Contrasting Contextual Design: Revitalizing Seattle’s Neighborhoods

Susan S. Szenasy talks with Seattle-based architecture and design firm Olson Kundig to discuss contextualism and neighborhood development.

Contextual Design Seattle
M74 S Jackson, North.© Olson Kundig.

For the past three years, Metropolis’s director of design innovation, Susan S. Szenasy, has led Think Tank, a series of conversations on human-centered design. On August 17, she visited the Seattle-based architecture and design firm Olson Kundig to discuss contextualism and neighborhood development. What follows is a transcript of the conversation, edited for clarity by S.T. White.

Susan S. Szenasy, director of design innovation, Metropolis (SSS): What I love about Olson Kundig’s office is how you adapted to a historic building and employ light and air. It brings to mind the former lives of the space.

Tom Kundig, principal and owner, Olson Kundig (TK): This building was initially designed for a shoe manufacturing company in 1892, and then the top two floors were added several years later for shirt manufacturing. It was an efficient and high-performance building for its time. We engaged the building as if it would be repurposed at some point in an unknown future. We opened the skylight—which was covered over when we moved in—to enhance the natural ventilation system. No one who built the manufacturing companies could have predicted that the building would take on so many uses over the years, eventually becoming offices for attorneys and architects. That prototype of inevitable change is important to us and influences our work.

SSS: This neighborhood, Pioneer Square, is known for its historic context. Karen, what initiatives is your group doing to connect newcomers with the past?

Karen True, director of business development, Alliance for Pioneer Square (KT): The Alliance for Pioneer Square advocates for the public realm of the neighborhood. We help businesses navigate issues like historic preservation and financing.

There are about 850 businesses and 15,000 people working here every day. For a long time, this had been one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city. There is very-low-income housing, transitional housing, and missions, but recently, market-rate residential housing has come up, which is a fabulous addition to the neighborhood.

Just five years ago, over half of all storefronts were vacant. Since then, over 40 new restaurants have come in. And since it’s a transit hub, corporations want to relocate here from the suburbs and recruit talent from a broader area.

SSS: We’re also talking today about South Lake Union, a neighborhood where Scott Redman is developing a building with Olson Kundig. That neighborhood has more in common with other cities where there are warehouses, mediocre building stock, and opportunities for new construction.

Scott Redman, president, Sellen Construction (SR): In 1944, my grandfather started Sellen Construction and bought land in South Lake Union. In 1999, we built our headquarters right on Westlake Avenue. We were the first new building in the area before the bulk of development that has happened since.

For the new project we are developing with Olson Kundig, we wanted to invest in a legacy building. The program is to create a center for the neighborhood that is hospitable like a hotel lobby and activated by interesting retail, ranging from early-morning coffee to late-night bars. We also intend to have space for live music and performances. We have a robust budget for art in the lobby and exterior spaces.

Contextual Design Seattle
9th & Thomas. © Olson Kundig.

SSS: Kirsten, is this going to be a prototype building for the future of Olson Kundig?

Kirsten R. Murray, principal and owner, Olson Kundig (KRM): We’re a 51-year-old firm that started out doing very site-specific, small-scale, highly crafted projects—primarily residential environments and cultural projects. We find ourselves getting more involved in larger-scale buildings and adapting our core expertise to meet the demands of these types of buildings.

This project provided an opportunity to think about the role of mixed-use office buildings in the creation of neighborhoods. We pay attention to relationships to the street, neighborhood, and views. Emphasizing porousness sets a paradigm for these types of buildings as we consider how to welcome the population and contribute to the city’s culture one building at a time.

SSS: Tom, can you talk about the skin of this building?

TK: Scott’s brief was to make a legacy building that can actually absorb a future that we don’t know—a building that can morph and change.

The skin is responsive to the nature of the climate in Seattle as we know it today, which is breezy. On the upper levels, operational windows allow for natural ventilation, while at the street level, the building can breathe and move. It can put on a sweater, so to speak.

Each facade adapts to the climate, light, and views of each direction. This building could not be moved to another part of the city or another part of the country—its particular context has been woven into the very fabric of its design.

KRM: A building in dialogue with its surroundings still needs to have its own point of view about what it’s trying to do.

SSS: What is that point of view? How does that manifest itself in architecture?

