Downtown Seattle has three buildings by famous contemporary architects: Seattle Art Museum (Robert Venturi), Experience Music Project (Frank Gehry), and Seattle Central Library (Rem Koolhaas). In 2011, this small list will be increased by one with the completion of a skyscraper at 601 Fourth Avenue, between James and Cherry streets. The star architect behind this 520-foot tower (for commercial, residential, and retail) is Norman Foster, the Englishman behind one of the most iconic buildings, 30 St Mary Axe, in the now-dying age of "iconic buildings."
The street name for 30 St Mary Axe is The Gherkin. 601, however, will not be iconic; its impact on Seattle's skyline will not be as severe as The Gherkin's impact on London's skyline. Nevertheless, it is a building by an architect/firm that has produced an impressive body of work: the restored Reichstag in Berlin, the Hearst Tower in New York City, and (my personal favorite) the HSBC Main Building in Hong Kong.
601, a project organized by the local firm Triad Development, will in fact be the first building by a noted contemporary architect to modify Seattle's skyline. Unlike the short Central Library, the shorter SAM, and the even shorter EMP, 601 will be visible to those crossing Puget Sound on a ferry, or fishing on Alki Beach, or approaching the city on the northbound lanes of I-5. The building will be on future postcards. And what will strike the viewer in this near future is the building's curious resemblance to the 522-foot Smith Tower, our oldest skyscraper—which is almost identical in height to Foster's design. According to the developers, this resemblance (a slender tower extending from a larger base) is not accidental. The building is carefully programmed and positioned to initiate a conversation with the skyline. This conversation will say strong things about Seattle's long (and often despised) commitment to very tall buildings.
Ours is the only city in the region that seriously participates in the international skyscraper game. When completed in 1914, the Smith Tower was the fourth tallest building in the whole world. When completed in 1969, the Seafirst Tower was "the tallest building west of the Mississippi." When completed in 1985, the Columbia Tower claimed that Mississippi title. On the skyline that faces northbound traffic on I-5, the 601 will appear between the Smith Tower (the first) and the Columbia Tower (the last), a situation that deliberately reinforces the city's skyscraper story—a story about power, raw ambition, and the vain yet invigorating pursuit of international distinction.
On the street level, things will be a little more rational. Restaurants and shops will surround a plaza designed by Atelier Dreiseitl (the firm that was part of the recent redevelopment Potsdamer Platz, one of Berlin's most famous and central squares). The plaza and the 601 tower, which is shooting for a platinum LEED certification, will have direct access to the light-rail station on Third Avenue. The final result of these elements—a British architectural firm, German landscapers, a public square, and mass transportation? The production of what might be the most European block in Seattle.