Image: Joe Anderson

Call it Ikeaism. Or Tupperwareism. Or Legoism. Either way, you know the architecture—mixed-use cubes with flat windows and colored panels, stamped into nearly any neighborhood that’s seen recent development. As arguments in this city carry on about where and how to allow upzoning, one point proffered is that construction alters “character.” It bears to reason, then, that we might gripe less about new buildings if we found them prettier. So what’s standing in the way? 

Much of it comes down to price. “As technologies and materials and sustainability and all these things change,” says Jim Nicholls, a senior lecturer in the UW’s architecture department, “there’s always an equation which meets all the code and costs the least.” Right now, it yields paneled cubes. Liz Dunn, the developer behind Capitol Hill’s Chophouse Row and Melrose Market, says the source of the money is also key. When, as here, development is funded by nonlocal investors, how a building looks can be less of a concern, so we arrive at what she calls a “transactional style of development.” 

Dunn also attributes the dearth of good facades to the city’s sometimes lacking design review process and to the fact that Seattle didn’t have the highest architectural bar before the construction boom: “It was a pre-existing problem that has been exacerbated by this influx of money.” So part of the reason Seattle’s new buildings are less than stylish is because Seattle wasn’t especially stylish to begin with? Well, look at a new facade. Squint a little. Tell me those panels don’t look like flannel. 

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