Thursday, August 18, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Tour of skyscrapers hits a lot of high points

Special to The Seattle Times

If you go

Seattle's tall tales


Seattle Architecture Foundation's "Concrete, Glass, Steel and Egos: Skyscrapers" tour of downtown Seattle is scheduled for 10 a.m. Saturday and again on Oct. 1. Tours begin at the Seattle Architecture Foundation office and gallery in the Rainier Square Atrium, 1333 Fifth Ave., third level. Tours cost $10 in advance or $12 day of the tour. Reservations are not required but recommended. Tickets available online or by phone up until the night before the tour. 206-667-9184 or

Other architecture tours

The Foundation sponsors a variety of "Discover Downtown" tours in coming weeks, including a look at ornate building facades, historic theaters, an art-deco tour and tours focusing on art and architecture. See www.seattlearchitecture .org.


"Ideas in Form: Architecture Model Exhibit": Through Sunday, get a peek into Seattle's architectural future. This juried exhibition features 80 creations — foam- and wood built-models as well as computer-generated 3-D models — representing major projects: the Olympic Sculpture Park; Seattle Art Museum downtown expansion/Washington Mutual tower; Seattle multi-modal ferry terminal; Woodland Park Zoo's interactive educational project and the Alaskan Way Viaduct replacement. Professional and student works are on display. Rainier Square Atrium, 1333 Fifth Ave, First Floor. Free.

Did you know that one of Seattle's skyscrapers served as a prototype for the late, great World Trade Center? Or how about the urban legend that says Seattle's tallest skyscraper has more attorneys in it than the entire nation of Japan?

These chatty little factoids come from the "Concrete, Glass, Steel and Egos: Skyscrapers" tour of downtown Seattle, led by the Seattle Architecture Foundation. It starts at a rooftop garden where, in one 360-degree turn, you take in examples of the city's architectural history, from the early 19th century to the 21st. Just as dramatically, the tour wraps up on the 73rd floor of Seattle's tallest, the Bank of America Tower, almost eye-level with passing airplanes. Experts lead the way in this walk at the feet of giants. Clarence Kwan, an architect with MulvannyG2 Architecture, and contractor Chris King, a senior project engineer with J.R. Abbott Construction, offer different but complementary perspectives.

On a recent skyscraper tour, first came a crash course in architectural theory. "As architects, we're taught that buildings are like the human body," Kwan said. "They have a skeleton, the structure and a skin, the building's covering. They have lungs — the ducts and vents." And there's another important factor: the human ego. For good or ill, many buildings bear the stamp of their creator's personality, vanity, sometimes hubris.

An evolution of style

The tour begins near Rainier Tower at Fifth Avenue and University Street, where Kwan introduces styles. To the south and west are examples of 19th-century design. "The Western or European tradition is that a building has a bottom, middle and top, with a typically ornate cornice at the top." He pointed to the Fairmont Olympic Hotel and the Cobb Building as models.

After World War II, "modernist" architects parted with tradition and considered buildings to be machines, said Kwan. "They were designed to have all the functional parts 'readable': The lungs, the skeleton, the skin. Ornamentations were considered dishonest and kitschy."

These skyscrapers tend toward those ubiquitous, anonymous towers with vertical steel ribs, but not all are without charm. The Rainier Tower seems to turn skyscraper theory on its head, literally. This sleek building balances on a slender, inverted base. "People wonder about this one — how does it stay up?" said Kwan. "It's like a wineglass. The stem is very thin while the bottom of the glass spreads out for stability. This building has a huge counter-weight underground, like the base of a wineglass."

Styles changed in the '80s when architects decided design didn't have to be boring, said Chris King. Thus began the post-modern era. "These buildings are more ornate. You see more color and elements of culture." The blue-tinged U.S. Bank Center at Fifth Avenue and Pike Street, with an Egyptian obelisk up top, reflects post-modern sensibilities.

What a building looks like depends heavily on the state of technology at the time. Just look at One Union Square, built eight years before its neighbor, Two Union Square, on Sixth Avenue and Union Street.

"When they built the first one in 1981, they didn't have the technology to do much." King said. "They tried to play with color and form, but they were pretty much stuck with a box."

This was before skyscrapers were built around a concrete core. "It's like a toilet paper roll," Kwan explained. "It offers both flexibility and strength."

How Seattle shapes up

Overall, Seattle hasn't done too badly with its skyline, said retired building engineer Eric Howell. Visiting Seattle from Wales, he's seen the best architecture the world has to offer and came on the tour to see how Seattle stacks up. "It's wonderful. There's a great impact here — the shapes are very innovative."

Not on the skyscraper tour but on his must-see list was the Space Needle. "Every city should have an iconic structure like that. You know you're in Seattle when you see it," said Howell. "Look at cities without them, like Houston. There's nothing there, and it's boring."

If not boring, then at least sedate describes the button-down IBM Building at Fifth Avenue and University Street, which has quite a pedigree. Minoru Yamasaki — who also created the Pacific Science Center buildings and arches, plus the Rainier Tower — worked out design elements on the IBM skyscraper he later used on one of his biggest projects: New York's World Trade Center. Once you know the history, you can see echoes of the twin towers on the IBM Building — arches and curves at the base followed by repeating vertical lines to the top, which are, as with the Trade Center, the structural skeleton of the building.

The Bank of America Tower, taking up Fourth and Fifth avenues between Columbia and Cherry streets, dominates Seattle's skyline. This, the tallest skyscraper west of Chicago, is made up of three towers and has 76 stories. This is the one said to have more lawyers than Japan.

On the 73rd floor is a vertiginous view of the city and Elliott Bay. South-facing windows look down upon what once was Seattle's tallest building, the genteel and graceful Smith Tower.

The contrast between old and new is dramatic. Yet time stops for no building, and even the soaring Bank of America is beginning to show its age: A window display has an arrow pointing to, as it says, the Kingdome — which was imploded in March 2000 to make way for two new stadiums.

Connie McDougall, a Seattle freelance writer, is a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company


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