WHEN THE TRENDSETTERS FROM ZGF came up from Portland to start work on their prize catch - the master plan and $60-million Phase One of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center's Lake Union site - they slipped into town quietly.
Why storm the place? Better to prove themselves first.
Even so, architects around here with their ears to the ground blinked and caught their breath.
Over the past two decades, the bold strokes of ZGF - Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Partnership - helped rejuvenate their hometown into one of the most handsome and civil of places in the United States. And the ZGF contribution was amazingly diverse - civic structures, office buildings, a medical research lab, light-rail links between suburbs and downtown, a waterfront park to replace a freeway.
What might this mean to the state of the art in Washington and, not least importantly, the state of the competition?
The way things are going, it looks like the ZGF brand of architecture, "regionalism" in its purest sense, could be stamped as broadly on these environs as its imprint on Portland, from the green-blue glass dome on the soon-to-open Second and Seneca building to the amber red - instead of creamy yellow - bricks on the new Bellevue library.
And that will not be a bad thing for the art or the competition.
This spring, ZGF received the Firm of the Year Award from the American Institute of Architects for the quality of its work and "ability to shape an American city and influence the daily lives of its citizens."
One of the Institute's highest honors, the award recognizes distinguished architecture over at least 10 years. It was one of the few times the AIA turned from the big guys on the East Coast and in Chicago to tap a winner and the first time they'd looked to the Pacific Northwest. Some suggest the laurel for a regional firm was a sign that an especially American architecture is emerging; an architecture that takes its style not from the latest trend or the architect's ego, but from what is unique about its place.
Zimmer Gunsul Frasca's version looks to the Northwest for inspiration - its climate, geography, respect for the environment; then to Portland, with its small 200-foot city blocks and, consequently, intimate human scale. Its design also takes cues from the client and how a project is supposed to work. All this helps decide what a building looks like - its shape, color, materials, how it occupies its site.
When ZGF Partners picked up the prize in Washington, D.C., it was obvious they're now exporting this regional ethic. A good chunk of the new work they displayed was from the Seattle area - the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center on Lake Union; Wright Runstad & Company's Second and Seneca Building in downtown Seattle; the Bellevue library; the Union Station redevelopment in Pioneer Square; the Mary Baker Russell Music Center for Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.
Combined with other projects in Washington - from a master plan for Weyerhaeuser's East Campus to an Environmental and Molecular Sciences Laboratory for the U.S. Department of Energy in Richland - ZGF can claim $300 million in gross construction volume since it opened here in 1988. The Seattle branch, with Dan Huberty as managing partner and Evett Ruffcorn as partner in charge of design, has grown from three to 33 employees.
The company has another office in Newport Beach, Calif., to be closer to clients such as the University of California, and there are commissions in New Jersey, Colorado, Missouri and Illinois. Last year's billings for the entire firm exceeded $17 million.
It looks like ZGF is here to stay. Indeed, partners don't laugh at the idea of someday making Seattle a home office, given opportunities here versus Portland.
If a track record counts, this corner on the map - bigger, more complex and dynamic than Portland - should expect solutions from ZGF that really pay attention to what makes the region special. Take a look at, the Second and Seneca building, the firm's first visible work in downtown Seattle.
When one approaches the city by ferry, Second and Seneca looks friendly and optimistic among its bigger neighbors. Its tower entrance facing the city slenderizes the bulk on one corner or, as Bob Frasca puts it, "deals with the dumpiness factor." The dome on top can be lit at night, giving it a minor landmark status. Reflective blue-green glass is sympathetic to surrounding structures. The Elliott Bay side is irregularly stepped down toward views of the sun and water. At least one architect in town calls it the "Ban Roll On" building, too small for such a big gesture like a dome. But other people find it creative, yet not self-conscious, a building that tells a Seattle story that couldn't be told exactly the same way anywhere else.
ZGF'S PRESENCE here shouldn't be a surprise.
The practice of architecture in America - assisted as it is by fax machines, computers and cross-country flights - is no longer limited to its own backyard. Several Seattle architectural firms also send their own respected product around the world.
But in these economic times, architects are driven to seek more opportunity. "Seattle is one of the few areas in the country where the economy hasn't fallen apart," says architect Kevin Gent of Mithun Partners. In the past few years, so many architects have moved here that the Seattle area now has one of the highest concentrations of architects in the country, he says.
That means local clients' expectations for high quality have gone up.
