The House on Queen Anne Avenue
It's modern. It's award-winning. It's hated by its neighbors.
In the prosperous and cozy section of Queen Anne Avenue North between West McGraw Street and West Smith Street, one house stands out. It's called Sterling Residence. It's three stories high, white, modern, belted by a perimeter wall, and has an enclosed garden of white and black rocks. This house says nothing to the others that surround it. Because the back of Sterling Residence faces the street, its front facing the alley, it upsets its neighbors with the bold indifference of a three-story windowless wall.
"I should get a permit from the city and show movies on there in the summer," said Jennifer Geist, who's in her mid 40s, is as spirited as her surname, and lives directly across the street from Sterling Residence. Her home is snug, wood-warm, filled with the images and smells of well-being. Earlier, after she welcomed me (a complete stranger) into her home, she said that none other than the Dalai Lama was coming to Seattle very soon and that this was a big story, one I should look into (instead of looking into her house). And as she led me to the living room, I thought of how the Italian filmmaker Bernardo Bertolucci, when shooting the opening scenes of his 1993 film Little Buddha in a Queen Anne home designed by the local architect Larry Rouch, had to harden the house's modernisms, sharpen the severity of its interior spaces, and make its colors harsher. Had he used Geist's house for those scenes, a complete change would have been necessary. Everything you need to raise a perfect little Buddha is here.
I was sitting in the living room shortly after dusk, a fat and fluffy cat on my lap, and Geist was sitting on the couch across from me. Between us: a large window filled with the growing/glowing whiteness of Sterling Residence. "I'm originally from back East, and when my family visits me here, they are shocked by the house," Geist said. "My father calls it an abortion clinic."
We watched a young couple emerge from Sterling Residence's gate, enter a flashy white car, and jet down the road. Geist continued, "No one likes the building. It's offensive. And it's not that I'm against new things. I have an open mind. But it's just wrong for the street. It has no sense of the community... Now, the architects who made it are also working on another project not far from here, and it's not as bad as this one. It at least takes the other homes into consideration."
Sterling Residence only speaks to itself or, closer yet, to another, distant discourse that has had little or no impact on Queen Anne—the discourse of modernism, postindustrial technologies, urban theory. It is not a dwelling in the sense that the other homes on this street are dwellings; it is a living machine, a robot designed for the rational management of human beings. The neighbors may not like Sterling Residence, and they would like the whole city also not to like it, but precisely the opposite is happening: More and more, the bane of the neighbors' existence is being recognized as a breakthrough, a breath of much needed fresh air. In 2007, Sterling Residence was the recipient of an Honor Award from the American Institute of Architects (AIA). This prize was not conferred entirely by outsiders. One of the three members of the jury was Seattle native Joshua Prince-Ramus, who codesigned the Seattle Central Library.
Sterling Residence, which was on sale last year for $1.5 million (this is not an amazing price for this street; another much older home, built in 1919, had a list price of $1.2 million), was designed by Pb Elemental. The firm came into existence in 2004, when it sprang from the minds of two ambitious students from the University of Washington's architecture school, Chris Pardo, 29, and David Biddle, 30. Pb Elemental's growth has been spectacular—from 2 to over 50 employees in just four years. The entirety of this growth has been generated by local projects. A part of Pb Elemental's secret to success can be attributed to its leading program, which is the unification of architecture (or style) with town houses. (The firm also unifies style with single-family residences and commercial buildings.) Only two or three firms in Seattle, as far as I can tell, are attempting to build or maintain such a relationship—between style/modernism and town houses. Most town houses (if they even bother to do so) turn to the past and imitate the Seattle Box and other popular plans and designs of the 1910s and 1920s.
You could say that Sterling Residence is the highest point of Pb Elemental's program and ideas. It is the point that defines the firm's progress thus far—a point that might be surpassed by Pb's Crockett Residence, which is currently under construction—and the point of so much disturbance on the top of the once-peaceful, once-wholesome, once-content community of Queen Anne. It's a disturbance of power, aesthetics, codes, modes, values, and ideas that are plugged into a wider war for the soul/identity of this city. What is Seattle? Is it this: in reality, a small town back then—in essence, a small town now? Or is it this: once a small town, now a big city? And can the values of the past be maintained in a Seattle that is on the cutting edge of so much—aerospace, biotechnology, information systems?
Sterling Residence brought this battle to a neighborhood that had somehow managed to maintain a distance from the noise and banging raging everywhere else. All over Seattle—Central District, Mount Baker, Capitol Hill, Eastlake—new buildings are replacing old buildings at an unprecedented pace. The past is here and there vanishing like the contents of a dream at the moment of waking. The construction boom had, for sure, transformed parts of Queen Anne—particularly along Queen Anne Avenue—but not hit hard at the heart of the neighborhood. Sterling Residence is by no means the first modern home to be built on Queen Anne (Rouch's Little Buddha home, for example, was completed in the early 1990s), but it's certainly the loudest and most aggressive. The other modern homes caused a stir; Sterling Residence has caused a break.
