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Pacific Northwest | November 28, 2004Pacific Northwest MagazineNovember 28, 2004seattletimes.com home Home delivery

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CONTENTS
COVER STORY
PLANT LIFE
ON FITNESS
TASTE
NORTHWEST
LIVING
PORTRAITS
NOW & THEN
PREVIOUS ISSUES OF PACIFIC NW


BY SHERI OLSON

OUT OF THE WOODS


PHOTOGRAPHS BY ART GRICE / COURTESY OF ROCKPORT PUBLISHERS
At Tanglefoot in Priest Lake, Idaho, separate summer and winter blocks of the house are connected by the double-height, 750-square-foot greenhouse, which becomes a living space during mosquito season. The catwalk connects the children’s second-floor bedrooms to the master suite.

  In a new book, an architect's journey through nature is revealed
The following excerpt is from "Cutler Anderson Architects" by Sheri Olson (Rockport Publishers, Gloucester, Mass., 2004; $25).

THE WORK OF the architectural design firm Cutler Anderson bears witness to the proverbial tree falling in the forest. Like the surveys they undertake at the beginning of each design, their work stakes a place in the world from which nature becomes visible. They believe that to know nature is to love it and to love it is to fight for its preservation. Ironically, the firm is not considered "green" enough for many of the "green" architects who officially designate the like-minded with special certification. At a time when this well-intentioned movement often produces earnest but uninspiring buildings, Jim Cutler believes that emotions rally people faster than facts. A thousand projects with recycled carpet have less impact than one that reveals the beauty of the natural world.

The kitchen is a stainless-steel object set within the exposed-wood frame of the house.
 

Cutler's sensitivity to the environment traces to his childhood in Kingston, Pa., a coal-mining town surrounded by slag heaps. The son of a Russian immigrant who worked in a family-owned clothing store, he escaped to the woods searching for mushrooms with his favorite uncle and cousins. From this childhood experience Cutler became the acute observer of nature that he remains today.

At the University of Pennsylvania, Cutler won a coveted spot in Louis I. Kahn's postgraduate studio. On a personal level, the attention of one of the masters of 20th-century architecture was an important validation of his talent. But more importantly, Kahn taught Cutler how to think. He approaches design through the Socratic method Kahn used to explore the "existence of will," the essence of a material and its highest and best use.

At the Pine Forest cabin, a year-round retreat in the Methow Valley, a large gable roof shelters a 16-by-65-foot platform that hovers above the steeply sloped land on seven pairs of concrete piers. The two-story wall of glass and detailing of wood siding emphasize the sense that the cabin’s skin is lightly attached to the framing.

Cutler continues where Kahn left off when he speaks of honoring the trees felled to build a house. Otherwise, his wood-framed and glass designs appear on the surface to have little in common with Kahn's monumental brick and stone architecture. A closer look reveals Kahn's influence in Cutler Anderson's disciplined plans and the spiritual quality of space.

A road trip in the early 1970s brought Cutler to the Pacific Northwest and to the balance between nature and culture that ties him to this place. He founded James Cutler Architects on Bainbridge Island in 1977. The firm's work first came to national attention with a 1986 American Institute of Architects National Honor Award for the Parker residence, built inside a recycled fishnet-drying shed. The project marks the beginning of what collaborator Peter Bohlin calls a progression from derivative to more personal designs.

At the Long residence on Orcas Island, a series of small windows in the otherwise opaque wood-shingled façade frames vignettes of cedar-pole tripods that hold up huge Western red cedars used to support the roof.
 

Around this time, a former design student from a class Cutler taught at the University of Washington, Bruce Anderson, joined the firm. He became a partner in 2001, and the firm's name changed to Cutler Anderson Architects. Well-suited to their respective roles, the poet and the pragmatist, Cutler initiates ideas and works with Anderson to develop and refine them. Now a 13-person office, the firm is in a converted boathouse at an island marina.

A breakthrough project in the theoretical development of the firm is the Virginia Merrill Bloedel Education Center on Bainbridge (1992). The poetry of this undertaking — the building memorializes the client's 62 years of marriage with a view of his wife's unmarked grave — resonated with the architects, and it was here they began their quest to honor felled trees with a design that displays every piece of wood.

The compact plan for the Pine Forest cabin uses built-in seating as one way to free interior space.

Out of Bloedel came the commission of a lifetime, a house for the richest man in the world, Bill Gates (1998). Cutler Anderson, the only local firm invited to compete for the commission, joined forces with Peter Bohlin (as a graduate student, Cutler built models in Bohlin's office) to win the 40,000-square-foot project on Lake Washington near Microsoft's campus. The project gave the firm name recognition beyond the Northwest and the budget to experiment. The emphasis moves away from skin, as seen in the Parker residence, to skeleton as the architects restate the meaning of wall, post and beam, and their interrelation in space. The primacy of structure and the almost infinite variety of expression is shown in the multiple and subtle detailing of column and beam connections.