Until lately, the Seattle area's location kept it an outpost. Outsiders who won a big commission dropped in, then packed up. Or they paired with a local firm that carried out the on-location work. Take New York's Kohn Pederson Fox and its Washington Mutual Tower, or Philadelphia's Venturi, Scott Brown & Associates and the Seattle Art Museum. Both firms have won the AIA Firm Award. Now when it comes time to bid on plum projects, ZGF is often another player at the table. Frequently, they win.
Local architects talk like good sports. But there's no question it raises the ante. "They've done a very good job of landing on their feet, and it's surprised some people . . . people who were well-positioned to get those jobs and weren't aggressive enough," Gent says.
Their peers were curious when ZGF added the Bellevue Library commission to its Seattle-area portfolio in 1989. At the first public presentation of ZGF's scheme for the project, at least half the audience was made up of architects who'd come to check out the competition.
AND WHAT IS THE ZIMMER GUNSUL FRASCA formula?
A good place to start is Frasca's unpretentious office in a renovated warehouse, where three floors serve as home to 90 employees in downtown Portland.
The architect can look out any window and see something his firm has designed: the dramatic twin-towered Oregon Convention Center across the river, the KOIN Center, stations for the Banfield Light Rail Transitway - considered a model in urban transportation - and the Justice Center. Fundamentally, the work is modern, clean-lined and fresh, but so idiosyncratic with details that respond to the site, client or function that it doesn't look formulaic.
"I don't know why, but they always seem able to do a different style of architecture . . . All their buildings seem to have a different twist to them," says Gerry Brock, head of the Portland Landmarks Commission and a former architect with the firm TRA in Seattle.
It's easier to understand that responsiveness up close. The detailing - for instance, of the brick pattern on the Oregon Convention Center - is fine. "It's like the difference between polyester and a fine tweed," says Frasca.
The brick's varied colors add to the richness of the building, changing its look with the light and the viewing distance. Much of ZGF's work respects natural light, sun and views. Thus, the Oregon Convention Center's glass-and-steel towers are not only landmarks, but a way to capture the clouds and sky.
Materials often are light-colored as a counterpoint to the climate. Frasca used pink terra-cotta tile on the Vollum Institute for Advanced Biomedical Research on Portland's Pill Hill. Terra cotta enabled him to control color, achieve variety in texture and cast a rosy glow on what used to be a parking lot and is now a lively, well-used courtyard.
ZGF makes art part of the total design from the start. "Some architects feel art is something you put on the wall after you put up a building. ZGF doesn't feel that way," says Dorothy Piacentini, vice chairman of the Portland Design Commission. In the Oregon Convention Center, large-scale pieces such as murals, a brass pendulum suspended from the ceiling and giant bells are complemented by smaller works that may be enjoyed by the conventioneer on an intimate level.
FRASCA IS THE FIRM'S PARTNER IN charge of design. Over the years, by virtue of talent, charisma and seniority, he's emerged as the partner most quoted on ZGF's belief that architecture should enrich its environment.
His infatuation with design started on cold winter nights in upstate New York when his father, an Italian blacksmith who created intricate patterns in wrought iron, taught his boy to draw with crayons.
The boy eventually became a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his mentor, the dean, persuaded him to start a career in Portland. The dean was architect Pietro Belluschi, one of the country's first regionalists.
Belluschi later returned to practice in Portland, where his work received a Gold Medal, the AIA's highest award.
The young architect, meanwhile, joined the Portland firm of Wolff & Zimmer. In 1966, manager Norman Zimmer reorganized to play up Frasca's design talent and the technical know-how of architect Brooks Gunsul. The new partners saw themselves as a three-legged stool - management and technology were given equal weight with the pursuit of art.
At a time when Portland was emerging from urban slumber, the architects' ideal was to do high-quality work and still make money. Today, Zimmer's retired and the firm has eight partners and 140 employees. But the goal's the same, if harder to achieve, given the complexity of modern construction and the uncertain economy.
"Architecture is a lot like filmmaking," says Frasca. "It deals with some of the same uncertainties: clients, actors, weather, budget."
The Hutchinson job is a good example: complex budget - with a $30-million mechanical and electrical system that costs as much as all of the rest of the architecture; high-tech construction on a dense urban site - with laboratories that need every utility imaginable, from gas and electric to high-pressure water; and an array of parties to satisfy - from citizens and the city to the scientists and board of directors.
All ZGF has to do is weave it together into a 288,000-square-foot world-class facility. One architect could never do it alone. Once again, the multidisciplines of the stool have been crucial.
Take the twin glass-and-steel tower design on the Oregon Convention Center, which opened last September. Frasca and other senior designers and technical experts pressed over and over - sometimes going away in a huff, then coming back together again - to find the right balance between the technical and the aesthetic.