KRM: Since we knew this building was to last a long time, we spent more money to create a structural system with a longer life span. Instead of allocating money for a particular cladding system or surface treatment, we spent it on the bones. There is not much built context to respond to, but there are wonderful views of the lake and the Space Needle. Solar orientation on one side also gave the building form. As Scott mentioned, the goal was to create a lobby space that would act as a gathering place for the surrounding community, as well as enhancing the streetscape experience for passersby.

Contextual Design Seattle
74 S Jackson – 1st and Main. © Olson Kundig.

SSS: Two rising tides are people leaving the suburbs for cities, and technology. How does the building reflect and respond to these large shifts?

KRM: More than ever, it’s important to carry out simple, timeless design in our cities, like creating a public square. Some of the things in Pioneer Square that were either historic or built in the last urban renewal period have been almost waiting for the population that’s showing up now to use them.

We find that with a lot of clients, the more the world begins to be governed by these insensible mechanisms of communication, the more interested people are in seeing how things work.

It might be a dichotomy, but maybe the technological mind-set is really a curious mind-set.

TK: Two things come to mind about balancing technology. One is that I’ve heard from some professors that for students, the digital world is like what the landline phone was for us. We didn’t even think about using it—it was like breathing. Apparently, at the academic level students now want to learn how to acquire skills like watercolor painting or letterpress printing. That desire for earlier systems is interesting, even though ultimately when students create work they employ the higher skills of computer software.

Secondly, I read an interesting article about Airbnb arguing that it might represent one of the most important components of the future. With the advent of AI, there may be so many things that are basically taken care of, like cars, food, delivery, that our only real function aside from maintaining those systems will be to travel to places that are authentic. At that point, it won’t be about virtual or augmented reality but about real reality, which Airbnb has come to represent. You actually have to go to San Francisco or Jordan to experience those places.

Contextual Design Seattle
Panelist Tom Kundig addresses the audience at the Olson Kundig offices.

SSS: Another thing to think about is equity in urban environments and how not to create a segregated society.

KT: Yesterday, the president of the Union Gospel Mission was telling me how in Pioneer Square a few years ago, out of a group of eight, maybe six or seven people were homeless or drug dealers and one would be an office worker. Now out of the eight, there are two people living in the mission and six that are on their lunch hour. The situation is different, and people are presumably having experiences with diverse groups, which wasn’t happening as much before.

SSS: The built environment has to respond to these realities in their designs, and accommodate how different groups share spaces. I’d like to ask everyone on the panel to share a thought on the importance of contextual design.

TK: A hero of mine is the physicist Richard Feynman. I’ve been watching terrific lectures of his online from the ’50s and ’60s. He said something along the lines of “Most people don’t really like to think,” which I notice in design.

When there is so much visual data around us, on places like Pinterest or Instagram, people send us files saying, “I want one of these and one of these.” There isn’t necessarily much thinking behind the decisions. It’s just a visual map to follow. By contrast, contextual design is going into neighborhoods, climates, or places, and thoughtfully interpreting situations.

KRM: Contextualism is understanding that your role as a designer is to add a layer to something that already exists. You’re painting on top of a substrate with a history that you should be very aware of, whether you’re infilling a vacant property, changing the use of a space, or building something new out of the ground. And it’s equally important to look forward. Today’s design will be the layer on top of which future generations build. We look at the past and at future potential.

SR: The contextual element I was most focused on as we created this place was the people. What do people want that doesn’t exist here yet? How do we make it a more interesting place to work and visit? I hope it can be a canvas of sorts for art and culture that doesn’t exist in the neighborhood.

Audience member: I’m curious about the relationship between the designer, builder, and craft. It seems that construction drawings have become increasingly detailed. How do you allow space for craft when drawings are more prescriptive?

TK: We’re in a design-build relationship with Sellen Construction, which is interesting. It may be an evolving relationship between designers and builders in the future.

In Switzerland, architects are expected to take their drawings to the “DD level,” the design development level, because the architects are also the quantity surveyors. The idea is that the architect, who does not actually build the buildings, should not be in a position to tell a builder how to build. They should give the drawings to the builder, who then comes back with bids and proposals on how to build it.

KT: For a majority of our projects, we tend to gravitate toward relationships where we get to work with builders early in the design process. As both client and builder, Scott and his team were capable of pursuing experiments and goals that would have been out of reach otherwise. Having confidence in their own abilities created great opportunities.

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