Teaching Architecture in Spokane, Washington

The city of Spokane’s newest motto is “Near Nature, Near Perfect.” This can be paired with another oft-repeated description of the city as “the second largest city between Minneapolis and Tokyo.” These two descriptors betray a tug-of-war of ideas, one a respect for the city’s natural surroundings, the other a desire for the cosmopolitan sophistication that only large cities can offer.

The juxtaposition of these ideas reflects complex communal desires that go some way towards informing attitudes about architecture in Spokane. It makes teaching architecture in Spokane engaging as well as challenging. This is because a work of architecture never comes to fruition just because some designer “likes” a particular arrangement of patterns drawn on paper. A work of architecture emerges, because a culture permits it to emerge-because, ultimately, a work of architecture always reflects what a community thinks of itself. Throughout history, buildings and built environments have served as mirrors of a culture’s worldview. And the greatness of those architects who design exemplary buildings in this sense lies not only in their ability to discern what a culture is looking for, but also in their ability to educate a culture on what it ought to be looking for. Teaching architecture in Spokane offers abundant opportunities to train students to think and act in these ways.

One way to make connections between what the community is thinking and desiring with architectural theory and design is to consider the current marketing slogans, along with what the popular media are saying about the city. This information can then be paired with current issues being discussed in the discipline, perhaps at a more academic level. Take a current challenge to Spokane’s built environment: the proliferation of five-acre residential plots expanding outward from the city’s core. “Near Nature, Near Perfect” takes on complicated overtones when applied to this particular issue. On the one hand, the city’s public agencies want to limit this “urban sprawl.” Their understanding of “Near Nature, Near Perfect” is translated into regulations defining urban growth boundaries, so that the natural beauty of the lands surrounding Spokane can be maintained. But to many private citizens, the same slogan implicitly means getting away from the urban center and moving out towards nature, as it were, by owning a homestead with lots of land. It comes from deep within the American “ideology of space,” as commentator Leo Marx* has framed it. The wild and primitive expanse of the American continent is to be tamed and, in the name of progress, “pastoralized” by the lawn-maybe even five acres of lawn. It is a uniquely American desire to be “near nature,” even at the expense, possibly, of preserving that nature for the community as a whole by agreeing to live in more densely packed residential neighborhoods closer to town.

*”The American Ideology of Space” in Denatured Visions: Landscape and Culture in the Twentieth Century.

At the Interdisciplinary Design Institute, Washington State University Spokane, where architecture programs are housed along with programs in landscape architecture and interior design, the tension between private and public interests over definitions of land use embedded in “Near Nature, Near Perfect” has been studied in a variety of projects. For example, faculty and students at the institute were involved in aiding city and county agencies to envision neighborhood town centers as well as rural communities. These design studies, which also included projections for longer-term health and quality-of-life costs, not only sought to strategically conserve natural lands, but also provided defined patterns of housing and commercial uses served by a network of landscaped roadways. The studies involved active citizen focus groups from the community, along with regular newsletters put out by Spokane County.

Spokane has another appropriate slogan: “Spok-CAN!” I think this captures an essential trait of the personality of the Spokane community, a trait that is reflected in the city’s built environments in many ways. Merely some 120 years ago, this region was an outpost for miners and trappers. It was a region for adventurers, a place for rugged individualists to venture to, far from the culture of New York and even Chicago, to seek their fortune, their own spread of land, a better life-an individualist sort of life, a can-do life, a life possible only when citizens make things happen.

This “can-do-ness” results in three traits of Spokane’s built environment. One is a certain utilitarian aesthetic that characterizes its buildings and grounds. Spokane has quite its share of warehouses, silos, and boxy old structures built not as ends in themselves, but as means to practical ends: shipping, selling, storage, whatnot. Interspersed with these are utilitarian objects enlarged to become habitable structures, buildings shaped in the forms of bottles, pioneer wagons, trains, even windmills. I have come to appreciate the city’s vernacular ruggedness and these unreflective attempts at whimsy.

The second trait of this can-do aesthetic is a certain messiness in between buildings. Think of a busy person’s desk: cluttered with objects strewn about not exactly where they should be. This is a snapshot in time of a situation that is going somewhere, that is in process. Because we CAN do, we are not immediately concerned about “finished” appearances. Spokane’s built environment has that same in-process look to it. Drive around Spokane, and you see parking lots not exactly level, edges and lines not exactly plumb, old buildings not exactly inhabited, loading docks not exactly in use, in-between areas that you can drive through, but aren’t clearly either public or private.

