October 1, 2008
Rick Sundberg embraces a Seattle building’s history for the new Wing Luke Asian Museum.
By his own admission, Rick Sundberg is no preservationist. A founder of the Seattle architecture firm Olson Sundberg Kundig Allen, he’s best known for sleek, rational projects such as his 1997 redesign of the Frye Art Museum. But when he took on the task of renovating an abandoned, decrepit 1910 building in Seattle’s Chinatown, Sundberg couldn’t bring himself to gut the place, utterly unsleek and irrational though it was. “I fell in love with the building in its worst possible state,” he says.
His clients at the Wing Luke Asian Museum felt much the same way about the East Kong Yick Building. For decades, the three-story brick structure had been a community hub for Seattle’s Asian population, housing stores, apartments, and the Chinese family associations (where people who shared a surname and hailed from the same village in China would meet) around which immigrant social life revolved. “My great-grandfather hid out here from rivals in the 1920s who were out to get him,” says Cassie Chinn, Wing Luke’s deputy executive director. “My grandfather was born in the family apartments.” The renovation, everyone agreed, would have to give voice to stories like these, not expunge them.
The new museum opened last May, and like the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, it offers preserved period spaces for docent-guided “historic immersion” tours. On the ground floor, an Asian grocery that had operated half a block away for nearly 100 years was reassembled, down to the jars of dried fruit. On the third story, visitors can tour a family-association meeting room and residential-hotel rooms where itinerant workers laid down their weary heads. But unlike the Tenement Museum, which focuses on immigrant groups that have largely vacated the neighborhood, Wing Luke still answers to a local Asian population that’s far from being a historical artifact. “We have a community that had a strong sense of ownership of the project,” says the executive director, Beth Takekawa. At a series of public meetings, that community made clear that it wanted not just a monument to the past but also a vital neighborhood center, not unlike the building’s original incarnation. So Wing Luke’s 60,000 square feet also incorporate galleries displaying Asian-American art and history, a community hall, a 59-seat theater, educational and meeting space, a research library, and a gift shop.
Sundberg could have segregated the past in well-defined immersion zones and given over the rest of the program to pristine new interiors. He chose instead to leave fluid boundaries between old and new, peeling back layers to let East Kong Yick’s old bones tell their own compelling story. In much of the building, exposed second-story floor joists make a roughly beautiful ceiling. The original hammered-tin fire doors now panel the ticket counter and signpost dead-end corridors. Old fir framing was repurposed as stair treads, and 70 percent of the original windows were saved. Outside, most of the old cornices and Chinese-style balconies were too decrepit to salvage, but a new fan-shaped steel door canopy, designed by the Seattle sculptor Gerard Tsutakawa, makes for an intimate, Asian-inflected entry. “People in the community are astonished at how we were able to preserve the feeling the building had,” says Paul Mar, a Wing Luke board member.
Above all, Sundberg wanted to keep the two-story light wells that once provided ventilation to interior apartments. “No client in his right mind would let me design a seven-and-a-half-foot-wide, two-story-high, sixty-foot-long space,” he says. “We had to figure out a way of using those things.” So he capped them with glass and put in stairs to provide a contemplative transition between the lobby and the second-floor galleries. But incorporating these odd spaces into a coherent whole was a technical challenge. “They don’t align with anything in the building,” he says. “For someone who is used to tracing loads, it took me a long time.”
Indeed, Sundberg confesses that his grand plan of saving the East Kong Yick Building, in all its cockeyed glory, caused him more than a little anxiety by the end of the project. “Even though I had this conceptual idea about how it should be, the reality was still difficult for me, because I come from a different way of designing things,” he says. “It took me a long time to calm down enough. But, eventually, I began to see what I was talking about.”