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Architectural Exhibit to Investigate Relationship Between Death, Memory and Design in the Built Environment

Seattle, Robert Hutchison Architecture,
Elevation and plan drawing for Carillon Tower. Drawing by Robert Hutchison Architecture

By Jack Stubbs

In the current era of intensive development and densification occurring throughout Seattle and the greater Puget Sound region, architects—and the profession of which they are a part—are often primarily thought of as the designers of buildings that coordinate along with city planners, developers and the city’s design review process to advance commercial and residential projects from their initial conception to completion.

However, an upcoming exhibit designed by Seattle-based Robert Hutchison Architecture, “Memory Houses: Nine Allegorical Works of Architecture,” which will be shown at the Gallery4Culture in the historic Pioneer Square neighborhood in Seattle—at 101 Prefontaine Place South—starting in early May 2018, is set to demonstrate that architects are increasingly thinking about their profession from different perspectives.

“Memory Houses,” which will run from May 3rd to May 31st, 2018, investigates the topics of death, memory and mortality throughout the lens of architecture. According to Robert Hutchison, whose firm has been working on the exhibit for the last two years, the impact of the exhibit, and its setting in downtown Seattle, is meant to extend beyond the architectural community. “These exhibits often speak specifically to the architectural community, be it students or architects…[but] in the case of this exhibition, I’m excited for this exhibit being a public gallery,” he said, also explaining the curation of the exhibit. “The project is highly architectural in the sense that it’s drawings, models, objects and sketches, which are all tools that we used to communicate. But in this case we’re not putting it in a closed gallery in an architectural school; it’s on a main street in Seattle.”

Seattle, Robert Hutchison Architecture, "Memory Houses," Gallery4Culture, Pioneer Square, American Academy in Rome, Colosseum
Wye Landing, Wye Mills Maryland. Image courtesy of Robert Hutchison Architecture

Situated along the banks of the Wye River on the Eastern shore of Maryland, the exhibit will display nine different allegorical architectural typologies—through models, drawings and physical objects—such as dwelling, winery, chapel, lighthouse and columbarium (a house for remains) to create a spatial narrative about the role of loss, memory and recollection in our everyday lives. And the nine-part exhibit stems from Hutchison’s personal experiences a few years ago.

In early 2015, Hutchison’s father started struggling with dementia. Following his father’s death in 2016, Hutchison embarked on the creation of “Memory Houses” as an architectural investigation for Hutchison Architecture’s office in Seattle. Precipitated by the impact of his father’s experiences, the exhibit is also an exploration of how architectural buildings are conceptualized, according to Hutchison “This project related to a site that was very personal to me, a series of buildings and houses. My own memories would find themselves inside the design of these buildings and these buildings became very real to us, even though they will never be built,” he said. “That also relates to memory.”

Seattle, Robert Hutchison Architecture, "Memory Houses," Gallery4Culture, Pioneer Square, American Academy in Rome, Colosseum
Conceptual models for Chapel/Columbarium. Photograph by Mark Woods

The formation of the exhibit—and the nine installations that comprise it—was also heavily influenced by Hutchison’s experiences as a prize fellow at the American Academy in Rome from January through July 2017. “When I started designing the buildings for the exhibition, I found out that there were these weird overlays of things that I had seen or experienced from my childhood from when I was in Rome,” he said. Within the exhibit, viewers can see the influences of geometry as found in the aqueducts, the Colosseum and the early Christian churches and Roman tombs.

More broadly, as a company, Hutchison Architecture—and the industry of which the firm is a part—has evolved over the years; and “Memory Houses” is meant to reflect this evolution. “Clearly, the architectural profession as a discipline has changed; I’m not sure whether for better or worse. But technology has significantly changed how we approach projects,” Hutchison said, also adding that he thinks the exhibit is representative of striking a balance in the profession. “I think we’re interested in balancing the built work with investigating architecture at a different level. [This type] of project allow us to think about architecture in a way that is maybe difficult to take it to the market in the same capacity as real projects with clients and building codes.”

At the core of Robert Hutchison Architecture’s work lies an interest in the relationship between the permanent with the ephemeral, according to the company’s web site, an approach that results in highly experiential works evocative of a response to a place. That philosophy applies to “Memory House” exhibit, which Hutchison hopes will elicit an emotional response from its viewers. “Each of the [nine] buildings is investigating what it might mean to try and construct emotive architecture in the built environment,” he said. “This conceptual project might allow us to enter into that exploration more easily because we don’t have some of the other things [typically in architectural profession] like building codes, project budgets and clients.”

Seattle, Robert Hutchison Architecture, "Memory Houses," Gallery4Culture, Pioneer Square, American Academy in Rome, Colosseum
Chapel & Winery, 2016. Conceptual model, constructed by Robert Hutchison Architecture. Photo by Mark Woods

Furthermore, the exhibit is primarily an investigation about what it means to bridge the gap between the conceptual and the physical built environment in the architectural profession. “I think we use the word ‘conceptual’ because we’re tired of clearly differentiating between ‘real’ projects in a conventional sense and the more conceptual ones,” Hutchison said. “But these buildings are very real to us. We talk about what materials to use, how the foundation works, what the tone of the siding should be, steel or wood. These buildings become more real to us even though they aren’t built to one scale.”

One of the main goals of the exhibit is to encourage the viewer to reflect about the role of emotion and innovation in the role of architecture, a thought process that Hutchison also thinks might apply to others within the architectural profession. “I think this idea of sampling is actually what we do as designers and architects. At some level, we take our experiences and memories and overlay them to create something new, sometimes directly and sometimes not,” he said. “The exhibit is about investigating where our ideas come from; that’s the way I hope people view the exhibit.”

This freedom, variety and spontaneity of thought encouraged by the exhibit is an option that is not always available to architects within the modern day profession, according to Hutchison. “The freedom to design whatever comes to mind without being constrained by buildings codes, permitting, deadlines, schedules and budgets isn’t always there…these things bring more of a direction and provide more focus, but can also constrain you,” he said.

House for a Widow, 2016. Conceptual model, constructed by Robert Hutchison Architecture. Photo by Mark Woods

At the end of the day, even though “Memory Houses” seeks to explore and tow the line between the conceptual and the concrete—building proposals versus full-scale structures in the built environment—the exhibit still a product of architectural design and also seeks to make a statement about the architectural profession more broadly. “It’s still design. Architecture firms are all exploring architectural ideas and qualities, but they all reside in a different condition,” he said. “When you see these models and drawings, you know that they are clearly proposals for buildings. “We like having other venues to explore this architectural condition,” Hutchison said.