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Sunday, January 14, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Northwest Living

Nature In Architecture -- Seattle Buildings Wear Waves Of Creature Profiles

Take a look at Seattle's pre-Depression buildings. Between the roof and mortar are animals, trees, flowers and water.

It may seem strange that the buildings of a modern-day industrial and commercial city should be defined by such nontechnical, even pastoral, images. But Seattle's architects and designers were influenced by the region's spectacular setting of mountains, water and forest. And like their counterparts throughout America, they also borrowed concepts about ornament and decoration from ancient and early modern cultures, nearly all of which found their source materials in nature.

Plants, flowers, animals and bodies of water have been interpreted symbolically, morally and literally; they have been depicted ``conventionally'' and ``realistically'' in the architecture and decoration of each culture.

In ancient Egypt, lotus flowers and papyrus grasses symbolized fertility and sustenance tied to the yearly flowing of the Nile River; they figure prominently in the wall paintings and reliefs of tombs and temples. The marble columns and capitals of Greece and Rome represented the arbors of trees and the garlands of leaves, flowers and fruit that decorated the earliest temples and sacrificial alters. Wave motifs recalling the sea and rivers formed moldings for ancient temples. Sometimes their use symbolized the passing of the soul into the afterlife.

These and other pagan images were adapted to Christian purposes. Medieval artists carved rich combinations of leaves, flowers, birds, beasts and human beings on the stone capitals of cloisters throughout Western Europe. Christian iconography used water motifs, such as wavy parallel lines, to represent the four Rivers of Paradise. Water was symbolic of cleansing and purification, and the fish became the symbol of Christ.

Italian Renaissance artists - Raphael and Michelangelo among them - adapted the classical vocabulary of nature in decoration of the Vatican and many private palaces and villas. They used a rich tapestry of scrolls, vines, flowers, fountains, Cupids and grotesques inspired by the wall paintings at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Most of these images were purely decorative devices, having lost their original symbolic or mythological meaning.

The political, social and industrial changes that occurred in Europe from the late 18th through the 19th centuries inspired the Realistic, Romantic and Impressionistic visual vocabulary used by artists and craftspeople well into the 20th century.

American architects and designers came under the influence of these diverse Classical and Romantic traditions through their education, travels and reading. The ornamental vocabularies that had been passed down from one culture to another filtered into American cities as they expanded at the turn of the century, each new edifice paying homage to classical Greek or Roman, Medieval Gothic and Romanesque, or Italian, French and English Renaissance prototypes. The Art Nouveau and modernistic (Art Deco) movements of the first quarter of the 20th century also strongly influenced the design of buildings, interiors and furnishings.

In Seattle, the ornamentation of most pre-1930 buildings reveals a rich vocabulary reflecting these European roots. There also are several buildings in which the city's physical attributes - its locale surrounded by bodies of water and evergreen forest - are depicted and praised. Take some time to look with an eye to discovery and you will find a joyful world of natural phenomena on the buildings in and around downtown Seattle.

Wave frieze, Joshua Green

Building, Fourth Avenue

and Pike Street

This classical wave molding sits just above the first-floor retail part of the building. The facade and all its ornamentation are made of glazed terra cotta.

Dolphins, 2523 First Avenue

Architect B. Marcus Pretica, Seattle's best-known theater architect, designed this building with an elaborate terra-cotta facade featuring entwined dolphins. They provide a clue to the original use of the building as a natatorium (indoor swimming pool).

Gold map, back lobby of Seattle Tower,

Third Avenue and University Street

Seattle's trade advantages over other West Coast ports were heavily promoted from the time of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition onward. This relief map in the lobby of the Northern Life Tower, completed in 1928 by Albertson, Richardson and Wilson, visually expresses the city's role as the Gateway to the Pacific Rim. A great steamship, probably one of James J. Hill's, leaves Seattle (symbolized by the Northern Life Tower) for Asia. Los Angeles, also a thriving port, is pointedly symbolized by a Spanish Colonial mission rather than a skyscraper.

Waterfall, Third floor, Washington Athletic

Club, Union at Sixth Avenue

Two evocative sculptural pieces frame the swimming pool windows of the Washington Athletic Club, completed in 1930 to a design by Sherwood Ford that combines classical and modernistic elements. The Cubist figures of male and female nudes lounge on either side of a stylized waterfall.

Copper awning, Bon Marche, Third and

Fourth avenues and Pine Street

Perhaps the richest example of marine life on a Seattle building is the handsome copper awning surrounding the downtown Bon Marche, designed by John Graham Sr. and completed in 1930. Sea horses, fish, scallops, shells and seaweed form the composition.

Fern and flower frieze, Pacific First

Federal, Fourth Avenue and Union Street

R.C. Reamer's designs in 1928 for the modernistic building featured a symmetric arrangement of ferns and sunflowers against a chevron background.

Second Avenue Facade, J.C. Penney

Building, Second Avenue and Pike Street

John Graham Sr. designed the Fraser-Patteson Department Store (later J.C. Penney) in 1930 with the natural wonders of the Northwest in mind. The facade expresses vertically the ground cover, streams and rivers; a horizontal frieze suggests the shores of Puget Sound and the evergreen forests; crowning the tops of pilasters and the parapet of the building are eagles with outspread wings. Sadly, this evocative and original depiction of the Northwest - and, in fact, the entire building - was recently demolished.

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LAWRENCE KREISMAN IS A LECTURER IN THE DEPARTMENT OF URBAN DESIGN AND PLANNING AT THE UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF ``ART DECO SEATTLE,'' ``HISTORIC PRESERVATION IN SEATTLE'' AND ``THE BLOEDEL RESERVE: GARDENS IN THE FOREST.''

CUTLINE: WALRUSES, ARCTIC CLUB, THIRD AVENUE AND CHERRY STREET RIGHT - NO DOUBT THE MOST FAMILIAR OF THE SEA LIFE IMAGES IN AND AROUND SEATTLE ARE THE WALRUSES THAT HAVE LIVED ON THE FACADE OF A. WARREN GOULD'S ARCTIC CLUB BUILDING SINCE 1916. THEY WERE A CONSTANT REMINDER TO THE MEN OF THE EXCLUSIVE ARCTIC CLUB OF THEIR BUSINESS SUCCESSES FROM THE YUKON GOLD RUSH.

CUTLINE: EAST FRIEZE, CHAMBER OF COMMERCE, 215 COLUMBIA ST.: THIS PANEL BY ARTIST MORGAN PADELFORD FRONTS THE SEATTLE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE BUILDING DESIGNED IN 1923-24 BY HARLAN THOMAS. IT MERGES A NORTHERN ITALIAN ROMANESQUE ARCADE WITH SCENES OF NORTHWEST COAST INDIANS WHO HUNTED AND FISHED ALONG THE WATERWAYS OF PUGET SOUND.

CUTLINE: PEDIMENT, CHAMBER OF COMMERCE, 215 COLUMBIA ST.: AT THE PEDIMENT IS A WONDERFUL REGIONAL FRIEZE DEPICTING ANIMALS, BIRDS AND FISH FOUND IN THE NORTHWEST.

CUTLINE: CARVED STONE ENTRANCE, MAYNARD BUILDING, FIRST AVENUE SOUTH AND SOUTH WASHINGTON STREET: THE RICH CURVILINEAR SHAPES AND TEXTURAL QUALITIES OF LEAVES, VINES AND FLOWERS ARE EXQUISITELY EXECUTED ON THE ROMANESQUE-STYLE STONE ENTRANCE PORTAL OF THE BUILDING, WHICH WAS COMPLETED IN 1892.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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