The New Burke: Modernism With A Capital “M”


You’ve probably seen the walls along 15th Avenue NE, near the northwest corner of the UW, just when you were hoping to get a glimpse of the new Burke Museum.

That long box made of glass and steel and rough-looking wood was in your way. Maybe you thought it was just sturdy construction fencing, or a temporary warehouse to store collections while the tasteful Collegiate Gothic-style building you were expecting gets built—preferably on a new Northwest Quad crowning the old Campus. You might have thought the real project was actually around the corner. And to confirm, as of mid-October the landscape was muddy, like a construction site.

But suddenly last week it was opening time, and those walls, with their rough sticks on top, were not coming down. This is the new Burke. This is architecture, alright, serious design by famed architect Tom Kundig of Olson Kundig.

Perhaps you were expecting something more, well, monumental. Architects are artists at heart. Museum projects are coveted. For those reasons, the leading architects that get these commissions tend to make the buildings themselves expressive, like the most important and most durable acquisition in the collection. But this design team, led by Olson Kundig (Tom Kundig) and Gustafson Guthrie Nichol (Shannon Nichol) has been restrained, so careful to put the institution and its mission in the foreground that the building itself almost disappears. “It’s a warehouse,” says Kundig, proud of his signature industrial materials and muscular design.

But this is not a background location, you say. It’s not hidden away like the old Burke. The west wall of the new building stands like a billboard right at the west edge of the UW campus. What is it telling us? Not much, except that we are not just white people building fortresses and vaults and historicist monuments. Not anymore.

The new Burke is Modernism with a capital M. It’s also true that the Burke seems more like a university—a research and teaching institution—than a museum. The new building may be the first of its kind to bring visitors within inches of scientists working in very real laboratories. 

Image: Clair Enlow

Take a look in from the east side. It’s like sneaking to the back of a factory lab in mid-shift—except this one has glass walls, lots of familiar giant animal bones and taxidermy as well as new fur and color. The tall interior spaces and the sky beyond can be clearly seen even before entering the museum. During the opening of the new Burke this month, the piercing beats of live ceremonial drumming filled the air while bat skins got analyzed behind soundproof glass walls. There are interactive exhibits of weaving and basketry, and they seem to be irresistible to taller kids.

It gets better when you look up. The main corridor and stairs are open, like a multi-level city street. In the large, bright labs, off-the-shelf vent pipes called snorkels (sporting black paint) snake around and above the tables and equipment and the newly arrived specimens, ready to serve where needed.

Image: Clair Enlow

Up on the top floor is the most popular lab, where recently deceased animals of interest are dissected. When I visited, one of the vents was pulled over to accommodate a lab technician unzipping a bag. There was joy among the smaller visitors. The secrets of the Burke are in the open, if you look around and wait. People in white coats are heads-down at work, as if they’re truly not aware what all the fuss is about. 

Recent decades have not been easy,and a natural history museum can easily touch off long controversies. Remember Kennewick Man, the paleolithic skeleton that brought great excitement in science and rage among local tribes? It was held for a time at the Burke. The Ancient One, as the remains are now known, were repatriated to his tribe for burial in 2016. 

Registrar Hollye Keister remembers how for years she struggled to protect precious collections, including ancient drumheads and other skins that could develop cracks in the wrong atmosphere. Now the Burke showcases intensive new systems for ventilation, climate control, and security.  

There are no stone arches or lawns back there where the old Burke was, but some ghosts remain. Recall the boiserie, that historic salon reconstructed as a cozy tearoom in the old museum, beloved of preservationists? Gone. But selected wall panels from the tearoom hang, as if on exhibit, in a multi-purpose corner of the new Burke Museum. 

We’ve moved on. Or at least stepped aside. Landscape architect Shannon Nichol described a planned succession in the landscape of the northwest corner of the UW campus, the home of the Burke. It points to a future that balances serious research with exhibits, respect for indigenous cultures, and leading-edge sustainable design.

Image: Clair Enlow

At first, the blocky older building was left intact while the skinny new one was built alongside it, along 15th Avenue NE.  This allowed continuous operation plus flexibility in moving collections and operations. The footprint of the old Burke is now a large, square expanse of pavement right beside the new Burke. On that square, temporary structures can be set up for festivities like the opening.

The majority of visitors now enter from the campus side on a wide promenade with lots of bike racks. They approach with the paved square on their right and a series of concrete amphitheater steps (still under construction) on their left, overlooking a planned camas meadow. Camas bulbs were a mainstay of Native diet. The new landscape will be completed later this fall when the plants are mature.  

And in a few years, with the coming of Sound Transit’s U District Station a few blocks west, most visitors are expected to enter through a second grand entrance to the museum, on the lower level, from 15th Avenue NE.

By then, the Madrone forest will be blending with existing old growth trees around the edges of the site. And the paved square? It’s sized to be a quadrant in the tradition of the UW. Keep watching. Eventually a pattern of an old Collegiate “X” walkway may in the meadow and the Madrone forest of the future. There are many surprises to be found in this complex design, and in years to come. 

Top image: Burke Museum

Clair Enlow
Clair Enlow
Clair Enlow is a freelance journalist writing about architecture, planning and history. She’s a Loeb Fellow and an honorary member of AIASeattle.


  1. Interesting footnote: years ago, the Burke looked seriously at moving downtown, thus escaping the trap of its awkward old building. (The staff nixed the idea.) It might have been possible since the Burke actually is a state facility, not a UW operation. Downtown might have made it easier to attract visitors and donors. Ah, but where could they have gone???

  2. I think the answer is nowhere right now. But the new Burke sets an important example for visibility and sunlight for knowledge work. What would it be like to walk around in SLU or The Hutch, for instance, and see the real people and equipment right there, behind sound-proof glass?


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