We keep hearing times are hard for commercial real estate in Seattle. There's too much space and not enough business happening. Some towers downtown are practically empty. Officespace.com has the new 36-story Eighth Avenue Office Tower at 85 percent empty. The same site also reports that the nearby West 8th, a 28-story tower, is 70 percent empty. The website for West 8th claims that three floors at its top and bottom are filled, but on a walk down through that part of town at dusk, all I saw was the light of the sinking sun passing through nothing but beautiful glass and space. Indeed, that area of the city, guarded by the boxy police station on Virginia Street, feels like a futuristic ghost town.
Officespace.com ("Where Corporate America Finds Real Estate") also reports that the most distinguished and powerful-looking tower (76 stories, nearly 1,000 feet, 8,816 black windows) in the whole region (Oregon to Alaska, Washington to the Dakotas), the Columbia Center (which was previously called Bank of America Tower, and before that the Columbia Seafirst Center, and before that it had its current name), is around 40 percent empty. And the bad news does not end there. In March, the present owners of the Columbia Center tower, a Boston-based group called the Beacon Capital Partners, decided not to fork over its $1.6 million mortgage payment. This rattled not only downtown Seattle but the whole commercial real-estate market. "Beacon Capital's Seattle tower troubles spill over nationally," reported the Banker & Tradesman on June 25. "The number of troubled commercial real estate loans is headed up again. Unfortunately, Boston-based Beacon Capital is playing a big part in the latest increase."
All the trouble began in 2007, the year the future refused to reveal anything to developers and financiers but a golden escalator to a brilliant cloud of profits. Beacon Capital bought the building for an astounding 621 million bucks—more than triple what it cost developer Martin Selig to build the tower two decades before. The purchase was a part of the group's money-mad, frenzied, intoxicated spending spree of glamorous office properties in Seattle and Bellevue. The region had never seen anything like it. Millions upon millions were poured into amazed pockets.
Looking back, we now wonder how in the world anyone (and particularly those in the business of making loads of money) had such blind faith in an economy that was to crash only the following year. How could these professionals miss the signs? These same men and women bought the Columbia Center with the complete belief that today, in 2010, there would be even more money to be made than in 2007, the year the stock market passed the dizzying 14,000 mark. A year after the economy collapsed, the mighty Columbia Center has instead lost roughly 40 percent of its value, and the income from the building is now "less than [is] needed to service its debt" (Puget Sound Business Journal, March 24).
Faced with these hard losses, the group decided to do something that Fannie Mae warns homeowners to never do: "strategic default"—stop paying until the loaner decides to make a "meaningful loan modification" (Seattle Times, April 21). Big companies can do this with no compunction, while little people are threatened with fines if they dare take that path: "Defaulting borrowers who walk away and had the capacity to pay or did not complete a workout alternative in good faith will be ineligible for a new Fannie Mae–backed mortgage loan for a period of seven years from the date of foreclosure" (according to a Fannie news release, June 23).
The mighty building is not making nearly enough money, and it's getting more and more empty (Amazon.com moves out next year and relocates in Paul Allen Town). The vultures are circling, the forecast gloomy, the speculations dark. In fact, when I called the Columbia Center's PR people to arrange a visit, I received this depressing e-mail: "Charles – Thank you for your interest in Columbia Center. We respectfully decline any PR visit to our office for a piece in The Stranger." To them, I was another vulture waiting to pick at the corpse of their client's big investment.
But just because those happy days are done and gone does not mean that we have to forget the greatness of the tower. Now is precisely the best time to celebrate the strength and beauty of the tallest man-made structure in our region. Let the money people worry and fret about all they are losing; their misery will not hamper or cloud the joy this building gives us daily. The radiant tower is for all of us radiant people.
My mother was buried in a cemetery in hills beyond Renton—coffin lowered into a dark hole, dirt thrown onto the coffin, people dressed in black, final words about how every life on earth will end ("ashes to ashes, dust to dust"), the crying aunts, the somber uncles, the immediate family dazed and failing to grasp the hard fact of the loss, the fact that their only mother was gone, was actually and irreversibly dead, a human who was now no more than a stone to us, a thing that could not speak, touch, or kiss. As we walked away from the Mexican grave-diggers—they (the muscles of America) appeared right after the ceremony and began filling the hole with earth, shovel by shovel, covering a woman whose body had been ravaged by a disease that never once relieved her of pain—and approached the cemetery's gate, there it appeared in the distance: the top part of the Columbia Center.
Years before the funeral, it was visible in the window of an apartment near the Ave in the University District. The window also viewed a stream of soundless planes heading to Sea-Tac. Indeed, the Columbia Center was designed to stand 1,005 feet, but the Federal Aviation Administration shortened it to 936 feet because of this flight path in the room's window. (It's also rumored that the building was on the 9/11 hit list.) The window dominated a tiny bedroom that was almost entirely filled by a tiny bed, which I was sharing with a woman for the weekend. We were house-sitting, and we rarely left the thick blanket, and even more rarely wore any clothes, but we were not having sex because it happened to be the time of her period and she refused to do anything with blood. And so we just kissed and caressed and slept under the window with the view of the Columbia Center.
