington-Rand Building, maybe? That sounds silly...) Anyway, it's a very striking building and has tons of personality that the glass-slathered monoliths simply lack.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 18, 2006 11:47 PM

Dwight -- It's the Smith Tower. Originally the L.C. Smith building where the Smith was or became the Smith in Smith-Corona typewriters.

For decades it was the tallest building in town at a notional 42 stories (that's exaggarated, as the top 6 or so are in the pyramid and, tho' there are tiny windows, the space was probably never used for work). It was also the tallest building in the West for quite a while too.

Due its distinctive shape it served aas a Seattle "trademark" up till the Space Needle was built.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 19, 2006 08:52 AM

By the way, perhaps this thread is an opportune time to express my admiration for one of my favorite architectural designs: Seattle's "Space Needle" -- a building that could easily have been "silly" but, instead, might be considered the opposite of "silly." (Since I've never seen it in person, I could be off-base -- but I doubt it.)

In a way, the Space Needle might be considered tailor made for the "silly" category, as it is essentially "useless" -- a non-building that is really just an "excuse" for civic boosterism, an observation deck and a revolving restaurant.

But the building was done with such cleverness, wit, style and grace and seems so apt for its setting (a city by the mountains) that it apparently has become "the" symbol of Seattle and a worldwide icon too.

It is certainly one of the greatest World's Fair theme structures of all time. (The others that come to mind being the Eiffel Tower and, to a lesser extent, the temporary Trylon and Perisphere.)

Reading a website about the Space Needle, I was surprised to discover that it wasn't even officially part of the Seattle World's Fair, and was built totally(?) with private funds. Score another home run for private initiative and the marketplace!!!

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 19, 2006 11:15 AM

Yes, the Space Needle was built with private funds and I believe is still owned by the same family corporation which built it.

Posted by: David Sucher on January 19, 2006 11:22 AM

When you discuss memorable exhibition "buildings", I think the Atomium in Brussels deserves to be considered, too, though it doesn't seem to have the press of some other such buildings/sculptures.

Posted by: Doug Sundseth on January 19, 2006 11:53 AM

As soon as I sent in my post, it occurred to me that I forgot to mention the Atomium! I agree that in terms of great World's Fair theme structures, the Atomium belongs in the very small top group.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on January 19, 2006 12:26 PM

Yeah, the Denver Art Museum by Gio Ponti is pretty bad, and yet the Libeskind addition will make it clash even more with the rest of the city. The EMP has the distinction of being an the only really bad building by Frank Gehry.

Posted by: corbusier on January 20, 2006 12:13 AM

That EMP thing by Gehry is truly monstrous. Has Gehry ever designed anything attractive?

Posted by: annette on January 20, 2006 10:32 AM

The Atomium rocks! Which raises another good topic: architecture that's so silly it's wonderful.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 20, 2006 11:29 AM

Although I'm sure it's real, the EMP (doesn't that mean electro-magnetic pulse, BTW?) looks like a not-very well done photo manipulation. Every time I look at the picture I'm disappointed Godzilla isn't emerging from the belly of that big red bladder-like thingy.

Actually, I've begun to notice that, at least in photographs, most ultra-contemporary (cutting-edge) architecture looks like bad photo-manips. Or is it just me?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on January 20, 2006 03:44 PM

Yes, unfortunately the EMP (Experience Music Project) is very real, and uglier than photography can convey, the more so the closer you get. An it is designed to look like a smashed guitar, though I believed that would be more of an homage to The Who. Hendrix was known for setting his guitar on fire at the Isle of Wight Music Festival, and many of us in the Seattle area would like to honor him by setting the EXP on fire.
Some have referred to it as Gehry's little joke played on provincial Seattle.
The Seattle Municipal Tower mentioned, which I rather like (but not for the quirk I'm about to mention), when viewed from the Columbia Building (the black behemout to its left in the photo, tallest building on the West Coast I'm told) looks distinctly phallic and circumcised, due to the helmet shaped false gabled roof.

Posted by: Dennis on January 22, 2006 01:02 AM

Regarding the comment by David Pittenger about the Smith Tower, actually someone LIVES in the pyramid that tops the building. It was designed by Jim Castanes for a Seattle artist & collector to live in and display her Chihuly. You can see interior photos on his website, Castanes Architecture or at Seattle Architecture on Seattle Dream Homes

Posted by: Marlow on January 29, 2006 08:58 PM

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