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Originally published December 5, 2013 at 9:31 PM | Page modified December 5, 2013 at 10:47 PM

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Architect Fred Bassetti dies; he leaves indelible mark on Seattle

Fred Bassetti, one of Seattle’s most renowned architects, left his mark in the design of landmarks from the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building to the Seattle Aquarium and Pike Place Market. He died Thursday at age 96.


Seattle Times political reporter

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Fred Bassetti, one of Seattle’s most renowned architects, left his mark in the design of landmarks from the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building to the Seattle Aquarium and Pike Place Market.

Mr. Bassetti, who championed a Northwest contemporary architecture that sought to soften and humanize buildings, died Thursday morning (Dec. 5) at an Oregon hospital after complications from breaking his hip. He was 96.

Mr. Bassetti’s influence was felt not just in the buildings he designed, but in the generations of architects and other urban thinkers he inspired.

“I’ve always considered him the godfather of the architectural community here,” said David Miller, chairman of the Department of Architecture at the University of Washington. “He’s the one who was always the centerpiece — the one you went to to talk about important design issues in the city.”

In 1967, Mr. Bassetti founded Action: Better City, an organization of young, civic-minded architects who gathered to think about how to improve Seattle’s urban environment.

The group produced a short film and a booklet detailing its vision and pushed city leaders to make improvements, such as the development of Westlake Center Plaza and aid for Pioneer Square.

“Much about Seattle is right, but an equal amount is wrong — who can rest until the balance is improved?” Mr. Bassetti wrote in an introduction to the booklet, according to HistoryLink.org.

“Fred at the core was a humanist. He embraced the modern world but didn’t leave people behind as we move more quickly and more rapidly,” said Lorne McConachie, principal at Bassetti Architects, the firm founded by Mr. Bassetti in 1947.

Energetic and opinionated, Mr. Bassetti was described in a 1989 Seattle Times profile as possessing “the innocence of an 8-year-old and the energy of an adolescent.” When a banker involved in a skyscraper project called him “off the wall,” Mr. Bassetti decided he liked the description and ordered vanity license plates: OFFTHWL.

Former Seattle Mayor Paul Schell said Mr. Bassetti’s enthusiasm for building a more inviting cityscape was contagious. “Fred was a major contributor to the life, spirit and quality of our city. He influenced a lot of people, and I’m one of them,” said Schell, who led the city’s community-development department in the 1970s.

Mr. Bassetti and like-minded allies fought against severe, boxy postmodern towers that overwhelmed their surroundings. Instead, he advocated buildings that flowed with the landscapes. His designs typically included rounded off corners and sloping roofs.

“He hated right angles,” said architect and former Seattle City Councilmember Peter Steinbrueck, who called Mr. Bassetti, “the last of a legion of really outstanding civic architects of his era.”

Mr. Bassetti was a childhood friend of Victor Steinbrueck, the famed Seattle architect and preservationist. The two met when Steinbrueck’s father led them on Boy Scout hikes.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mr. Bassetti joined with Steinbrueck in opposing a plan to bulldoze and redevelop Pike Place Market.

Mr. Bassetti memorably called the Market “an honest place in a phony time.”

Born in 1917 in Seattle, Mr. Bassetti was the son of Italian and Norwegian immigrants. He graduated from Garfield High School and enrolled at the University of Washington, intending to become an engineer. But at the UW he found engineering too dry and quickly grew enthralled by architecture.

He graduated from the UW and Harvard University and started an architectural partnership in the 1940s.

Mr. Bassetti’s firm emerged over the next few decades as a leader in developing a modern Northwest form of architecture, said Jeffrey Ochsner, a professor of architecture and associate dean at the University of Washington’s College of Built Environments.

His buildings were marked by the use of wood and other natural materials and a responsiveness to the surrounding terrain and views. As his reputation grew, Mr. Bassetti moved to designing larger and larger buildings.

He designed award-winning student dormitories at Central Washington University and Western Washington University and the East Pine Substation for Seattle City Light. Other notable projects included the Seattle Municipal Tower and the Woodland Park Children’s Petting Zoo.

Slender and spry, Mr. Bassetti enjoyed bicycling and stayed active well into his 90s, said his wife of 25 years, Gwenyth Caldwell Bassetti. The couple split their time in recent years between a houseboat on Portage Bay and a farm in Goldendale, (Klickitat County).

In addition to his wife, Mr. Bassetti is survived by five children, Ann Bassetti, Catherine Bassetti, Margaret (Maggie) Bassetti and Megan Bassetti, all of Seattle; and Michael Bassetti, of Madison Wis.

He also is survived by three grandchildren, four stepchildren, and two former wives, Mary Wilson Bassetti and Moira Feeney Bassetti, both of Seattle.

A memorial service is planned for Dec. 22 at the Lakeside School.

Remembrances may be made to the Seattle Aquarium or the Seattle Public Library Foundation.

This report includes material from The Seattle Times archives.

Jim Brunner: 206-515-5628 or jbrunner@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @Jim_Brunner



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