Seattle is buzzing about Alley24, a high-density mixed-use block by NBBJ
Justin Henderson -- Interior Design, 7/1/2007 12:00:00 AM
Back in the 1990's, Seattle's South Lake Union district, abutting downtown, was slated for transformation into a grand greensward. Seattleites, however, decided they had parks enough—and voted it down, leaving South Lake Union at the mercy of the market. Fortunately, the area's primary developer is Vulcan, the company that manages the investments of Microsoft's billionaire cofounder Paul Allen. Allen is possessed of deep pockets and an open mind, and most of his numerous real-estate projects maintain high design standards. Alley24, a speculative mixed-use complex by NBBJ, is possibly the best of the lot.
Alley24 is built around a trio of sturdy brick buildings dating from the 1920's to the 1940's and collectively known as the New Richmond Laundry. They're now integrated with new office, retail, and residential construction. Together, the complex occupies an entire city block, which is divided into quadrants by two pedestrian-friendly alleys—hence the project's name. The diversity of uses keeps these alleys active day and night.
The pedestrian-only east-west alley's opposite ends frame quintessential Seattle views: One is of the Space Needle; the other is of the "forest" installed by REI, a recreational-equipment store, so customers can test-drive mountain bikes and the like. When the architects sliced away a section of 1940's wall on one side of the alley, they exposed a series of tall arched windows dating from two decades earlier. These fortuitous discoveries enliven the street front and bring light into loft apartments.
Meanwhile, the north-south alley provides both vehicle and pedestrian access as well as defining the border between the residential and commercial buildings. NBBJ partner Rysia Suchecka and principals Brent Rogers and Alan Young convinced the developers to locate building lobbies on the alleys rather than perimeter streets. "The intersection creates energy in the center," Rogers notes. "And it brings the different elements together." It also freed up street frontage for restaurants and retail.
Because NBBJ committed early as a tenant itself, the firm attained the enviable position of concurrently designing the entire project and spaces within it. This allowed for a commitment to eco-consciousness, too. As Young describes it, "There are three concepts behind what we do: authenticity, animation, sustainability."
These concepts are everywhere evident at NBBJ's own office. The alley-entry lobby, a glass-walled jewel, is distinguished by a wall of "artifacts," representing client business, and spare furnishings, notably narrow backless benches and a freestanding oval desk with stainless-steel legs and a marble top. There are no magazines, and the "concierge" has no switchboard. (No receptionist here.)
Clearly designed as a place for people to pass through rather than to wait in, the lobby serves as an engaging introduction to NBBJ. Rising from the space is a staircase nicknamed the Giant Steps after jazz saxophonist John Coltrane's classic track. The 26-foot-wide base of the Giant Steps serves as a lecture hall, gathering place, and source of animation and energy—emerging as a symbol of the firm's commitment to community. Balustrades of translucent acrylic let new arrivals glimpse shadowy hints of movement above.
On the two upper floors at NBBJ, large open studios flow around libraries, model shops, copy rooms, informal meeting areas, coffee-break pantries, and other spaces normally termed back-of-house. By putting these workhorses out front, evident on arrival, the firm sets the stage for informal interaction. Suchecka believes that the new office "has changed us, made us younger. People know each other better." They can even hang out together outside, thanks to a bridge connecting the office proper to NBBJ's roof deck, actually on top of an apartment building across the alley.
Visual connection between the two studio levels and with people on other floors and in adjacent buildings comes courtesy of setbacks and glass walls. Operable windows combine with an under-floor HVAC system in contributing to the high energy efficiency. Materials are untreated, nontoxic, and recycled wherever possible.
Up on the floor above NBBJ, the international contracting firm Skanska—responsible for the construction of Alley24—occupies an office also designed by the architects. Here, design principal Anne M. Cunningham changed tactics to accommodate a different corporate culture. Materials evoke Skanska's business, with the paint on sliding doors distressed to suggest erosion and blackened-steel angles used as door handles. The challenge, Cunningham says, was to "engage the trades by using found objects as artworks" and to "push people to share by putting things out in the open" even though there are still private offices at the core.
The exterior of Alley24's office building offers a visually stimulating mix of simple ribbed concrete panels and diverse window treatments, including aluminum shades programmed to respond to daylight levels. Throughout the complex, architectural materials embody different eras. The office building's concrete contrasts with the golden resin-and-paper panels cladding the pair of apartment buildings as well as with the red brick from the early 20th century. Like the mix of uses, this interplay of textures infuses Alley24 with that magic intangible, urban energy.
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