There are no stars at Miller/Hull Partnership. Rather, it is a humble Northwest architectural firm doing really good work. Its integrity, teamwork, and aversion to “style” recently won the firm a place in architecture’s pantheon.
Their buildings are community hallmarks. The Fisher Pavilion at Seattle Center. Bainbridge Island’s City Hall. The Discovery Park Visitor Center in Seattle.
They’re beautifully built to meet the needs of their communities in an environmentally friendly way. But please don’t say they have a “style.” That’s one of the least favorite words around Miller/Hull Partnership’s downtown Seattle offices. Surprising, since the architecture firm, led by four Washington State University alumni, recently won the 2003 American Institute of Architects Firm Award. Inaugurated in 1961, this most prestigious award in U.S. architecture annually recognizes architects who have consistently produced distinguished work. Miller/Hull is only the second firm in the Northwest ever to have received the award.
Searching for the correct idea
Rather than having a particular style, the Miller/Hull partners contend that solving problems well and honestly has been the key to their success. The firm is known for providing direct, rational solutions appropriate for program and site conditions. It also believes strongly in environmental balance and energy conservation. Sustainable design has always been an abiding principle of the firm, coming about naturally from its sensitive response to the project site. Rather than stylistic trappings, the firm is known for its sense of direct honesty and beauty. Its success is evident in that it has won more than 100 design awards in its 25-year history, including two national awards from the AIA.
“We listen to our clients to really solve the problem on a case-by-case basis,” says Norman Strong (’78 Architecture). “There are constraints and opportunities in each project. You get the best you can for the client. If you do it with a twist, and do something that is unexpected, we gauge that as being a success.
“You can do what’s expected, but what can you do beyond that?”
Although its clientele varies widely, the firm has had the most impact with small, publicly funded projects that benefit the community. In particular, Miller/Hull has worked to portray the heart of communities through its architecture. When it designed a building for King County that would house alcoholic rehabilitation programs, it worked for a building that would capture the idea of rehabilitation. The building came to represent a bridge that led residents back to their healthy lives. Similarly, what could be thought of as a mundane recycling transfer station on Vashon Island instead became beautiful, with the building itself reflecting the community’s concern for environmental conservation.
“They take real unique advantage of the context of being in the Northwest,” says Greg Kessler, director of WSU’s School of Architecture and Construction Management. “They pay attention to the integration of architecture with the landscape and have understanding of how architecture can enhance the human experience and improve the quality of life. “They work with a palette of materials that’s intrinsically appropriate for this environment,” he adds.
A tumultuous time
The Miller/Hull partnership had its beginnings at WSU, where David E. Miller (’68 Arch.) and Robert E. Hull (’68 Arch.) met as classmates in architecture. It was the late 1960s. Protests against the Vietnam War were sweeping campuses throughout the country, including Pullman.
For Hull, who grew up in Moses Lake, the experience at WSU was liberating. For the first time in his life, he traveled to places like Berkeley and Chicago. The radicalism of the times spilled over into his architecture world. The small group of architecture students and professors to which he belonged became a cohesive group of friends in their explorations. Miller, from Seattle, remembers virtually living in the architecture building.
“We had great conversations about design in and out of the studio,” he says.
Miller and Hull became good friends. The pair liked the vernacular forms they saw in the rural area around Pullman, examining silos and grain terminals. They liked the directness and rational, engineered approach to those buildings and spent hours studying and sketching them.
At one point, they developed a scheme to develop housing underneath freeways. Another time, a group of students under the direction of Professor Donald Heil built their own portable housing and assembled it next to the Grande Ronde River. They lived in their structures over a month, learning firsthand about context, forms, and relationships, structure and thermal comfort. In the end, the emotional experience ended when the students destroyed their creation by setting fire to their “village” in a giant bonfire.
“People were trying new ideas, and we stretched our imaginations,” says Miller.
Hull gives credit to his WSU professors, especially David M. Scott, for forcing him and his classmates to look at creative ways to solve problems. They continue to use those lessons on their projects today. Through diagramming and hand-drawings, the architects start searching for the right solutions. As they solve problems and gather feedback, they are also thinking about form, climate, the site, the landscape, and structure.
“If you can solve a problem in a poetic, artistic way, there’s your concept,” Hull says. “If you come up with a strong conceptual idea, then it is a recipe for success. We learned that early on at WSU.”
One problem at a time
In fact, the firm prides itself on its problem-solving.
“By problems, I don’t mean bad problems,” says Hull. ” ‘Problem’ is a good word. It allows us to get in, really analyze, and solve that project.”
