By Jack Stubbs
Located in the heart of the Puget Sound region, Seattle is a city known for its proximity to the natural environment and the expansive outdoors. At a time of increased growth and densification within the city limits, many developers and architects are seeking to implement a green, environmentally-friendly design into their residential projects.
We recently spoke with Tom Kundig, principal and owner of Olson Kundig Architects, and chief architect for the West Edge Tower—a 39-story mixed-use residential and retail project currently under construction in downtown Seattle—about the development, its prominent location in the downtown core and how its environmental design contributes to a greener Seattle.
What can you tell me about the West Edge Tower? How does it pay homage to and reflect the spirit of the Pacific Northwest generally and the Pike/Pine corridor specifically?
This 39-story, 440-foot-tall mixed-use skyscraper is located at the corner of 2nd Avenue and Pike Street in Seattle’s downtown core. Containing 339 residential units, a destination Sky Bar on the eighth floor, four glass-floored observation cubes with unobstructed views to Pike Place Market and Puget Sound, and ground level retail, the highly contextual tower will grace this significant area of Seattle with respect.
This project is located on one of the most highly trafficked circulation corridors in Seattle at the intersection of the Pike Place Market District and the Pike/Pine Retail Corridor. It is in the heart of Seattle’s downtown core, where pedestrian and vehicular traffic are high and tall buildings define the urban condition.
The design is a direct response to this particular context, with the building divided into two distinct parts: the lower seven stories, which relate to the pedestrian urban experience, and the 32 stories above which relate to the profile of the city and to the sky. The lower seven-story section is darker and grittier—it responds to the cone of perception that we have when we’re in a vehicle or on foot, where our experience of the city street and the urban condition is essentially those first seven stories. It also relates to the history of early urban buildings in Seattle, which hovered around the seven-story height. The next 32 stories take on another character. As the building ascends to the sky, it gets more silvery and white, giving a nod to our Pacific Northwest skies. In this way, it softly and quietly relates to the sky.
What are some of the amenities available to residents of the development? How, specifically, do they take advantage of the project’s location?
Project amenities include a premium gym, unobstructed water and city views and balconies in most units. On the ground level, public areas provide places for pedestrians to relax and take in views of the nearby market. The Pike Place Market District contains a pattern of pedestrian circulation throughout courtyards and alleys that encourages exploration on foot. Learning from this context, West Edge’s street level public spaces connect to existing pedestrian pathways, offering sheltered spaces of respite for passersby.
How will the building’s design conform with existing landmarks in the neighborhood (e.g. Pike Place, Seattle Art Museum, Benaroya Hall, etc.)? How does West Edge bring something new and unique to the neighborhood, and to what degree does it honor the already-existing neighborhood character? How did Olson Kundig strike this balance?
Playing off the design of nearby Seattle Tower, which progresses from darker to lighter colored brick ascending the structure, the exterior metal panels and spandrel glass at West Edge Tower transition from gray to white on the upper levels.
This building is intended to be an urban, forward-thinking, dense, exciting place with active public spaces that engage the city streets and Seattle’s downtown culture. Our hope is that the tower will bring a diverse collection of people and activities to the streets of 2nd Avenue and Pike Street and to the larger downtown core, adding to the wider culture of Seattle as a city.
What are some other projects that Olson Kundig has undertaken that are similar in approach to the West Edge Tower? How does West Edge represent a new chapter (particularly in Seattle, but also nationwide)?
Much like our 9th & Thomas mixed-use project in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood and our 100 Stewart Hotel and Apartments (100 Stewart Hotel also known as Thompson Seattle) downtown, West Edge Tower provided an opportunity to think about the role of mixed-use buildings in the creation of neighborhoods in our rapidly developing city.
With both projects – and all our large-scale urban buildings – we pay attention to relationships to the street, neighborhood and views. Emphasizing porousness in these projects sets a paradigm for these types of buildings as we consider how to welcome the population and contribute to the city’s culture one building at a time.
What can you tell me about Olson Kundig’s vision generally, and how it is in line with the West Edge Tower project? Might it be a noteworthy architectural template moving forward? How does Olson Kundig navigate city-imposed public policy regulations about building practices?
We at Olson Kundig are particularly excited about this project because it is a high-density residential project in an urban center. These types of projects are, at their core, sustainable projects. Bringing high-density living to our cities is going to be essential for the sustainability of these urban centers.
West Edge Tower is a template for the future when we consider ways to bring livable residential places into the urban core, especially as this functions at the street level. West Edge is a scheme where the living levels are above the street, but there is in fact a very active engagement of the building at the city street level. So, the idea is that people who live at West Edge will engage with the street activity and will use the places and amenities of the city located just outside the doors of the building.
At its core, this project represents our larger vision of making beautiful, engaging living places that reflect their surroundings and help energize their contexts. West Edge is targeting LEED Gold certification, and as such it is in line with city initiatives towards revitalizing and energizing Seattle’s urban core.
What are some of the challenges involved in designing buildings that both implement sustainable development practices and address the demand for luxury apartment complexes? Olson Kundig designs a wide range of projects. How does the firm strive to implement its ethos into such a wide range of projects?
No matter the project type or location, my driver is always the same – to understand the context. It doesn’t matter if it’s a big open landscape or a big urban city. I’ve always felt that the architect’s first job is to be a voyeur of the situation. I work to understand the context of the built or natural environment surrounding a project, and then those become the drivers of the design.
It’s always about trying to understand the project’s DNA – either on an individual or group level. And often that DNA is a city. It’s about creating idiosyncratic buildings that are products of their context and thereby encourage a closer connection between people and their surroundings. No matter the site or program, we strive to create maximally efficient, healthy buildings that remind people they are deeply intertwined with the environment, even when they are inside.
Since Olson Kundig is Seattle-based, it recognizes the importance of designing buildings that bridge the gap between nature and people. At a time of such sustained and intense development activity, it’s important that natural elements and sustainable practices don’t fall by the wayside. How does Olson Kundig strive to reinforce this message in its projects?
In our projects, there are many references to our climate, our city, our lifestyle and our culture in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest. West Edge is a building that, as much as possible, maintains a balance between privacy and openness to this beautiful landscape where we live. As much as is reasonable in an urban core, we sought to diminish the line between inside and outside in order to engage our Northwest environment and landscape. We tried to reference this context through things like courtyards, glazing, terraces and an active street presence. Operable windows up and down the tower allow the building to breathe and to open to the mild climate we enjoy in Seattle.
This really is a living building – it’s a building that’s intended to live down on the street, and engage with the larger environmental context on the upper part of the building. The part of the building is divided between the lower, darker, grittier street level and the upper part of the building which is grey and white in color, so it almost disappears into the sky. In this way, the building engages with Seattle’s urban context on the street level, and with the larger environmental context above.
It opens to the natural climate, it harvests natural daylight, it opens to views, and it makes a connection to the larger distant natural landscape of the nearby mountains and Puget Sound. On the street level, it also opens to the city, to the urban street life and culture and nearby Pike Place Market. Above, West Edge is part of the larger Pacific Northwest landscape and environment, and below, it’s part of the city life of Seattle.