In a town notorious for its softball architectural "critiques" (witness the Seattle Times, which never met a flashy mixed-use project it didn't praise to its rafters), a tough-talking critic is a welcome respite. And if that critic has a keen eye for a pointed turn of phrase--well, all the better.

So why did Sheri Olson, an award-winning critic and contributing editor for Architectural Record, leave the Seattle Post-Intelligencer after more than three years as the paper's sole architectural critic? Chalk it up to a biting critique, a disgruntled designer, and a newspaper that refused to ensure indemnity for a part-time freelance writer.

The flap over Olson started in mid-April, when the P-I ran her review of the brick apartment complex at 700 Broadway Avenue, which opened to decidedly mixed reviews earlier this year.

The article, by any measure, was a scathing indictment. It began: "The best thing that can be said about 700 Broadway is that it's better than an empty lot," a reference to the site's former occupant, an abandoned gas station. And it just got more derisive: "A prime example of how mediocre architecture can drain Seattle's vitality and saps our soul... a cacophony of shapes, details, and cheap materials... [a] debacle." The development, Olson proclaimed, "blindly mimics but does not grasp the lessons of the past.... It's squandered opportunities like this that erode everyday life."

The review was par for the course for Olson, widely known for her inventive pans of projects from the arch at the Convention Center ("the architectural equivalent of the medicine being worse than the malady") to the postmodernist office building at Fifth Avenue and Jackson Street ("Perhaps [the designers'] architectural journals got lost in the mail and were delivered 20 years too late") to the swath of condo developments that have sprung up in Belltown in recent years ("a dark moment in Seattle architecture"; "a clunky concrete behemoth unworthy of mere mortals"). But the review prompted a furious letter from Weber + Thompson, the architectural firm that designed the development, demanding a correction and obliquely threatening a lawsuit if the P-I did not redress the situation.

Oddly, though, given the scorn that Olson heaped so publicly on the building, Weber + Thompson didn't disagree with Olson's review so much as the implication that the firm had had the final say in the project's design. (In an e-mail to a city staffer in April, firm principal Blaine Weber wrote that he "actually agree[d] with much of [Olson's] analysis.") In their letter, the firm's three principals, Weber, Scott Thompson, and Kristen Scott, claimed that community and governmental interests had altered the project's final appearance.

In his April e-mail to the city staffer, Weber disavowed the building yet again, claiming that "most of the changes... have been out of our control." In its letter, the firm claimed that it had been removed from the project after construction began--a fact that remains in dispute, given that the firm displayed the project prominently on its website as recently as April, and posted its sign prominently on the site throughout construction. Weber + Thompson spokesperson Elizabeth Holland would not confirm or deny any details about the flap, saying only that the firm's "primary objection was that the article was erroneous and misleading."

P-I sources confirm that the firm's threat propelled the paper into action. At an April meeting between all three Weber + Thompson principals, Olson, and her editors, P-I sources say, the architects upbraided the paper for its characterization of the firm's involvement in 700 Broadway. In response, P-I sources say, P-I higher-ups offered the firm space on the paper's editorial page, but declined to print a retraction. So far, the firm has not taken the paper up on its offer, which would have required it to criticize a project with which it was associated.

With the threatened lawsuit still pending, sources familiar with the discussions say, Olson asked the P-I to guarantee that it would represent her should Weber + Thompson decide to sue. Higher-ups at the P-I refused to provide an ironclad written guarantee, according to sources at the paper. Some at the paper feel Olson's request was unreasonable; freelancers like Olson, they point out, enjoy fewer privileges than full-time staffers--who, in any case, rarely receive the kind of indemnity that Olson was demanding. For Olson, the threatened lawsuit was the final straw; since April, she hasn't written a single word for the paper, save for a long-scheduled overview of Seattle's "world-class structures," which ran in May.

There are those who feel that, as a critic, Olson tended to be excessively facile; her targets, like 700 Broadway and the Convention Center, were universally loathed and indisputably ugly. (No one I talked to would criticize Olson on the record.) But others felt Olson did a valuable service by providing biting critiques of buildings, like 700 Broadway, that average folks couldn't help but notice. John Pastier, a Seattle architectural critic who has been writing since the 1960s, calls 700 Broadway "a disappointing, quite mediocre building." It is, he says, "a building that I don't think any serious architect would attach any merit to." Those sorts of observations may be obvious to architects. But for the average Seattle citizen, a critical voice like Olson's is sorely needed in a city nearly devoid of architectural critique--even if it points out the obvious.

barnett@thestranger.com

Support The Stranger