"It's the kind of place where there's this constant churning to be the best," says Nancy Fishman, the firm's marketing director. "It's a very hard-driving firm, not a place where you'd come and kind of play."
Those intent on doing their own thing don't stay or may be asked to leave.
Ironically, at one point, Frasca had designed so many of Portland's buildings, the town was sometimes dubbed "Frasca Land."
But the ego appears to be in check.
"Nobody's going to ever remember that I was here," he says. "The important thing is the quality of what remains behind and how that contributes to the society and everybody it touches."
NOT ALL OF THEIR PROJECTS HAVE been wonderful. There's plenty to criticize, says Michael Harrison, district planning manager for the city of Portland. Like other cities across the nation during the 1970s, Portland got its share of impersonal modernist structures. ZGF was responsible for a few of those "shoeboxes set on end," he says.
But the 1970s were a long time ago. And Harrison doesn't mean to discount ZGF's contribution to Portland, which he sees as strong and positive.
Indeed, his compliments for the firm sound like a list of Boy Scout virtues: leadership, sensitivity to what makes Portland special, ability to win big projects and execute them well. When it comes to a pivotal building, he names the $45-million Justice Center completed in 1983 across a city park from Michael Graves' controversial Portland Building.
Graves' fanciful creation has been touted as the first major postmodern structure in the country. It started what has become a decade of debate about the postmodern movement - a style of architecture that tries to remedy the sterility of modernism by imitating elements in traditional structures such as distinguishable tops, middles and bottoms, decoration and detail.
In the Justice Center, much of what ZGF had been striving for came together at once. It also was the first ZGF work to garner a lot of national attention.
The building houses police offices, courtrooms, state-owned shops and restaurants, parking facilities, and a 430-bed county jail. Frasca designated specific parts of the structure for art - for example, the staircase balustrade, a huge window in front, and the lighting - then sat on the committee that selected the artists, who were paid with mandated one-percent-for-art money.
The building is a jewel in its neighborhood, but does not overpower it. The polished precast-concrete exterior, for instance, is similar in color to the granite of older nearby neighbors.
The lobby, with its vaulted ceiling, elevates the experience of law and order to the level of majesty with terrazzo floors and marble trim, copper lamps and a stainless-steel balustrade up a curving staircase. The huge arched window in the lobby is inspirational. Stained-glass designer Ed Carpenter used five kinds of glass: mirrored, translucent and transparent, iridescent, beveled and diagonal. The effect is kaleidoscopic and ever-changing.
ZGF not only takes a project beyond expectations, but convinces the client and public to follow. "They, more than most, seem to be able to pull the client an inch further into the creative realm," says architect Brock, of the Landmarks Commission.
And to make sure what it designs gets built, the firm is willing to go out on a limb to push hard on a variety of civic/political levels. "All of which is good for the firm, but which is also good for design and its appreciation in Portland and the development of an aesthetic," says Harrison.
It all played out in the Banfield Light Rail project.
The early design didn't have bricks and fountains, trees and street furniture because there wasn't enough money, says G.B. Arrington, director of strategic and long-range planning for Tri-Met (Tri County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon).
But ZGF prodded downtown business, Tri-Met officials and city leaders to be more high-minded and find a way to enhance the budget. Once agreement was won, the city formed a Local Improvement District that raised enough money to enable Sen. Mark Hatfield to secure matching federal funds for more amenities.
Today, the Light Rail is not just a track running from station to station. It has a bigger mission: to stimulate local business along the way and to preserve, even enhance, the character of the communities it serves.
Thus, the line downtown moves along red and dark-gray brick paving. Shelters are black steel frames with glass canopies and brass accents. Farther on, the shelters keep their design but change to a gray-blue, in deference to more park-like surroundings. Into the suburbs, covered structures made of brick are added to reinforce a more residential character.
The transit, open almost five years, has exceeded original expectations for riders. Since the decision to build, over $800 million in development has occurred along the tracks.
Since then, ZGF partner Greg Baldwin, who was principal designer on the Light Rail project, has consulted on similar projects in Texas and Colorado. He's now principal designer on the first phase of a "Metro High Capacity Transit Alternatives Analysis" for the greater Seattle area. The study will look at many transportation alternatives such as rail, bus and High Occupancy Vehicle lanes.
ZGF has both shaped Portland and been shaped by it. As early as the '60s the city's politicians, developers and citizens struggled to find a common vision of what they wanted the city to be. The plan identified how Portland's downtown land would be used (for commercial, residential or recreational purposes), targeted areas for development, set limits on height and bulk. Its larger vision reaffirmed that downtown would remain intact: a strong, vital, focal point for the region, despite the onslaught of freeways and shopping malls.
