2019 McGranahan Architectour

As architects, we like to challenge traditional design thinking and start conversations about innovative strategies and building methods to inspire new ideas.

In June McGranahan’s 2019 Architectour ventured north to check-in on recent development in Seattle’s South Lake Union, an area which has gone through incredible transformation. We visited projects of different scales, from large new iconic buildings to small, context sensitive insertions. Among the 23 specific sites on the tour, highlights included the Amazon Spheres and the Center for the Wooden Boats. We did a lot of trekking throughout the city that day and enjoyed great discussion on the buildings we visited and architecture in general. About 20 people from our office joined – an attendance record!

The tour began with everyone meeting up in the lobby of Via6, a two-tower residential development significant for the urban activity cultivated in the podium base. A vibrant interior pathway parallels the sidewalk linking retail, community space and resident amenities. For such a largescale project, the thoughtful consideration of the human scale and connection to the streetscape was impressive.



From there we crossed the street and met up with John Savo, a principal at NBBJ, who led a portion of the tour including Amazon’s headquarters, Seattle City Light’s Denny Substation and NBBJ’s Seattle offices. NBBJ, and John in particular, has been integrally involved with design and the evolution of South Lake Union helping to shape both public policy and built projects.  John gave insights into the development of the neighborhood and the design of those buildings. We truly appreciate his willingness to give his Saturday morning to lead the tour.

A highlight of the tour was seeing inside and exploring the Amazon Spheres with John’s perspective on the project’s inspiration, complexity, and execution. The iconic Spheres, housing more than 25,000 plants from around the world, are a key amenity of the downtown headquarters and designed to help Amazon’s employees think and work differently while being surrounded by nature.  In the Spheres, the bold architecture and layered spaces showcase lush flora and vivid constructed landscapes.



Nearby, we stopped in front of the South Lake Union Discovery Center and Denny Park learn about key periods of change for the neighborhood – from the land-transforming Denny Regrade to failed visions for the Seattle Commons – that positioned the neighborhood for the current development. The outcome of the failed park proposal for the neighborhood resulted in a single land-owner controlling most of the property in the area and allowing a large, coordinated urban renewal transformation. The South Lake Union Discovery Center served initially as a vision and sales center for proposed development. The original design was challenged to embrace the typical notions of flexibility; to create an iconic building to serve its current function well, yet which could be moved and repurposed in a different location when needs changed.  Now surrounded by large development, that move seems more imminent.

Investment in the public realm from streetscape and parks to transit and infrastructure has been a part of the transformation. We visited the nearly complete Seattle City Light Denny Substation, a near full-block project providing utility capacity for the continued development. Beyond the basic infrastructure needs, the substation creates public space with a small park and community venue as well as the integration of art and pathways that invite exploration and discovery of the site’s use.


Along our route we saw a varied development types from those integrating and repurposing century-old warehouse and manufacturing structures to residential or office uses, and new ground-up development ranging from full-block schemes to single parcel infill. Sensitivity to the through block connection development of interior courts or alleyways helped humanize the larger projects and make an approachable and rich cityscape. The buildings we saw included the Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Alley 24, Art Stable, and the Terry Thomas.



A picnic lunch was enjoyed at South Lake Union Park and the new Center for Wooden Boats. It proved a good spot for a break as well as reflection on material and craft.  The later half of our tour showcased residential and hospitality projects under construction including Citizen M Hotel, 9th & Thomas, and 333 Dexter. Of particular interest was the integration of tiny storefronts in the base of some of these projects to activate the sidewalk.



The last stops of our tour included recent projects around the Seattle Center including the Gates Foundation, Opera Center, and Marion Oliver McCaw Hall Fountain Court. Finally, we capped the tour with a wonderful dinner sponsored by Vitro Glass. Thank you, Andre Kenstowicz, for the delicious Mexican food! Although the length of the tour was a bit physically exhausting, we had a blast that day and found ourselves inspired and our spirits elevated by the architecture and the city.


Author: Brett Santhuff, AIA, LEED AP

Posted: August 28, 2019