20 Years Later, The “Seattle Box” Has Reinvented


When my wife, two kids and I moved to Seattle in 1985, we bought a “Seattle Box” in Roanoke Park near the University of Washington, where I had accepted the position of Architecture Chair. It was a classic exemplar in my new-to-the-PacNW opinion, with traditional subdued colors and handsome Craftsman-Style details: 

Fourteen years later in 1999, with my wife and Seattle native Kathleen Nolan I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to be Dean of the University of Michigan’s College of Architecture. Recently returned to Seattle, I am struck by what seems to me as the next incarnation of the Seattle Box.

This project in Madrona by architect Susan Jones (who teaches architecture at UW) is a refined and elegant block of a half dozen townhouses, aka live-work units. (At least one of the live-work units is 100 percent office, which seems to work just  as well.) The detailing is as careful as the Roanoke house, although in new materials, such as crisp metal panels and windows. The strong colors, so atypical of Seattle residential architecture, are particularly striking, although less saturated colors generally do look better in cloudy climates.

Biking around Seattle to re-engage a city that I had not lived in for 21 years, I was intrigued and positively impressed with the quality of speculative housing projects. They exhibit rich texture and articulation, with colors often vivid by historical standards. The large windows are beckoning, as well as conducive to generous daylighting in a climate that needs all the direct and indirect sunlight it can get. Some examples:

Projects like these three-story townhouses above, and four-story condo or rental units below, are ubiquitous in virtually every neighborhood. The level of detailing and façade composition is remarkably high for “spec” housing compared to other cities in America. There is a refreshing freshness to their ambience.

This taller building is typical of housing over retail or office. It’s often referred to as a 1+4 or, in this case a 1+5 structural system. The first floor (sometimes 2 floors) must be of fireproof construction, almost always reinforced concrete, which has been left exposed in the Madrona project by Susan Jones. The upper 3-5 stories of apartments or condos are built of wood-stud construction.

The below block of four townhouses or live-works, on Martin Luther King Way in the Central District, is less convincingly composed, with its too-obvious symmetry. It simply doesn’t have the design quality or subtlety of the other projects.

Shifting the focus to the UW Campus, I find most of the new buildings also architecturally exemplary. They are rich with textures, colors, and details, as higher construction budgets than residential buildings allow. The Foege Bioengineering Lab on the southern edge of the campus (below), was funded by the Gates Foundation and the architect was Los Angeles-based CO Architects. The window screening on the left adds visual interest, as do the horizontal ceramic louvers on the taller “headhouse” that faces the street.

The quality of design and materials in recent UW buildings is appropriate to the famous Olmsted campus plan and to a world-class university. The campus’s overall design is as good as any in the country, if not the world. A large glazed box, the new Life Sciences Building, also largely funded by the Gates Foundation, was designed by nationally-known Perkins & Will. The LEED-Gold award lab and greenhouse was named “2018 Building of the Year” by Seattle’s Daily Journal of Commerce. Recently reviewed for Post Alley, it’s as handsome as any lab I’ve seen on any campus.

In conclusion, both these multi-family residential and institutional buildings – especially their articulated, screened, and increasingly colorful facades – are well designed. Seattle’s contemporary architecture is expressive of the region’s wealth and befits the extraordinary natural setting. It’s an architectural pleasure to be back in town!

Doug Kelbaugh
Doug Kelbaugh
Doug Kelbaugh is Dean Emeritus of the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning, a position he assumed after serving as Architecture Chair at the University of Washington from 1985-93. He recently moved back to Seattle.


  1. Buildings like Susan Jones’s award-winning mid-rise don’t just happen, even if the zoning envelope allows them (which it should). Some buildings of this scale are indeed intrusive and overbearing, just as neighborhood activists complain. It’s too bad we don’t have the language to make the distinction, because then we could make it illegal to build crappy buildings of any scale, residential or commercial. Instead, responsible designers like Jones have to rely on the sensibilities and money of owners and clients.


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