As we all well know, the Central District is changing. This is news only to those who have not been in town for the past 10 years, as the process began in the early '90s. The transformation has above all been a class transformation. And because blacks tend to be poor in this society, the change has involved color—blacks are moving out (or south) and whites are moving in (or returning from the suburbs). Of course it's more complicated than that, but basically this is the present look of things in the Central District.
The changes have also been physical. Businesses that meet the needs of those in middle and higher income brackets have opened, and new and frequently more costly homes are being built in places where old houses have been razed. Not all of this construction is bad; some of it is intelligent and promises to produce the kind of density that makes a city urban. But some of the new constructions are certainly not good, which is the case with the monster-large single-family homes that have recently appeared in the area within Yesler Way and Jefferson Street and 19th and 17th Avenues.
It is one of the loveliest areas in Seattle. The corporate towers of downtown rise in the near-distance, dreamily displaying the city's unevenly shared wealth. Trees thrive on every block. And breezes are always leafy. Here and there, you'll find wooden gates (torii)—the remains of the Japanese community that once dominated the neighborhood. And near to all of this is a prestigious-looking brick building that never fails to please me—the Tolliver Temple Memorial Church of God in Christ. For now, the former synagogue is occupied by members of the Christian-based black community that is in process of being replaced by progressive professionals. The condition of the Central District has always been one of colorful change.
For the most part, these streets are quiet—save the occasional brother or sister driving a car with a booming system and scintillating wheels—and the houses are friendly and inspire dreams of happiness in homeownership (at least in me they do). Then suddenly you are attacked by one of these new robot boxes near the corner of 19th and Jefferson. They are huge and seem to come out of nowhere. They have small and sinister windows; they stand self-sufficiently on their plots of land, which they entirely consume; and worst of all, they refuse to engage in any kind of conversation with the surrounding homes. And it is not their bigness that distinguishes them, as there are plenty of big homes and duplexes in this area. What makes these houses unique is their aggression. The older homes on the street are welcoming; the new robot boxes are discouraging.
The Language of Security
There is no such thing as a silent building; architecture speaks, it has a language. And what these new homes are saying, indeed yelling, to those walking up and down the street is this: I'm big and powerful and will not hesitate to squash any idea in your little head that has even a hint of a crime. The imagined thief instantly gets the message and considers the less challenging house next door. These homes, one of which was developed by CNA Custom Home Design Inc., are also designed to speak to the rich, to people who have money and want to live in an interesting neighborhood but without any risks. In short, these homes are about security. To begin with, they have integrated garages, a feature that is not found in nearly any of the older homes in the area. True, some of the older houses in the neighborhood were built long before the automobile became popular, but still the integrated garage is something that feels far out of place in here where most homes have driveways or no accommodations for the very machine that many believe is at the center of our current war in the Middle East. And precisely what is the function of an integrated garage? It's not to protect a beloved automobile from the elements, but to protect the private homeowner from the surrounding public, from the poor who hang out at places like Afro Mini Store on 19th. One can drive in the safety of one's car directly into the safety of one's home's garage.
Based on the early 20th-century Seattle Box (or Classic Box) model, these new houses (unlike their ancestors) don't have front yards, front doors, recessed porches, or windows on the ground floor. Each stretches deep into the back, possibly terminating with a very private yard (it's hard to see how these aggressive homes come to an end). And though the exterior is covered with clapboard wood siding, the wood offers no warmth, but instead the severity of béton brut (raw concrete). I have never been in these homes before, but I wouldn't be surprised if they came with bombproof, terror-proof panic rooms.
"It's very sad," said local architect Jerry Garcia when he looked at one of the monster houses in question. "In a Seattle Box, which this house is clearly modeled on, these corner windows give the sense of quiet reflection. It is a place to read or think. In these new homes, the windows are lookouts."
As a model, the Seattle Box is innocuous. Even when the homes are huge, such as the one on the corner of 15th and Jefferson, they are not hostile, but quietly and politely proclaim their permanence and strength like gentle giants. Nor is it a bad thing that new robot boxes are being duplicated; a great many of the homes in this city come from pattern and plan books of the early 20th century. In fact, the handsome Seattle Box on 15th and Jefferson was probably copied from Victor W. Voorhees's "Design No. 91" in his once-popular plan book Western Home Builder. So duplication is not the problem. The problem is the type of duplication and its language, which has little to do with the old tradition of the Seattle Box and more to do with new trends in embassy architecture.
"With security shaping every aspect of embassy architecture," writes Jane C. Loeffler, an architecture historian and author of The Architecture of Diplomacy: Building America's Embassies, "U.S. foreign buildings are undergoing a profound identity crisis. Once celebrated as emissaries of openness and optimism, they now convey a mixed message—pride coupled with apparent indifference, assertiveness fused with fear...." I will hold my thoughts on the massive American embassy that is planned for Iraq (which will be more of a fortress than an embassy) and conclude by making this point: You couldn't find a better way to describe the new robot homes of the Central District than indifferent (to the surrounding environment) with an assertiveness fused with fear. In essence, these homes are built to convert the fear of the rich into terror for the poor.