CAE Seattle Day 2 Part 2 - Thinking Civic

By Michael W. Weller posted 10-11-2012 00:53


I ended my last blog entry with the group of CAE’s Fall Conference-goers wrapping up our second tour of the day (Marysville-Getchell High School) and loading into the bus to head to the third of our four tours scheduled for day 2.

After a quick lunch on the bus we reached Machias Elementary, a school by NAC Architecture that was completed in late 2010. I was familiar with the project from its participation (and recognition) in the 2012 AIA Seattle What Makes it Green? Awards, and I was curious to see it in person. With a wide array of green strategies sustainable design was clearly a major part of the project, but during our visit I was struck by other strengths—the school’s civic presence, as well as its architectural interaction with the surrounding community. As it turns out, this would be a recurring theme during the afternoon portion of the conference.

The group explores the landscape around Machias' signature curved south facade.

In Machias’ case, massing and site plan combine to make a school that is welcoming and feels part of the human and natural landscape. By pressing much of the parking to the side of the building and moving a large play field to the front, the building repeats the rural vocabulary of a road transitioning through field to farmhouse. The curving wall of the main hall is the most visible mass as one approaches, and while on one hand it is a naturalistic stream of circulation for the students, its material and sloping wall bring to mind a large barn that is slowly sinking back into the landscape. So while environmentally sustainable, Machias’ contribution to the community is an equally important part of the design.

The sunny library at Machias, which mediates between the public face of the school and the classroom wings.

From Machias we loaded back up into the bus for one last stop before dinner. Our destination was Brightwater Center and Water Treatment Facility, part of a huge water infrastructure project that was a political topic in Seattle long before I moved here a decade ago. After years of negotiations and tunnel boring the treatment facility and center opened in 2011. The project was a collaboration of many parties, including Mithun (several of whom were there to discuss the project), CH2M Hill, Brown and Caldwell, Hargreaves Associates and Streeter and Associates.

Before touring the center we had two presentations, both taking place in Brightwater’s striking interpretive center. The first session was a panel on the project, and in particular its role as a communal good. First Tracy Tackett from the City of Seattle’s Green Stormwater Infrastructure Program introduced us to some of the themes of stormwater management that are so important to the Puget Sound, and how she is best able to make projects happen that produce multiple benefits. Tracy was followed by Michael Popiwny, who oversaw most of Brightwater’s planning process for King County. After more than a decade on the project he was amazingly knowledgeable about every aspect we could think of, but much of his presentation centered on how this facility had been generated through a lengthy and often contentious public process. The third presenter, Marie Hartford, was one of those public stakeholders, and her presentation was a highlight. She is an elementary school teacher who has won numerous awards, and in the case of Brightwater she and her collaborators lobbied that Brightwater should not be designed as an infrastructure project, but rather as “a community learning center that happens to treat water”. As we would soon see, this ethos became a guiding principle for the project’s design.

Before our tour we had one last presentation—from the Friends of the Cedar River Watershed. This organization supports a team of high school students in preparing an annual report on the watershed, an area that covers much of the Seattle metropolitan area. Two of the students shared their research with us and the methods they use to share that research, which include digital methods such as the web as well as old-fashioned “meatspace” methods such as local stakeholder meetings. Their engagement with the subject and the fluency with which the students moved between digital space and real life was impressive, and reminded me of the many reasons we have to feel optimistic about the future, as well as how much work we have to do just to keep up with youth.

The interpretive center (center) and classrooms (left) as seen from the Brightwater parking lot.

After meeting the students we set off on our last tour of the day, which was a 2-part tour that covered both the water treatment portion of the project (part 1 for my group) and the educational buildings and landscape (part 2). This blog is getting long, so I’ll make only one observation about this large and very impressive project. While the scale and technical components were notworthy, it was the theme of learning and how it can be supported through design, that came up repeatedly. Mithun used comprehensibility as an organizing principle for the site layout—by using a linear layout visitors quickly understand “dirty water comes in here, these steps happen as it moves across the site, and when it leaves at the other end it is clean.” Clarifying these relationships guided the massing and detailing of the structures, as well. The site restoration was also guided by a framework of learning—trails lead between cleared areas of varying size that accommodate a range of group sizes and different activities. The visitor buildings are also designed as teaching tools as well as teaching spaces.

This covered entry is inviting, but the staff outdoor educator mentioned that it also serves as a welcome outdoor learning space on rainy days. An award-winning piece of art anchors the corner and invites visitors in.

With the tour of Brightwater I connected the dots between all of our afternoon visits—we are selling education design short if we think it means only K-12 and High Ed. The elements that inspire me about education—learning, exploration, an undertaking shared between a group of dissimilar individuals—lead to principles that can and should shape much more in our public realm than only school buildings. While I often hear designers considering how the public sphere might be incorporated into a school building, today’s tours reminded me that we must also ask how educational principles of comprehension and shared understanding can be incorporated into all of our other project types.

As we enjoyed our dinner that night at the Novelty Hill Januik winery (another beautiful project by Mithun) we had one last reminder of how education and civic action can work together. Walter Schacht, a past president of AIA Seattle, spoke about how our local AIA recently decided to speak up during the city’s protracted debate on the future of Seattle’s waterfront. Walter was surprised and pleased to find that the reception he and other architects received was typically warm—city leaders looked to architects as experts who could and should contribute to the debate. It was a good reminder that while we work to shape space every day during work hours, the AIA can also be a platform where we can shape the public debate through advocacy as well. Day two of the CAE Seattle conference certainly provided many examples of how we can and should engage in improving the public realm both through design and beyond.