A “Puget Sound” Style of Architecture? Here’s where it came from

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University Unitarian Church, Seattle (Image: Kyle Davis on Wikimedia)

If you doubt there truly is a “Puget Sound” style of architecture, a handsome new book will shed some light. The book also gives the reader a first-rate course on just how an extraordinary architect named Paul Hayden Kirk came to inspire many others to join him in giving the Northwest a unique and beautiful “modern” style. Two signatures of Kirk’s style: exposed structural elements and lots of wood inside and out. 

The new book, Paul Hayden Kirk and the Puget Sound School (Arcade, 2021), is written by a knowledgeable and venerable expert on that subject, architect and U.W. Professor (emeritus) Grant Hildebrand. His work takes readers on a tour of Kirk’s homes, churches, clinics, and meeting places constructed during the post-World War II era. Photographer-architect Andrew van Leeuwen is the valuable collaborator on this book.  They connect the dots to other, high-profile architects who were inspired by Kirk, including those who are busy designing much of Seattle’s modern built environment.  

Hildebrand is a prolific author, having done books on modern masters Louis Kahn and Frank Lloyd Wright and more recently on important local architects. He writes tactfully but with wit, pointing out how our corner of the world is continually overlooked by the big guns of architectural commentary. He recounts that in 1980, Philip Johnson, “dean of the architectural critics” of that day, visited Seattle for a professional meeting and “was ‘astonished’ at the ‘magnificent quality’ of the new architecture of whose existence he had been completely unaware.” 

A great deal of that quality was either Kirk’s work or that of his many acolytes, including Ralph Anderson, Fred Bassetti, Arne Bystrom, Bob Chervenak, Worth McClure, and Gene Zema. The group is formally designated by Hildebrand as first-generation “Puget Sound School” members. Examples of their work are also included in the book. 

 Woven through Hildebrand’s text is an account of the complex relationship between Kirk and his fellow U.W. architecture grad (two years earlier, 1935) Victor Steinbrueck, who instead of attempting to start a commercial practice returned from military service in World War II to join the U.W.’s architecture faculty.  Both men were members of the University Unitarian Church, and in 1954, the congregation asked Steinbrueck to design a new church building. Steinbrueck turned it down, citing his teaching commitments and lack of experience with larger projects, and suggested they work with Kirk. The building in Seattle’s Wedgewood neighborhood is one of Kirk’s most striking creations. 

A few years later, the two men collaborated on the cantilevered, steel-beamed, decisively Puget Sound modern U.W. Faculty Club. Hildebrand devotes a full chapter to this building, interjecting an ironic fact, given Steinbrueck’s eventual fame as the preservation champion of the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square. In order to make way for the Kirk-Steinbrueck structure, an historic building from the campus’s original 1909 AYP Exposition was demolished. It was the work of pioneer Seattle designer Ellsworth Storey who also was the architect of Steinbrueck’s much-beloved personal residence in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood.

Steinbrueck and Kirk parted ways completely in the late 1960s when Kirk’s firm was hired to create a design concept for the city’s plan to bulldoze the Pike Place Market, replacing it with brutalist high rises and parking garages. 

Hildebrand does not address this falling out, as his book’s focus is on what Kirk designed for a great variety of clients that inspired so many other creative builders. And you will learn a bit about Kirk the man -– his collegiality, end-of-the-week office parties with an open bar, and how he overcame physical disabilities caused by childhood polio, which left him virtually unable to use his right arm and hand, and, as he aged, made his walking increasingly difficult. 

For those of us who knew Kirk and many of his contemporaries, now passed into history, Hildebrand gives us a smile when he specifically calls out an attribute that he must consider unexpected, given what is often included in biographies of many famous architects: Kirk’s personal life contained “not the least tidbit of impropriety.” 

Hildebrand and the photos in the book demonstrate that much of the delight of Kirk’s dsigns is in the details. Many projects are modest and inexpensive buildings, yet they incorporate astounding custom wood craftsmanship and are surrounded by glorious landscapes created by an ensemble of talented landscape designers Kirk selected. They include Rich Haag, Garrett Eckbo, William Teufel, and perhaps most dramatically, the work of Fujitaro Kuboda at the Bloedel Reserve, the impressive garden now open to the public on Bainbridge Island, where Kirk designed a breathtaking guest house. This mixture of high craft and integrated landscape design sent our region on an entirely new and distinctive course for the built environment in the 1950s and ‘60s.

The book underscores the fact that national shelter magazines and critics were totally clueless about this emerging “Puget Sound School.” Hildebrand tartly sends a well-deserved Bronx cheer to the East Coast commentaria. 


Barbara Stenson Spaeth, a journalist, was fortunate to live for decades in a small, old, extensively remodeled Madrona house – a project co-designed by Paul Hayden Kirk and his friend and fellow architect John Duncan Spaeth.

Barbara Spaeth
Barbara Spaeth
Barbara Spaeth, who lives at Horizon House, has a long career in Seattle as a reporter and in public affairs.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Why do you on comment on the Hildebrand book “Paul Hayden Kirk and the Puget Sound school” and you don’t mention Kucera’s book “Paul Hayden Kirk and the rise of Northwest Modern.” Both were released this Fall, 2021. There must be a story there.

  2. Nice Review Barbara. I ordered the book. Paul was the first Architect I ever met as a professional. I joined SHA in 1970 and he had just finished Jefferson Terrace and Center Park. The latter was the first public housing building in the country, if not the first residential building anywhere designed especially for the needs of the physically disabled. The majority of the units were wheelchair accessible. Many of Paul’s ideas later ended up in the State guidelines for Accessible design which if memory serves me correctly were issued in the early 1970’s.

    • Re Center Park – I was a TV news reporter back in that day and did what was a “special feature” with Paul – an on-camera walk-thru together at Center Park to feature that ground-breaking (sorry about the construction allusion) project, with his explanations about the various key details, addressing disabilities. I am only sorry that was long before the days when one could videotape or otherwise record a live broadcast. He was a great gift to accessible architecture, absolutely. Barbara

  3. One aspect of the Northwest style is a humane modernism, one that is softer to the touch, more approachable on the ground, and with more use of warm wood. To me, the best “museum” for this approach, much influenced by Alvar Aalto, is the campus of Western Washington University and Aalto’s masterpiece of a library at Mount Angel in Oregon. I see Kirk at the more austere end of this spectrum.

  4. Not all of Kirk’s buildings are austere. Consider the Magnolia branch library. Or the astounding interior of the Blakeley Building. If you can get inside

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