Grievances toward Sterling Residence were first publicly expressed on the AIA website. The organization had flown three judges into town—Frank Harmon, Jeanne Gang, and Joshua Prince-Ramus (he now lives in New York City)—and shown them 140 projects, and one of the seven projects they selected for a prize was Sterling Residence, which surprisingly beat Vandeventer + Carlander Architects' houseboat. On a page that the AIA website dedicated to the winners, "Unbound," one unnamed and very upset guest wrote:
This home may be appropriate in a different context, but in a community/neighborhood of early-20th-century homes (mostly bungalows) this home is a stark and unwelcome contrast. I have not encountered a single person (except perhaps the homeowners) who actually finds this home to be inviting in any way. It is made fun of constantly and is referred to as the giant Kleenex box littering the street.
Another guest wrote:
I live a block away and 100% of the residents on QA I have talked with are stunned by the harsh white blank walls of this home. Many people comment on this eyesore! The interior might be wonderful, but the glaring exterior absolutely does not fit in this neighborhood. It is unfriendly and boring—certainly does not promote "community." What were you thinking to award such a building an award? It gives architecture a very bad name.
"Unfriendly," "harsh," "stark," "unwelcome," "stunned"—this is the language of xenophobia. Sterling Residence is alien, strange, not a part of the "community." It is uncouth (in the older sense of that word), the other, the event that disrupts long-established certainties about the neighborhood, the institution of the family ("it looks like an abortion clinic"), and the meaning of the city ("this home may be appropriate in a different context"). However, Jennifer Geist, the neighbor, admitted to me on the evening of my surprise visit that the architectural hatred and rejection was not universal, not "100 percent." Her brother-in-law loves Sterling Residence for the very same reasons it won an AIA prize: It snaps the monotony of the street and presents a fresh opening to something new in the neighborhood. And because the snap is so sharp, so clear, in the context of Queen Anne, the AIA jury used it to send a loud message to the rest of Seattle: Snap out of predictable architecture.
On December 25, 2007, Lawrence W. Cheek, who writes architecture reviews for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, reported that after looking at the 140 projects in Seattle and surrounding areas, the AIA jury was far from impressed with what the city had to offer. "For a city with such strengths—education, culture, natural environment, wealth," they stated, "[we] hoped to see more evidence of leadership and risk, and less comfort with an already well-digested regional design language. Great architecture occurs when a great designer creates new opportunity." It wasn't because Sterling Residence is exceptional (the houseboat is the better building) that it won; it's because it delivered a great blow into the guts of "well-digested regional design language," the guts of Queen Anne Hill.
"We selected the Sterling Residence because of its impact on the context," Prince-Ramus confirmed over the phone. "It was refreshing to see something that was outside of the language of bungalows or whatever they call them. One of the best features of the house is on the top floors. There you have a view of this repetition. It's a sea of bungalow roofs."
When asked about his criticism of the city's recent architecture, he said: "For me, it was easy to be critical. I'm from Seattle. This is where I grew up. And so I was happy that other jurors were in agreement with how I felt. But they are not from Seattle and may not have wanted to be so critical. But we all agreed to make the statement: The city is not taking enough risks, not experimenting with new ideas. And this is strange when you think about how educated, wealthy, liberal, and so on the city is... But, yes, what excited me about [Sterling Residence] was its willingness to do something smart, new, and different from a design language that belongs to another age, period of time."
Queen Anne Hill is upper-middle class, stable, and white. The average cost of a house is nearly $800,000 dollars, making it the third-most-expensive neighborhood in Seattle—behind Madison Park and Capitol Hill. But unlike Capitol Hill, particularly the area west of Broadway, the top of Queen Anne has been quiet and constant. Amazingly, there are no construction cranes in this part of town. And there is little that will shock or surprise a person who happens to visit the area after a long parting. Had Pb Elemental built Sterling Residence in the neighborhood that contains the bulk of its major projects, the Central District, the judges of AIA might have missed it. The house is not groundbreaking but consistent with the strong ideals and values of modernism—it's composed of two primary volumes that are separated by a core of dark woods and metal fixtures. At the top of this core, windows all around, windows that can see beyond the hill, beyond Ballard, beyond the clouds, into the blue—windows that flood the rooms, the staircase, the concrete floor with light. There is little more to Sterling Residence than these refined elements.
A week ago, I asked Pb Elemental's Chris Pardo for the design motive of Sterling Residence. He saw the street, he saw the surrounding homes: Was he being provocative? Cruel? Difficult? Honest?
"I think people often make the mistake of confusing context with character. The character of a neighborhood is set typically when it is first developed. In Queen Anne's case, this would be the early 1900s," he said. "Craftsman homes on [the] hill were originally designed and built based on the tools, skills of craftsman, and as a reflection of the time... Context evolves, Queen Anne has become a very busy (especially Queen Anne Avenue) urban neighborhood, building technologies have changed, family dynamics have changed. The Sterling Residence had to consider what Queen Anne is now, what lifestyle and technologies exist."
From this point, "what Queen Anne is now," we need not make more steps. We can stop here. Sterling Residence is ultimately urban. It does not pretend to be in a small town, to be in the middle of the country, to be about the kind of "family dynamics" that the show Little House on the Prairie endorsed. Sterling Residence is about young wealth, the global economy, the technologies of tomorrow. Sterling Residence is about being where it is: in the middle of a big city.