Commentary: Why good architectural design matters


By Eric Livingston

Of all the art forms they we enjoy, architecture is the one art form that affects us the most. It is the art in which we live. It is our home. It defines us, shows our values and how we think of ourselves.

The cities’ buildings and streetscapes we build for ourselves explains who we are and what we value as citizens.

In my previous opinion piece I said that beauty and aesthetics are different. Perhaps I should have given a clearer definition.  An aesthetic or aesthetics – as I’m using it – means a style or sensibility. This is to say that style (aesthetics) is a conglomeration of perceptible elements recognizable as a distinct variety of order. In this sense a “style” can be given (or acquire) a name or label.

Of the comments posted, one labeled Edmonds’ building “style” as “Bunker Moderne.” Personally I’m not entirely clear what that label means; but more on that later.

However, of all the comments received, only one actually indicated any preference of what was that person felt to be good design.  The commenter indicated only two buildings.

Those two buildings are the only buildings on the east side of 5th Avenue South that aren’t based on a beige, tan or grey color scheme. Not until the intersection of 5th and Dayton does a different color scheme appear on the east side of 5th Avenue.

The west side of 5th Avenue it isn’t much better. The Petosa’s Market area is reddish brick (and is the architectural style and color of the old A&P grocery chain – franchise architecture). The Mutual/Chase bank is a darkish brick, and as one goes towards downtown there is some yellow paint, red paint and some additional reddish brick along the west side of 5th Avenue.
The reason I’m pointing out this lack of color along 5th Avenue is, that what attracts our eye to these dark-colored buildings is – not by design – that these buildings are out of context with their surroundings.

The buildings along 5th Avenue South are a mishmash of beige styles because the developers who built them didn’t put their building design into a context – or relationship – to the surrounding buildings. The only thing connects them is the color (or lack of color) and the type of exterior surface. Close to 90 percent of the surface area of the buildings on 5th Avenue is covered with stucco or cement panels covered with stucco, most buildings have flat roofs; a few have slightly pitched roofs — a couple with faux Spanish tile and one has a barrel roof. Most, if not all lack ornamentation, save for small amounts of dark contrast, such as railings, window frames and occasionally a dark stripe or two as counterpoint to break up a building’s beige mass.

Most of the buildings lining 5th Avenue are beige imitations of the ‘International’ or ‘Modern’ architectural style. This International or Modern style was developed in the late 1920s early 1930s by Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier, Phillip Johnson and others. The key visuals are large surfaces of stucco, flat roofs and glass. Also, there was a “sixth side.” Their buildings were off the ground supported by steel pillars so that one could walk; or rather had to walk underneath to get to the front door. The mass of their buildings appear to float.

Villa Savoye designed by Le Corbusier. (Wikipedia)
Villa Savoye designed by Le Corbusier. (Wikipedia)

Architects who copied Rohe, Johnson, Le Corbusier and Gropius quickly discovered that stucco and glass were cheap materials to use. So, like a copy, of a copy, of a copy — each developer’s architect diluted the purity of the concept as developed by the originators of the International/Modern style.

The greatest dilution of the International/Moderne style(s) came from socialist countries. This was especially true in the USSR and post-war Soviet Bloc countries, where building new cities and moving entire populations to inhabit them was easily done with a stroke of a pen and army enforcement.

Panelház (Hungarian), Panelák (Czech), Plattenbau (German) or Khrushchyovka (Russian) is a type of low-cost, cement-paneled or brick, three- to five-story apartment buildings and became the norm because of its low cost and the ease of construction.

A Panelház
A Panelház (Wikipedia)
A Khrushchyorvka
A Khrushchyorvka (Wikipedia)
Edmonds (All local photos by Eric Livingston)

The point is that the developers probably didn’t care about the overall look of the street (whether it was in Eastern Europe or here in Edmonds); only that they got their designs approved, build their building(s) and made their profit. This is where “Bunker Moderne” becomes hilarious, because in the old Soviet system the incentive for success was to not be rehabilitated in Siberia and make a little profit. Here the incentive is to make a hefty profit and not go bankrupt.

In Edmonds, which has grown 2,000 percent since 1950, what most likely happened was that the city wanted to look modern and appear progressive to attract new residents and expand the tax base. Consequently, what developers and their architects sold to the citizenry of Edmonds was a democratic version of the International/Moderne style(s) and building permits were approved by the city government. What developers basically ignored, and continue to ignore, is context.

Bank of America building
Bank of America building

A better example is the Bank of America building at 3rd Avenue and Main. By itself it is a – sorta-kinda – OK design. But as one looks up the street towards the fountain it becomes flat out ugly. It is out of context.