At another time, I walked from a ferry and down a long simple road on Vashon Island and entered the yard of a home that was hosting a party for the Fourth of July, and I saw the very top of the tower. I had never seen it from that far before and was amazed how it was able to overwhelm all of that space and natural geography between us. And because my mother was dead at that time (it was the summer of 2004, she died in the fall of 2003), I also thought it was wonderful how the building connected me to her grave in the Renton cemetery. It was then I finally understood why my mother, a proud Marangwanda, did not want to be buried with her ancestors in Watsomba, a village in Zimbabwe—she wanted to be as present as possible to those who were closest to her, her children. The tower cannot be seen from the hills of Watsomba.
All around the party, there was loud music, lots of boozing in the garden, and the explosions of fancy lights. And the whole island was alive with whistling rockets, bright bursts, and the drifting smoke of spent fireworks. The tower stood there in the distance, so calm and strong. It was a core in the turning city, a core with spokes: events and gatherings, rooms and windows, life and death.
"It's terrible. A flat-out symbol of greed and egoism. It's probably the most obscene erection of ego edifice on the Pacific Coast." This is what Victor Steinbrueck, the civic leader and codesigner of the Space Needle, said about the Columbia Center. He died two weeks before the doors of the tower officially opened on March 2, 1985. Steinbrueck's criticism was quickly translated into political action, the Citizens' Alternative Plan (CAP). And in 1989, the organization of angry Seattleites successfully passed an ordinance that made it impossible for another "obscene erection" to appear in the central business district.
The restrictions were removed in 2006, but not without distress, despair, and even outrage from that dying segment of citizens who still believe that the actual soul of Seattle is not about growth and density. "New York is where we're headed, [the founders of Seattle] declared. They immediately set about the job of constructing cedar hovels out of the damp, dense forest that crowded the shoreline, fueled by the mad vision of creating a new Manhattan. That madness has been embraced by Mayor Greg Nickels and his minions," thundered Knute Berger in 2005 from the hole of his column in the Seattle Weekly. He wasted no time in keeping Steinbrueck's spirit alive and well in the 21st century: "The Columbia Tower rose as a much-detested symbol of Reagan-era excess, a building that looks as if Darth Vader is flipping Puget Sound country the bird." And what did Berger want instead of Manhattan? Copenhagen. "[It] is a dense Seattle-size city—with only one modest high-rise (19 stories)."
These feelings about the obsceneness of tall buildings refuse to die. In 2009, the former architecture critic for the Seattle Post- Intelligencer, Lawrence Cheek, opened his article on the then-decelerating Manhattanization of Seattle, headlined "Four New High-Rises Stroke Civic Egos," by mentioning none other than mad philosopher Nietzsche. For Nietzsche, Cheek wrote, "architecture is the expression of human pride, our triumph over gravity, and the 'oratory of power.'" Though the article is generally favorable to several of the new and now mostly empty towers in the central business district, mentioning Nietzsche in the very first paragraph of a story about skyscrapers was to associate them with the visions of Nazism, the will to power, the triumph of the will, the superman and his super erection.
Which brings me to the meat of this: The architecture of tall buildings consistently all comes down to a direct translation of the exceptionally large human intromittent organ. The penis. The cock in an erect state, ready to fuck, to be grasped, sucked, and satisfied. What is the Columbia Center for Berger and his spiritual father, Steinbrueck, and the members and descendents of CAP? The triumph of the penis. This is why it's so easily called obscene, arrogant, and un-Seattle. For them and many others, Manhattanization is the flourishing of monuments to ready-to-fuck-right-now human cocks. This is the theme of criticism waged at tall buildings: It equates the towers of corporate power with power of the male libido. To love the Columbia Center, then, is to directly or indirectly associate yourself with this form of sexual power that is repressed in the boardrooms of Safeco and Bank of America but released into a skyline that's on the verge of a hundred ejaculations.
This common reading obscures or mutes a completely different and more useful understanding of skyscrapers. A building like the Columbia Center can easily be seen as having little or nothing to do with the will of the cock, the power of erections, the explosion of spunk and more, and everything to do with the prehistoric footprints that were discovered by Mary Leakey in Tanzania: "Preserved in volcanic ash, the footprints of an adult hominid are coupled with those of a child following in his footsteps! Some 3.5 million years ago, both were heading north, walking across the ash of a nearby volcano. Their traces vanish further, covered in the scoria of other eruptions" (www.hominides .com). Why did the science world go nuts over this discovery? Because it showed that humanlike animals, our possible ancestors, were bipedal. And anyone who studies anthropology or human behavioral ecology knows that the four main obsessions of those fields are finding the moments when the brain expanded, our jaws became smaller, child rearing became long and extensive, and bipedalism was established. These are believed to be the key features in the development of humans who now build cities like Manhattan and Seattle.
So, instead of seeing penises everywhere, what we should see in tall buildings is the majesty of bipedalism, the slenderness and beauty of walking on two feet and not being locked to the ground, all of our limbs imprisoned by the needs of locomotion. Indeed, Fifth & Columbia, the skyscraper that was going to stand next to the Columbia Center but isn't any longer—it missed by mere minutes the madness of the boom and is now in abeyance—was described by its developers and designers, Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects, as "inspired by classical figures such as Michelangelo's David and the Venus de Milo."
A skyline, Manhattan's or Seattle's, is not a bed of ready-to-explode cocks, but a crowd of bipedal people. And seen in this light, the Columbia Center is the boldest, tallest, strongest expression of this defining feature of the human animal. In this way, what we see from a distance—what we see as we cross Lake Washington on I-90, what we see as we drive down a northern stretch of Aurora Avenue, what connects us all—is not an "obscene erection," but a human that has its head in the sky.