In November, the Seattle chapter of the American Institute of Architects made the most amazing announcement: One of the winners of the 2007 Honor Awards for Washington Architecture was a building in Bellevue. How could this be? A building with architectural value in the dead heart of downtown Bellevue? Were the AIA jurors mad? In fact, the three jurors had good reputations. One of them was none other than Joshua Prince-Ramus, the man behind Seattle's downtown Central Library, the most important work of architecture in the region. So why was the world all of a sudden upside down?
According to the AIA jury, Bellevue City Hall "transforms a [formerly] suburban office building into an important city destination. The bold gesture is articulated by pulling out public space, connecting to transit, and reengaging the city. While the originality and risk of the execution did not match the ambition of the gesture, this project represents a courageous approach to a daunting problem." My own eyes had to see what jurors registered as good architecture in a city that is fanatically committed to the production of bad buildings.
It is not hard or mean to describe Bellevue's relationship with architecture as a very, very, very ordinary one. This is a marriage that only knows one position, that goes to sleep early, and has very little to say about the world, life, and love. This marriage is all about bills, bank machines, and shopping. Even Seattle Post-Intelligencer architecture critic Lawrence Cheek has this understanding of Bellevue. "[It is] a clean, wealthy, developer-driven city that has a tradition of orderliness," he wrote in 2005. Words like "courageous," "bold," and "risk" are almost never associated with Bellevue. These words only have a home (and barely have a home) here in Seattle. That is the universal understanding.
When I visited Bellevue, I was surprised to find what the AIA judges found: a building that stands above the level of average architecture, a building whose rhythms, patterns, materials, and form express a strong idea. The design was by SRG Partnership Inc., a Portland firm that opened a Seattle office in 2003 with three principals who left the local giant NBBJ over creative differences. Bellevue City Hall was a major project for SRG's Seattle office, and the challenge the architects faced was transforming Qwest's former offices into a public space, a beautiful space, a space that contradicts not only the former office building but the whole city of Bellevue.
The building, which has three themes—the office building, the wood (our region's historic resource), and transparency—is not only a success, it's better than Seattle's City Hall. Which is upsetting. How can Bellevue beat Seattle in any area of culture? Bellevue is suburban, culturally fast asleep, and artistically empty. High culture is for Seattle; mall culture is for Bellevue. That is the order of things. If this is not the sure case, then why do we live in Seattle?
Seattle City Hall—designed by Peter Bohlin, the man who designed the region's Xanadu (Bill Gates's high-tech castle)—is a total mess. In trying to articulate everything, it articulates nothing. No part of it dominates the whole; every side is different. One section has a rash of shutters. At the top of the south side is a titanium dome that seems to have landed from nowhere. The interior is even more confused: bombastic limestone staircase here, man-made waterfall there, oars sticking out of the walls, blue sky bridge overhead, a fireplace area. What is going on here? Why is the building trying to be everything? Because Seattle City Hall is what American politics is all about: opinions. You will not find a single truth in this architecture, just a lot of common opinions.
But go to Bellevue City Hall and what do you find? Not confusion, but certainty. This is what Bellevue City Hall says: "Listen, Bellevue, it is time to wake up from this stupid sleep." How does it say this? By waking up a corporate headquarters from the long and stupid sleep of suburban architecture. The new building wants the surrounding city to be like it: alert, aware, alive, and a blend of the private and the public. The clarity of the building's exterior (its open rather than cluttered plaza, its wide silver surfaces, its sturdy brick-colored base, its welcoming shaft of glass) corresponds with the clarity of the main interior, a hall that is defined by the solid rhythms of wood beams and posts. This building will not go down like the one across the street from it, Bellevue's convention center—an atrocious structure that not only sleeps but snores loudly.
This must never happen again! Let's hope that Bellevue City Hall is an anomaly. Bellevue must remain as Bellevue, with its malls, office buildings, and other products of what architect Rem Koolhaas calls junkspace. Seattle must generate and dominate the higher culture of the region.