Seattle Visionaries: A Conversation With Tony Gale

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Earlier this week, former City Architect Tony Gale was kind enough to sit down and talk with me about changing trends in architecture, city design and the ways we interact with our urban environment. After nearly 40 years in the field, Gale has a long-range view of how the role of architects has changed over the years, and what "sustainability" has come to mean to the people who design our places for living, working and recreating.

"The most exciting thing going on today is the renovation of our cities, and Seattle is a perfect example of that," says Gale. He's eagerly following new trends in re-imagining cities as "places to live, not just places to work."

When it comes to the big picture in terms of designing places around people, Gale has a pretty well defined wish list. First, city planners can help foster a better human landscape from the outset, with more organic street design. A "gridiron" geometric street layout helps streamline automobile and transit infrastructure, but leaves little room for surprise, delight and creativity. Rather, it's at the interesting intersections, where diagonal streets criss-cross, where hills disrupt the traffic grid, etc., that attract attention and foster neighborhood identity. And he longs to see Seattle make better use of its most stunning natural feature: the waterfront. Here, he's inspired by the work of Ilze Jones (of leading innovators Jones & Jones), who believes that a city's heart and soul should be at the point where the land relates to the water, and that zoning should reflect that.

A good city, he says, also needs: adequate public transit; places to explore (like alleys and compelling vistas); design that's accessible to the elderly and physically challenged; and a lively, stimulating environment where it matters most -- at street level. He's encouraged that cities are starting to re-introduce exciting street-level environments into chilly skyscraper-dominated urban cores. Sidewalk cafes, street trees, pedestrian corridors between buildings and neighborhoods, music, parks, places to sit, public restrooms and more places to interact with others are key to the vitality of people-centric cities (we discussed many of these ideas in last week's feature story).

Picture%201.jpgAnd the role of individual buildings is changing as well. Gale's first building (pictured at right; photo credit: , which he designed with a team of fellow students in 1969 when he was still in school, was an affordable housing development at 26th and Howell. To build the townhouses (for $10.69 per square foot, using basic materials like wooden poles and hand-poured concrete), he and his colleagues recruited unskilled laborers from the community, holding teaching sessions on-site. And they were built to last: one of the homes, originally constructed for $17,000, sold in 2006 for $235,000.

Then, he said, they didn't call it "green building," but the ideas were there. Over time, the unification of green building ideas – first in Europe, then in small pockets in the U.S. in the 80s, leading to more mainstream awareness in the mid-90s – boosted by public leadership initiatives like LEED, have given people an expectation and a vocabulary to fuel the movement on a global scale.

Picture%202.jpgBut, he cautions, being on the cutting edge doesn't always mean adding new technologies. For example, he cites the resurgence in popularity of natural ventilation over the HVAC systems we've designed our buildings around for many decades. Healthier and more comfortable than air conditioning, natural air flow also allows a building to be designed with fewer parts that can wear out or become outdated, giving the structure a much longer lifespan.

"Now people understand how it benefits life in general to develop high performance buildings and put those buildings to work," says Gale. "For too long, buildings have been able to draw passively from the grid. Now by reducing energy usage, promoting healthy environments, and blending nature and the artificial world more than ever before, we are putting meaning back into architecture."

And that means raising the profile of architects themselves. Rather than "rogue artists" (which is how Gale describes Mies van der Rohe and other masters of modern minimalism), architects now shoulder a weightier responsibility for ushering society into a better future, and as such must be respected and trusted public figures.

Gale, who left his position with the City of Seattle in 2004, now serves as Corporate Architect for Starbucks Coffee Co. He enjoys a car-free commute on Seattle's ferry and transit systems year-round. Among his favorite places in Seattle, he lists Pike Place Market, Pioneer Square, the International District, Capitol Hill, the fountain in Seattle Center (pictured above) and the Mariners' stadium.

Photo credit: flickr/auntiem, licensed by Creative Commons.