Such a commitment created opportunity. ZGF, in turn, understood its city, and not only participated in creating The Plan, but helped translate its vision into form.
Seattle hasn't had the luxury of such contemplation. "Development didn't happen as quickly in Portland," says Huberty, managing partner in the Seattle office. "There was more of an opportunity to learn from one building to another."
Still, the two cities share a common culture and respect for the environment. And ZGF obviously is making more than a tentative go of it. Clients already rave about the firm's sensitivity and responsiveness. Those qualities helped them win the Master Plan and Phase One of the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center job, one of the premiere commissions in the nation that attracted powerhouse competitors.
Being a democratic outfit full of bright people with strong opinions, Hutchinson invited its facilities planners, board of directors and scientists to select the winner. It was a huge group to impress.
"They certainly sparked the imaginations of the scientific staff," says Don Audleman, property development consultant for the Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
What the Portland architects did was get inside the scientists' heads.
They were able to put the Hutch commission in perspective by comparing it with their work on the Vollum Institute for Advanced Biomedical Research, completed by ZGF in 1986 for the Oregon Health Sciences University.
Frasca learned about the human side of science by listening to Vollum researchers and while watching a PBS television show in which Nobel Prize winners were interviewed. A great many came from Oxford and Cambridge in England. A few of the recipients said not all their great ideas came while they were looking into test tubes. They met for tea every day, and sometimes that was when the light bulb came on.
Also, it seemed to him that the spaces in those older research facilities were more conducive to reflection.
So Frasca, along with a technical team, designed the Institute with the practical and the spiritual in mind. He chose a difficult site, squeezed between two other buildings, because of its views and the opportunity to link the research quadrangle.
Inside, he connected individual high-tech labs to each other. They open onto a corridor that ends in small light-filled spaces with seating graced by huge windows embracing the sky and Portland's hilly, tree-covered landscape.
The architect's goal was to provide visual relief from the lab atmosphere and to encourage spontaneous interaction. Frasca shared this with the Hutchinson people, then likened the steps taken to design a building with the process of scientific discovery.
"It was very compelling to the scientists," said Audleman.
The Hutchinson Cancer Research Center awarded them the job on the condition that they set up shop in Seattle. The same kind of story unfolded during the design-review process for the new Bellevue library, to be near the corner of Northeast 12th Street and 110th Avenue Northeast, adjacent to downtown.
At about $12 million and 80,000 square feet, it will be the largest library in the King County Library System, and will house the system's largest reference collection.
Even though they'd picked ZGF for the job, library administrators still worried that once the project was under way they'd get "the Madison Avenue hustle," the "Leave the architecture to us and you'll get a great building" attitude from such a prestigious firm.
"It's so hard to get architects to listen," explains Ron Bills, project coordinator for the Bellevue Library.
But ZGF did listen.
When it came time to preview the architects' scheme, the library administrators loved it. Everything, that is, except the color.
ZGF's recommendation was a cream-colored brick and travertine building.
"I had concerns about the yellow brick. It just didn't feel right for the building and that location and what we were trying to accomplish," recalls William Ptacek, director of the King County Library System. "The whole flavor of it was more trivial and fun rather than serious."
The director adds: "These guys could've just tried to ram it through, and they probably could've pulled it off."
Instead, Frasca rang up Ptacek from Portland and asked a lot of questions. Had the firm not been listening? What was it the administrators didn't like? What were their concerns?
A new solution came back: rich amber-red sandstone, which pleased the library people immensely.
During work sessions over the next few weeks, the architects painstakingly refined the basic design until all its details reflected both its purpose and its place.
"It was important the building have a monumental kind of urban quality to it," says Ruffcorn, design partner in ZGF's Seattle office. "Yet, it needed to be very inviting, almost residential in scale as well."
And while some other buildings by well-known architects have a look that's the same from city to city, the Bellevue Library will not be a knockoff. No other project in the ZGF portfolio looks like this one, as does no other library in the United States.
Its front facade will sweep in a curve. Clerestory shed roofs will capture the northern light. Big "porches" are to be held up by tree-like columns marking the entries, which are ZGF's modern-day version of the old-fashioned library, with wide steps flanked by two lions leading to a front door. The roof will be terne-coated stainless steel, better than copper. The windows will be lightly tinted, but basically clear.
"It's a unique building" says Bills. "They probably wouldn't design it for another place."
MARSHA KING IS A REPORTER FOR THE SEATTLE TIMES NEWFEATURES SECTIONS.