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WRITTEN BY SHERI OLSON
|Three years later the Novotny cabin, built nearby, marks a change from austerity to animation. As with Gorton/Bounds it derives its visual impact directly from its structure, recalling the raised flaps of Forest Service fire watchtowers. Glass wraps all four sides of the single open room, which gives one a strong impression of still being outside. Its gable roof, compact volume and overdrawn wood trim around the windows lend the cabin the iconic quality of a child's drawing of a house.|
A small Seattle architecture firm, the Miller/Hull Partnership, has watched its commitment to modernism and Northwest regionalism gain international recognition over the past 20 years. A new book by Seattle architect and writer Sheri Olson looks at characteristics of Miller/Hull projects and how they have evolved in residential, institutional and civic work. This excerpt from the book's introduction touches on a few residential designs.
As distant corners of the world resemble Seattle more each day - with a Microsoft program on every PC and a cup of Starbucks coffee on every desk - Seattleites conversely fret that the Pacific Northwest looks more and more like the rest of the world. This xenophobic view is due to a spectacular natural setting that fosters an unshakeable faith in the region's uniqueness. Thanks to a decade-long infusion of cash from locally headquartered giants of globalization, there is the means to assert architecturally this pride of place. Two of Seattle's most prominent citizens, Microsoft co-founders Bill Gates and Paul Allen, took remarkably different tracks in realizing their own personal versions of the Pacific Northwest. Gates's shelter from the virtual world is a heavy-timber lodge on the suburban shores of Lake Washington while Allen bankrolled a Frank O. Gehry-designed rock-and-roll museum downtown.
The key lies in David Miller's and Robert Hull's commitment to modernism, but it is a regional derivation fueled by the specificity of place. They respond to the Pacific Northwest's mild maritime climate, pearl gray sky and wooded wilderness with a transparency that is the crux of their work. They view the region's modest utilitarian structures - the lumber mills, fishnet-drying sheds and forest-fire watchtowers - with a modernist's love of structural clarity, taut skins and industrial materials.
Miller/Hull's stated theoretical intention - continuing the evolution of modernism - has its roots in the designs of Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon in Oregon during the late 1930s and 1940s. Working independently, these two developed a Northwest Contemporary style, characterized by close integration with the landscape, post-and-beam construction and the use of natural native woods. The economic boom following World War II ushered in a golden age of modern residential design in the region. Seattle architects Paul Thiry, Paul Hayden Kirk and Victor Steinbrueck were among a first generation of modernists in the region to refine a design language emphasizing revealed structure, natural materials and glass expanses in houses around Puget Sound.
Miller/Hull has continued this tradition of innovative residential design in 40 houses over 20 years - ranging from a concrete-block retreat in the Cascade foothills that recalls Thoreau's Walden Pond cabin to a contemporary version of Charles and Ray Eames' Case Study house on suburban Mercer Island. While Miller/Hull is known internationally for houses, it is the firm's public work that makes the biggest impact at home. By subtly redefining a nonexistent Northwest urbanism in the astute siting of government, institutional and community projects, Miller/Hull asserts a new civic presence in amorphous town centers and on the scraggly edges of suburbia. By tethering design to larger urban, social and environmental concerns - values that trace back to Miller's and Hull's stints in the Peace Corps - rather than surrendering to self-expressionistic urges, Miller/Hull garners a currency with clients that buys them the freedom to stretch the envelope.
Northwestern natives, they always planned to return, but when they did in the mid-1970s it was to Vancouver, B.C., which was booming, while Seattle's economy was flat. Geographically, the cities are close - only 100 miles apart - but in other ways, so far. Vancouver is more cosmopolitan and, as the Sun Coast of Canada, a destination for its young innovators.
It is significant that Miller and Hull met again in British Columbia, because of the region's role as an incubator of modernism for the rest of the country. Miller worked in Arthur Erickson's office on the Vancouver Courthouse Complex, one of the most influential Canadian projects at the time. Itching to start their own firm, they jumped at the chance to open a branch office for Vancouver-based Rhone & Iredale in Seattle. Backed by the firm's substantial portfolio in public buildings, they immediately landed institutional projects. When Rhone & Iredale dissolved in 1977, the two formed the Miller/Hull Partnership.
A thumbnail psychoanalysis of the pair suggests that Miller is the left-brain rational one and Hull the right-brain intuitive one. But it is not always easy to tease their work apart. They cultivate a team approach that allows variations in response to building type and sites while maintaining a consistency of architectural expression. To ensure the firm's continuation after their eventual retirement, two younger architects, Norman Strong and Craig Curtis (also Washington State University graduates), became partners in 1985 and 1994 respectively. Over time the firm grew to the current staff of 35 - the size they wish to remain so that the four partners can stay active in every project. The office is in a creaky maritime loft building on Seattle's waterfront. Passenger ferries to outlying islands are visible coming and going outside the large industrial sash.
One example is Miller/Hull's iconic roofs. In their exaggeration of the simple shed forms of the region's timber mills they distill Pacific Northwest architecture to its essence: shelter from the rain. Under an overriding roof, walls are superfluous and primarily form a barrier between the inside and the great outdoors. As Miller/Hull's emphasis shifts from overscaled roofs to flat volumes, beginning with the Garfield Community Center and then with the Michaels/Sisson and Roddy/Bale residences, it becomes clear that the uninterrupted relationship between interior and exterior is their focus. Few Pacific Northwest architects explore this relationship to the degree that Miller/Hull has, and it continues to distinguish their work. The glazed garage doors that whisk entire walls out of the way are still present, but at the Roddy/Bale residence they combine to create a new type of space that is neither exterior nor interior but changes its nature to fit its use.
Sheri Olson is a Seattle-based contributing editor to Architectural Record.
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