Buildings of Seattle is one of the best things to happen on Instagram. It came to life at the beginning of the pandemic and provides detailed but compressed descriptions of the homes, apartment buildings, and towers of our city. I did not know there was so much to say about Seattle's architecture until I read the steady and never-disappointing stream of information on this feed of photos and words written in a style that is as informative as it is charming. And the charm of Buildings of Seattle can certainly be attributed to the fact that its handler is an amateur. He, Keith Cote, has no formal training in architecture.
Indeed, Cote, who moved to Seattle 10 years ago from the Boston area, has revived, in a sharing social network, a tradition that's mostly forgotten in a society that prizes professionals—in sports, in the sciences, in literature. But the professional only emerged recently, around the middle of the 19th century. Before that period of specialization, those investigating the motion of the planets, or examining with a microscope the forms of life invisible to the eye, or composing poems or essays were the main amateurs. Charles Darwin and Marcel Proust were in the twilight of that mode.
This is what Theodor Adorno, the last modernist of Western Marxism, wrote in the first aphorism of Minima Moralia (it's devoted to Marcel Proust):
The occupation with intellectual [geistigen] things has meanwhile become “practical,” a business with a strict division of labor, with branches and numerus clausus [Latin: restricted entry]. Those who are materially independent, who choose out of repugnance towards the shame of earning money, are not inclined to recognize this. For this he is punished. He is no “professional” [in English in the original], ranks in the hierarchy of competitors as a dilettante, regardless of how much he knows about his subject, and must, if he wishes to pursue a career, display a professional tunnel vision even narrower than that of the most narrow-minded expert.
We now call this sort of activity a hobby. The fallen form of amateurism. But the amateur had a mastery of a field that was not dusted by a specialist. And often the only distinction between the two was the matter of "earning money." One did not care to; the other, very much did. Charles Baudelaire was the first to express ambivalence about money (or, making a living) as a mid-19th century French poet. His British contemporary, Charles Dickens, embraced professionalism and, unlike Baudelaire, did not die poor.
With Cote, who is an engineer by training, writing about Seattle's architecture, old and new, known and unknown, beautiful and ugly, is without a doubt more than a hobby. The energy (walking around the city), research (deep dives), and thought he puts into his Instagram posts could easily provide the content for a study of Seattle's architectural history that's as distinguished and encyclopedic as Jeffrey Karl Ochsner's classic Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects (Ochsner is a professor at the University of Washington).
Here is what Cote says about Horton, a commercial building in Georgetown, a neighborhood he is currently processing, that houses Fantagraphics Bookstore, Smarty Pants, Barn Owl Vintage, All City Coffee, and more.
This building is also noteworthy for its distinctive Commercial Style architecture which is somewhat obscured today with a monochromatic coat of brown paint. If you look closely, you can see that the first story is clad in brick with rectangular paneled ornamentation, while the upper level consists of a combination of concrete stucco finish with a decorative brick veneer. I always thought that this upper pattern resembled train tracks, but I have no idea if that was intentional. The monochromatic monotony is at least relieved with the various colors each business applied to their storefronts... This building was designed by prolific Seattle architect Charles H. Bebb and was built by W.T. Butler Construction Company.
I have yet to read a post on Buildings of Seattle that does not have this richness of information and charm. It's also noteworthy that Cote is not a part of a movement, nor does he take sides with one architectural style over another. He only writes about what catches his eye during one of his many long walks around the city. This, of course, is the genius and charm of an amateur.
Cote will also begin processing a skyscraper trend that he believes began in 2012, the year Amazon took over the world—for more on this, watch the video.
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