Seattle is a city with a little bit of everything, and this is also apparent in its architectural influences. Incorporated in 1869, Seattle is still home to many older buildings and homes built in the late 1800s and early 1900s, as well as striking, newer buildings that push the envelope of design and function. From towering skyscrapers like the Columbia Center to unusual structures like MoPop, here are some of Seattle’s most noteworthy buildings.
Columbia Center is Seattle’s tallest building, towering at 943 feet and 76 floors. The structure is stark and modern and sleek, and just as impressive on the inside as it is on the outside. On the 73rd floor is the Skyview Observatory, one of the best viewpoints in all of Seattle and highly rated among all observatories worldwide. And on the first floor is a three-story atrium filled with retail spaces. Digital signage guides visitors through the building. The Columbia Center is the tallest LEED Platinum certified building in the world, with more than 50 percent of the building’s waste recycled or composted, and efforts to install energy efficient upgrades regularly. The Columbia Center also features crown lighting on the exterior that changes to reflect holidays, special occasions and even Seahawks touchdowns!
Formerly called the Washington Mutual Tower, 1201 3rd Avenue is one of Seattle’s most beautiful downtown buildings. Its design is classic and vaguely similar to New York's Empire State building, even though this tower was built in 1988 by Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates and The McKinley Architects. It stands at 772 feet tall, is the second tallest building in Seattle and eighth tallest on the West Coast. The building houses a conference center, fitness center, a Starbucks (of course) and a market, a florist, and a restaurant.
The Space Needle is an observation tower where you can catch views of the city, the Puget Sound and mountains in the distance, and it’s also home to the SkyCity restaurant. It’s easy to take the Space Needle for granted since we see it all the time, but this bit of architecture is so distinctive that it’s become a symbol of the city and it recognizable far and wide. Its design is the result of the combined ideas of Edward E. Carlson (who wanted the tower to look like a giant balloon) and John Graham, Jr. (who wanted to involve a flying saucer), and the structure was completed in 1962 for the World’s Fair. But the Space Needle is more than just a pretty face. It’s also structurally tough and can take winds up to 200 mph, up to category 5 hurricane-force winds, and keep standing in earthquakes up to a 9.1 magnitude.
The Smith Tower is a Seattle classic. It’s not the tallest building in town and it's not the flashiest either. But the triangle-topped tower is unique and well recognized as it’s one of the older buildings downtown. When Smith Tower opened to the public on July 4, 1914, it housed, two telegraph offices, retail stores, a public telephone station and offered office space. The building was designed by a New York firm called Gaggin & Gaggin, who had never designed anything more than five stories tall — and they never designed another skyscraper after the Smith Tower either. What makes the tower so charming is that it still retains so much of its history — one of its elevators is still operated by its original DC motor, the “Wishing Chair” that has been in the tower since the start is still there on the 35th floor, and the viewing deck on that same 35th floor is still open to visitors just as it has been since 1914.
It’s rare that you see a library on a list of awesome architecture, but Seattle’s main library is no architectural slouch. In fact, it’s pretty strange looking to say the least — all angles and glass and steel. But look closer and you’ll see that this building is a marvel of both creativity and function. Designed by Rem Koolhaas and Joshua Prince-Ramus of OMA/LMN, and opened in 2004, the Seattle Central Library tops out at 362,987 square feet and can hold about 1.45 million books in its walls. The interior has all the usual library fare, as well as colorful hallways and escalators, a sweet view from the top floor, and a bright and airy feel due to the floor-to-ceiling windows all around. Its design is so unique that it was voted onto the American Institute of Architects’ list of 150 favorite structures in the US.
Formerly known as Safeco Field, T-Mobile Park is where the Seattle Mariners major league baseball team plays. It’s visible from I-5 heading into Seattle and has been a Seattle landmark since its completion in 1999. Architectural features that make it a standout include its retro appeal — its brick façade and natural grass field. But make no mistake — T-Mobile Park is an engineering feat with its retractable roof designed to shield Mariners fans on rainy days and let them enjoy the rays on sunny days. The stadium is also fully ADA accessible.
Formerly the Experience Music Project, MoPop is a lot like the Seattle Central Library in that its exterior is something passersby just can’t ignore. Unlike the library, MoPop is not made of glass and steel, but an explosion of colorful curves. Designed by Frank O. Gehry, the building is meant to convey the rock n roll experience and nebulously incorporates the curves of Stratocaster guitars. But its architecture is unconventional for sure and the building has had plenty of critics. However, the curvy, shimmery structure that is MoPop has also become a recognizable piece of the Seattle Center and houses a very cool museum within.
The Suzzallo Library is named after the president of the university at the time of its conception, Henry Suzzallo. Opened in 1926, the building looks much older than it is and feels like something out of a Harry Potter film. The exterior is all sandstone, terracotta and slate. But the interior is where the awe really starts. Head to the reading room and you’ll be greeted by towering gothic arches and equally towering leaded-glass windows. Bookshelves line the walls and are topped with hand-carved friezes of native Washington plants. Elaborate light fixtures hang down from the high ceiling.
The Bullitt Center claims to be the “greenest commercial building in the world,” and its design lives up to the claim with innovative architecture that all serves a functional and green purpose. The roof has an impressive 575 solar panels meaning that the structure generates as much electricity as it uses; and likewise has a net zero water usage as the building collects rainwater, uses it and recycles water back into the ground. The toilets are all composting and part of the world’s only six-story composting toilet system (consequently, there’s just about no water in the toilets either). Virtually every system within this building and every facet of its design feeds back into keeping it green.
If you’re a fan of architecture from another era, then check out Seattle’s oldest, still-standing structure — Ward House. Built in 1882, Ward House is a rare example of the Victorian-era Italianate style of house. While the house is no longer in its original location (where it faced demolition due to being too close to the Washington State Convention and Trade Center site) and it was restored in 1986 to keep it from falling apart, it still stands as a testament to another era of Seattle.
Pacific Science Center
While the Space Needle tends to get all the architectural attention as far as Seattle Center goes, the Pacific Science Center is no slouch. While the center sits on a 7-acre campus, its most distinct features are the lacy arches in its open-air courtyard, while the Science Center itself is built from concrete slabs highlighted by delicate arches built into the design. The Pacific Science Center was designed by Minoru Yamasaki and opened to the public, like the Space Needle, in 1962 for the World’s Fair. During the World’s Fair, it was called the World of Science, but after the fair closed down, the name changed and has remained the same ever since.