Out of context
Out of context
More evidence of architecture out of context in Edmonds.

The south side of Main Street between Chanterelle and Main Street Burgers is the historic architecture of downtown Edmonds. Another observation, which I find disturbing, is that on Main Street, from the fountain to 3rd Avenue, there are virtually no trees. In fact there are relatively few trees along Main from 5th Avenue down to the waterfront. Yes, I am aware that this area was the first acreage to be cleared by George Brackett for his shingle mill and he quickly filled the void with his downtown.

While we’re at it, make no mistake, Edmonds is a mill town. True, the mills are long gone as are the mill workers, but having grown up in a mill town along the south shore of Lake Erie, I know that psychological ghosts remain with their “let’s build what we need and not worry about how it looks” mentality. Remember, like any developer, George Brackett was here to cut trees into shingles and make money — not well-designed architecture. Creating a town was the frosting on the cake.

The upside to that thought is, unlike the decay of the city of my childhood (which has lost one third of its population since the mid-1970s), I believe Edmonds really wants to improve its self-image. But, Edmonds needs to focus and clearly define what that image should be – not to listen to developers’ sales pitches.

To illustrate, let’s compare two cities – Santa Barbara, Calif. and Ventura, Calif. Both cities were devastated by a series of earthquakes in the late 1920s. Ventura simply went about rebuilding itself without any real plan toward the future. Santa Barbara did have some citizens who believed that having well designed buildings was both good business and good for business.

Santa Barbara Courthouse
Santa Barbara Couny Courthouse (Wikipedia)

The leader of that civically minded group, Ms. Pearl Chase, with several architect friends, convinced the city government to have an Architectural Review Board. This was the first such board/commission in the nation. Over the next couple of years, the Architectural Review Board (ARB) virtually dictated what buildings were to be salvaged and what buildings were to be completely rebuilt from the ground up. “Under the leadership of Pearl Chase, many of the city’s famous buildings rose as part of the rebuilding process, including the Santa Barbara County Courthouse, sometimes praised as the “most beautiful public building in the United States.” The Santa Barbara County Courthouse is now on the National list of historic landmarks.

The ARB determined the architectural theme or style based on the buildings that suffered the least earthquake damage, which were the older adobe mission buildings. Hence, the design board decided that in the downtown core, the new buildings were to be of a Spanish Colonial Revival theme.

Over the last 88 years, both Ventura and Santa Barbara have grown and prospered. However, Ventura constantly struggles with comparatively high vacancy rates in its downtown core, while Santa Barbara has low vacancy in its core downtown plus higher land and housing market values. Also, Santa Barbara’s tourism business exceeds Ventura’s. But Santa Barbara is not a utopia and has many issues, one of which is the high cost of housing.

Admittedly, this is a very broad brush and very brief comparison. But it is meant to show that good architectural design helps businesses’ bottom line, improves the market value of the taxpayers’ property and increases the City’s tax revenue. Edmonds needs to understand this economic potential so that a discussion can begin about what an “Edmonds Style” might be, and not be just a joke about being “Bunker Moderne.”

A “Bunker Moderne” city.
Edmonds: A “Bunker Moderne” city.

Why is good design great for business? Let me ask: Why did you buy that iPad?

To be continued.

About the author: Eric B. Livingston has degrees in art (focusing on sculpture and a minor in music), culinary art, technical writing and has credits towards an MBA.  He has been awarded prizes for photography and portrait sculpture, has had a one man show, as well as having had work accepted in juried art exhibitions in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. He has researched and written papers on “Aesthetic Universals in Art”, “Linguistics of Food/Cookery” (which was submitted to the 2009 Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery), a white paper for a non-electric irrigation pump manufacturer and wrote several pieces for Seattle Home & Lifestyles magazine. Currently he is a freelance web designer and tech writer. He resides in Edmonds with wife, Eliza, and a dog, Pershing.


4 Replies to “Commentary: Why good architectural design matters”

  1. Great article. I agree, Edmonds would be well served if it could decided what it wants to be. Give investor a clear sign and they will come!


  2. I found this article very interesting and want to spend more time reading and considering it. It’s a tall order to recreate our city into a more aesthetically appealing community, but I would love to see this effort become a priority. I will call to the attention to the Tree Board members the author’s comments about the need for more trees along our streets. Eric Livingston’s analysis of the architecture of Edmonds seems well informed and objective.


  3. Interesting local analysis judged against international exemplars like Santa Barbara. I know very little about your area of the world, so this article was quite informative.


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