We live in NBBJ land. Few live a day in this city without seeing or entering one of the buildings designed by one of the world's largest architecture firms. Formed in 1943 in Seattle by Floyd Naramore, Clifton Brady, Perry Johanson, and William Bain Sr., the firm makes buildings for big corporations, big entertainment, and big government. What is big in this city is often what has been designed by NBBJ. Also, what is modern, futuristic, and at the cutting edge of time is the spirit of the firm. Miesian modernism had its major introduction to this city in an NBBJ building—the Seafirst Tower (now 1001 Fourth Avenue Plaza). Futurism as imagined by corporate power in the late '80s—a new and bold world liberated by computer technology—can be summed up by NBBJ's wavy, sky-blue Two Union Square Tower. The firm's Seattle Justice Center is one of the fullest expressions of what the chief urban designer for New York City, Alexandros Washburn, calls the New Virtue, the virtue of our age.
"The Greeks may not have invented civic virtue, but they certainly branded the idea with architecture," posted Washburn in an article on the Metropolis magazine website. "[But] the Corinthian column no longer signifies virtue, civic or otherwise. There has been a paradigm shift away from architecture. What signifies virtue these days is a concern for nature... Just as two millennia ago, a sculptor transformed the biomass of the acanthus plant into a template for architecture, using its stalk, leaves and flower as a model for the shaft and volutes of the Corinthian column, we today must transform the rigidities of architecture into the adaptations of nature."
If the Seattle Justice Center is at the center of this new mode/model, so is NBBJ's latest contribution to Seattle's skyline, the Four Seasons Hotel. What the Miesian box was to the '60s, the Four Seasons is to the '00s. It is the New Virtue.
But more than that: It is the Seattlest building that has been made on an NBBJ scale. The Four Seasons is on First Avenue, nearly completed (scheduled to open in late summer), and across the street from the Allied Works–designed extension of Seattle Art Museum. (Washington Mutual's new and high-tech headquarters was also designed by NBBJ.)
What makes the new Four Seasons more local than, say, the Seattle Justice Center, or the United States Federal Courthouse, one of NBBJ's least impressive works (though the entrance on the south side has its moments), is that the Four Seasons goes beyond green virtues and activates virtues, codes, and concepts specific to this city. The Seattle Justice Center is about an international program or ideal; the Four Seasons Hotel is about a local agenda. The hotel has more to do with Freeway Park than with any other luxury towers of its size (310,000-square-feet, 21 stories) and expense ($100-plus million).
Now that we have arrived at the door of this article, let us enter the core: The principle of the design is to incorporate the themes of nature into the colors and textures of the building itself. Here we have, as with Lawrence Halprin and Angela Danadjieva's 1976 Freeway Park—the first work to activate in a large way this coding/meaning-making system in our city—the blending of the new and the past, the wild and the man-made, the tree and the concrete, the outside and the inside, the mountains and the buildings.
"The building is designed to bridge Seattle's waterfront with the 'mountains,' or large buildings behind the development, as well as play a unifying architectural role in the neighborhood," design principal Roxanne Williams told Business Wire.
The Four Seasons is not a bridge but a collapsed concentration of all of these values and codes into one site, representing the city as "a flower of geography," as Jonathan Raban described Seattle, using the words of Henry James. "With mountain ranges front and back, puddled with lakes, and squatting on a reach of sea a hundred fathoms deep, Seattle is up to its ears in nature...."
The Four Seasons is colored like a forest—muddy, barky, leafy. The mud color dominates the middle-to-upper parts; the concrete core looks like bark; the green leaves are made of glass. The effect of the coloring is that when you walk into the area on First Avenue that falls, toward dusk, under the building's shadow, it's as if you are not in the middle of a big city but have suddenly come across the border of a deep and dark wood. The shadow has the same qualities, tones, and mood as a forest's shadow. The effect is unsettling; you lose your senses of place and time. And when you find them again, when you realize that you are standing in one of the most urban blocks in the state of Washington, you stabilize the effect (nature) and the reality (urban) as one. It is this result—this one—that is our city's idea of itself, its geography, and its virtues.