As with any project of this scope and stature, the Gates complex had its price, consuming the Cutler Anderson office for seven years. Potential clients went on a wait list while others did not call because they thought the firm catered only to the extraordinarily rich.

The peeled-cedar logs inside underscore the beauty and power of the trees outside.
 

One client who waited was Barbara Wood. Her house (1998), on rural Vashon Island, is a seminal project for Cutler Anderson as they sought ways to achieve an articulated design on more modest budgets. Built-up sections of light wood framing and steel plates replace the heavy timber structure used at the Gates house. The literalness of exposing every piece of wood is also gone, replaced by glimpses of framing in key places as the drywall stops short of the floor and the ceiling or is cut larger around windows to give every stud its due. The real discovery is in the greenhouse, where a concern about condensation led the architects to bolt standard window frames on the outside face of the wood framing. This frees the relationship between window and structure and marks the beginning of the layered transparency that is now the firm's hallmark.

The Wood residence on Vashon Island is a series of boxes placed to respond to the nuances of topography and to preserve trees. The covered exterior walkway connects the pieces along the forest edge.

These ideas were pushed to an extreme at Tanglefoot (2003), a house on a remote lake in Idaho for an inventor and his young family. The house represents an unusually close collaboration between Cutler Anderson and the client, who hunted down an aluminum tape (used in the aerospace industry) that enabled the refinement of the window system first used at the Wood residence. At Tanglefoot, aluminum bars and channels hold entire walls of glass away from the wood framing on aluminum spacers. The house's multiple layers of wood framing inside mirror the richness of the wilderness outside.

The wall finish in the "day box" of the Woods' home stops several inches shy of the floor to show the wood studs. The 2-by-8 beams alternate with wood spacers.
 

The pendulum swings the other way, toward spareness, with the Pine Forest cabin (1999) in the semiarid forest of the Methow Valley. On either side of a long wood platform, two balloon-framed walls continue unclad past the building envelope to stretch space beyond the plan. The precision of the detailing underscores the light, ephemeral quality of the structure.

The firm's first major public project, a branch library designed with Johnston Architects for Maple Valley (2001), demonstrates how the ideas developed in the houses can transcend the domestic world and are in turn transformed by the transition from private to public. Without the budget or programmatic freedom of a house, time and effort focus on the essentials: simple geometries, structural clarity and the connection to place. Like the houses, the library challenges conventions (the forest wasn't clear-cut to make room for a parking lot; instead, cars are slipped between trees) and creates personal places within a larger shared space.

A triangular prow of trellis marks the main entrance to the Capitol Hill Library in Seattle. The trellis is designed to accommodate vertical gardens of ivy, which will be set aglow at night with lighting by artist Iole Aessandrini.

These ideas and the methodology also ring true in the firm's first urban project, a branch library (also in collaboration with Johnston Architects) in Seattle's densest neighborhood. With its monolithic brick walls, hollowed-out interior and distinction between functional and honorific spaces, the Capitol Hill Library (2003) is overtly reminiscent of Kahn's library at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire (1972). But Cutler Anderson makes this library entirely its own, covering the walls and wrapping the interior with a vine-covered trellis that creates a vertical oasis in the city.

Grace Church (2003) on Bainbridge Island is the culmination of Cutler Anderson's investigations and intentions to date. It recalls the structural expressiveness and spiritual quality of Gothic cathedrals with exposed wood, articulated connections and layers of glass. The spiritual connects to the secular and natural world through the gravitational forces made visible in the structure. Like tracery, steel rods cross in front of the clerestory windows between the side aisle and sanctuary roof; the space is infused with natural light. A big leaf maple rises skyward framed by windows beyond the altar. For the parishioners, who worshiped for years in a basement, the sanctuary's openness and connection to the natural world is a blessing. For Cutler Anderson, architecture is the means for establishing the passionate connections — to the past, a place and other people — that can change the world.

With nooks and niches for reading, the library is an oasis in one of Seattle's most densely populated neighborhoods.
 


The 35-foot-tall sanctuary of Grace Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island glows in the deep blue of evening. A king post truss runs between concrete piers and carries the sanctuary roof on its upper chord. Classrooms are in the east wing off the sanctuary, social spaces and offices in the west wing.


Sheri Olson, FAIA, is Architectural Record's Seattle-based contributing editor and author of "Miller/Hull: Architects of the Pacific Northwest" (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001).


 

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