The project of teaching architecture should include cultivating an appreciation for such in-between places, knowledge of their histories, a sense of their possibilities. But, of course, it also involves active participation to, as it were, fill in the in-between with well-conceived designs that are sensitive to the city’s historical-cultural moorings. This is an oft-forgotten but nevertheless important point in architectural education: to not only push for “progress” at any cost, but to enhance a community’s built environments by drawing from, and hence remaining true to, its history and regional culture. It is a much more demanding task, but training future architects to be sensitive and responsive to a locale’s historical-cultural roots is one major difference between “architecture” and what might be called pure real estate development conducted in a “can-do,” but perhaps less culturally informed, fashion.

One such opportunity for the design institute is the emerging University District, which the WSU Spokane campus shares with some Eastern Washington University programs. The district, on the eastern edge of the downtown area, is indeed an “in-between” sector of the city. Uneven edges and uncertain structures are in abundance, but along with this, there is a growing sense of a renaissance that would provide Spokane with a defined and thriving academic district in support of the revitalizing downtown core. Our students and faculty have taken an active role in working with the City of Spokane to envision the future layout and ambiance of this district. One such project was brought to the attention of U.S. Senator Patty Murray ’72, who is now actively involved in seeking federal funds to aid the realization of the University District.

A third trait of the can-do aesthetic of Spokane results in buildings like the Davenport Hotel. Punctuating the largely utilitarian urban texture of Spokane can be found gracious architectural gestures that bespeak traditions much longer than the age of this city. One way to tell the story of architecture in America is by considering what the American pioneering spirit looked to in order to define elegance. The early settlers of this country
looked to Europe. Chicago looked to New York. Spokane looked to, well, to the east in general. Kirtland Cutter became famous in these parts in the early 20th century in large part because of his ability to design homes and buildings for the city’s well-to-do in a variety of eclectic styles: Tudor, Gothic Revival, Swiss Chalet, etc.

The Davenport is one of Cutter’s creations; others are the Washington Water Power building, the Chronicle building, and the Patsy Clark and A.B. Campbell mansions. These historic Spokane buildings exhibit the can-do aesthetic in the sense that we CAN be like New York. We CAN be like Chicago. We CAN create elegant expressions of architectural form that ennoble our streetscapes and our lives. We are, after all, the second largest city between Minneapolis and Tokyo.

And so a part of the mentality that has informed Spokane architecture is-as one of my students, Dustin Schaeffer, has aptly called it-the Little-Big-Man mentality. Spokane once had the largest theatre in the West, the Auditorium building. The Monroe Street Bridge was once the biggest concrete span in the world. Little Spokane in 1974 held a big World’s Fair, which emphasized nature as a theme. Spokane offers the most comprehensive medical services of any city within a radius of hundreds of miles. Annually, the streets of downtown Spokane witness the biggest timed race in the world, Bloomsday.

Communities throughout history have looked to architecture, and architects, to reflect the pulse of their worldviews in buildings and environments. The Spokane community is no different. Teaching architecture is not just about drawing buildings and built environments as brute physical forms, or as abstract geometrical arrangements. It is about the ideas, the facts, the histories, and the feelings behind every building that is designed, and behind every environment that is strategically arranged, because what is built and what is arranged are always necessarily indebted to complex communal tensions and desires. Aspirations for architecture come out of this these tensions and desires. And the importance of being in an urban center such as Spokane-one that is so near nature-is simply that these aspirations are rendered complex and rich, making it a good venue for the training of architects.


Note: Cherie Peacock, a student of mine in the M.S. Arch. program in Spokane, did research on “Near Nature, Near Perfect.” Thanks also to Matthew Cohen, Matthew Melcher, Keith Diaz Moore, Barbara Chamberlain, and Kaarin Appel for helping my thinking about this article.

David Wang, an associate professor of architecture in WSU Spokane’s Interdisciplinary Design Institute, recently edited the book, Sounding Spokane: Perspectives on the Built Environment of a Regional City (Eastern Washington University Press), 2003.

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Gallery: Photographs of Spokane by George Bedirian