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Originally published Wednesday, September 1, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Noted Seattle architect, activist Folke Nyberg dies at 76

Folke Nyberg, architect and professor, author and visionary, world traveler and civic activist, died at his Seattle home Aug. 15 after a two-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 76.

Seattle Times staff reporter

A good architect may have many talents: artist, planner, builder, craftsman.

Folke Nyberg, of Seattle, had all of those, and another that served as a foundation for the rest, said longtime friend John Fox, a Seattle housing advocate.

"He had a strong commitment to social justice," Fox said, "a sense that social responsibility should be a key element in planning and architecture."

Mr. Nyberg, architect and professor, author and visionary, world traveler and civic activist, died at his home Aug. 15 after a two-year battle with prostate cancer. He was 76.

He was a staunch advocate for affordable housing, public open space and neighborhood preservation, and has been credited with helping another Seattle architect, Victor Steinbrueck, preserve and maintain the Pike Place Market and Pioneer Square.

"He was a delight, a tremendous role model and a tremendous mentor," said preservation consultant Art Skolnik, of Tacoma. "Thousands of people he has taught are out there preaching his goodness."

Skolnik and Mr. Nyberg met in 1969 when Skolnik was hired by the Seattle city architect's office and Mr. Nyberg headed the urban-design section of the city's planning department.

Skolnik said that in getting Pioneer Square listed as the state's first site on the National Register of Historic Places, Mr. Nyberg and Steinbrueck helped save the area from business interests seeking to level many buildings and replace them with parking garages.

Born in Sweden on Aug. 20, 1934, Mr. Nyberg immigrated to Seattle with his family in 1947. At Lincoln High School, he played football and was co-valedictorian of his graduating class.

On an academic scholarship, he attended Yale University, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in architecture, doing his graduate thesis on the Pike Place Market.

After college, he worked for several noted West Coast architects, including Paul Thiry, Joseph Esherick and Henry Klein, before establishing his own firm.

In the 1970s, Mr. Nyberg and Steinbrueck compiled an inventory of significant buildings and other features in a half-dozen Seattle neighborhoods, a document that led to the designation of several city landmarks and is still referred to today.

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He served on the University of Washington faculty from 1969 to 1999, teaching primarily in the College of Architecture and Urban Planning, but holding an adjunct position in Scandinavian Studies for the last several years of his tenure. Upon retirement, he became a professor emeritus.

Fox met Mr. Nyberg in the early 1980s, when the two joined the Downtown Neighborhood Alliance, formed to raise concern about the loss of housing and a neighborhood character downtown. The group successfully sought to have development projects help relocate small businesses they displaced, and contribute to the creation of low-income housing.

Victor Steinbrueck's son, Peter Steinbrueck, an architect and former Seattle City Council member, said the hallmark of Mr. Nyberg's professionalism was that no matter what project he was involved with, "It was never about the buildings. It was always about people."

Never afraid to challenge local government or well-connected developers, Mr. Nyberg was in the forefront of the movement that helped get a public gathering space in the downtown Westlake development.

More recently, as officials debated the merits of a tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct, Mr. Nyberg argued that the existing viaduct not only be retained, but be embellished into a "linear city" with residences, shops and business.

He was an avid traveler and passionate book collector. A daughter, Thea Nyberg Burris, of Seattle, recalls that after each of her father's trips, a shipment of books he had purchased would arrive, sometimes outstripping the family's ability to find room for them.

For years, he started nearly every morning at Cafe Allegro in the University District, meeting some of his best friends and — his family said — doing some of his best work.

Mr. Nyberg's other survivors include his wife, Lisa Nyberg, son Carl Nyberg, and daughter Ingrid Nyberg, all of Seattle; a sister, Berit McAlister, of Kenmore; and two grandchildren.

Friends, colleagues and family members will gather for a celebration of Mr. Nyberg's life from 4-7 p.m. Oct. 24 at the University of Washington Club on campus.

Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or jbroom@seattletimes.com

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