East vs West: Dear Seattle, I don’t like your buildings

A few years ago, a coworker and I found common ground in photography, and talked about it a number of times. He would do things like get up very early and use his huge telephoto lens to take beautiful pictures of birds at sunrise. One thing he said really struck me was this – he said he didn’t like taking pictures of buildings or looking at pictures of buildings. He said they were boring. Pictures of animals or flowers or other organic things were much more interesting to him. In that moment, I realized something. I loved architecture, and pictures of architecture.

I should have known that architecture was one of my great loves. Wherever I go, one of the first things I look at is architecture. I scan the houses or buildings or highrises and look for telltale signs of what style a building is, which will tell me around what year it was built. Then I file that information away. I have favorite building styles and periods, and of course have negative opinions of some architecture. For example, I don’t particulary enjoy brutalist, but I don’t dislike brutalist buildings nearly as much as I hate Jetsons style Googie. Something about Googie just ugh gets to me. On the flip side, 1880-1920 brick buildings are almost always beautiful and wonderful, in my eye.

So, with that background, you might start to understand why I have found much of Seattle to be somewhat less than pleasing. I grew up in Hudson, MA. The town was founded in 1866, and the wooden downtown buildings burned down in a large tragic mistake around 1900. The downtown was rebuilt at that time, and most of the downtown buildings have dates like 1905 or 1908 stamped on them. I also often took trips into Boston, a city filled with beautiful brick buildings.

Seattle, on the other hand, really started to boom and have character (as more than just than a shipping port or a gateway to Alaska gold) around the 1950s and 60s. The 1962 World’s Fair here was a large coming of age for the city. So, as such, a large section of town was built during that period, and I dislike almost all of it. It’s not something against Seattle or the people of Seattle. It’s just tragic happenstance. (I do very much love the 1800s brick filled Pioneer Square, however).

This issue has been exacerbated by Seattle’s current building boom. Seattle is making room for all the new tech jobs and tech workers by tearing down old unused buildings. Many of those old unused buildings are the ones I hate – so you think this would be a good thing, right? The problem is the that people all complain about these buildings being torn down. They say they’re important history and need to be preserved.

In my mind, I laugh at them. The 1960s? History? How about Boston in the 1600s – now that’s history! But this is incredibly rude of me. These people grew up with these buildings, just like I grew up with mine. The buildings being torn down are symbols of their youth, of the city as they knew it. If Boston were to threaten to tear down the New England Telephone building at 185 Franklin, I would be apoplectic. (That building is Art Deco. My love for brick buildings is surpassed only by my adoration of Deco).

So, when people ask me if I like it here in Seattle, it’s hard to give a quick answer, because in my head the first thing I think of is architecture. Maybe normal people first think of the people or the food or a million other things that are most likely more important than the architecture. But not me. I recall the leaning with age beautiful brick buildings shadowing small cobblestone alleys in Boston, and my heart soars. And then I think of the mostly soulless downtown Seattle. And it becomes hard to answer coherently. I do like it here. I really do. I just…don’t like most of the architecture here.


A typical building in downtown Hudson, MA. (photo taken by my brother)

A typical building in downtown Hudson, MA. (photo taken by my brother)

Update: I have written a Part II, which has lots of photo examples to better illustrate what I am talking about. Read it here.