So, for instance, when Miller/Hull was asked to design a new pavilion for the Seattle Center, the partners first looked at the problems that they needed to solve. The first Flag Pavilion at Seattle Center was built in 1962, meant to serve as a temporary building during the World’s Fair. Forty years later, the building stood in the middle of Seattle Center, blocking views to the center’s most prominent feature, the International Fountain. How would the replacement for the Flag Pavilion open up views? Another problem involved how to make the building usable for an almost incomprehensible variety of uses. The building is used for everything from a dog and cat show to an ice skating rink and everything in between, including, literally, whirling dervishes. More than a dozen major festivals use the building.
The initial problem-solving on any project comes from the designer’s brain. In this case, Hull thought of excavating the site and lowering the building to a subterranean level, allowing other users in the area, particularly a children’s theater nearby, to have a view of the fountain over the building. At the same time, the building could still be big enough to host huge crowds. Excavating the site also created additional green space in front of the building, creating a civic center that previously didn’t exist.
Along with creativity and conceptual development, the Miller/Hull partners also know good technique. They might have crazy ideas, but they know drawing, three-dimensional modeling, structural concepts, materials, finishes, and color.
Because the WSU architecture program has historically included a strong emphasis on the technical aspects of both architecture and engineering, the Miller/Hull partners learned the nuts and bolts of architecture, from structures, thermo-comfort, and acoustics to cost analysis and post-construction evaluation.
Hull admits he struggled through some of his civil engineering courses.
“We were always the boneheads,” he says, trying to keep up with the left-brained engineering students. Now, the part
ners use their knowledge of structures to create beautiful buildings. In fact, the firm is known for extracting expression through the structural.
“That is a very strong part of our architectural design today,” says Hull. “When you look at our buildings, you understand how they are put together.”
The Miller/Hull partners also know the basics and discipline of drawing. Drawing, says Hull, is how architects arrive at design, and being comfortable with drawing in any form is all-important in terms of attacking conceptual ideas [Is there any other kind?].
In an age when professional drawings are always done on the computer, Miller and Hull still look at their applicants’ free-hand drawings in deciding whether to hire them.
After graduation, Miller and Hull both joined the Peace Corps. In Afghanistan, Hull designed schools with available building materials-mostly mud, brick, and wood. Miller, meanwhile, headed to Brazil, where he built housing near Brasilia. Hull observed practices that the Afghans had used for more than a thousand years, such as using passive solar energy and building orientation to keep living spaces comfortable throughout the year. Both noted the spare and efficient, yet beautiful indigenous architecture. The experience helped solidify their ideas in sustainable development that they continue to use today.
“We learned about simplicity and being able to do a lot with a little,” says Miller.
Returning from Peace Corps service, Miller and Hull put in time with architectural firms on the East Coast and in the Northwest. Miller enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he completed a Master of Architecture degree. In addition to his design work, he teaches architecture at the University of Washington.
The two friends met again in Vancouver, British Columbia, where both worked for the Vancouver-based firm, Rhone & Iredale. After becoming partners in the firm, they started a Seattle branch office. When the company dissolved in 1977, they launched Miller/Hull.
The firm is unusual in its strong collaborative culture. An award-winning building is not known as a Miller design or anyone else’s design. Rather, buildings are consistently identified as Miller/Hull buildings, and the name of the lead architect is a well-kept secret.
“There are no ‘stars,'” says Hull. “Rather, it’s a team of people who get involved and follow the project from start to finish.”
Miller/Hull has worked to stay small. Strong was hired in 1979 as the third employee. He impressed the principals with a student project he had done to renovate the WSU engineering shops. Craig Curtis (’83, Arch., ’84 Const. Mgmt.) joined Miller/Hull in 1986 after working three years in San Diego. His background in architecture and construction management proved to be an asset.
“We share the same values professionally and personally,” he says.
The firm now numbers 48 employees in the office, including four other WSU graduates, in addition to the partners.
The partners remain tied to their academic roots. Miller/Hull recently completed WSU’s new Shock Physics Building on the Pullman campus. Their firm often hosts student critiques, and a representative from the firm serves on the School of Architecture and Construction Management advisory board. They consider their service investment in architecture in the Northwest.
Winning the award
For weeks, the partners had known that the firm was a finalist for the AIA award. They were told a phone call announcing the winner would come at 10:30 a.m. on a Thursday morning in early December. Hull was designated to answer the call. Not wanting to jinx his chances, he didn’t prepare any remarks.
When the call came, Hull says, he suddenly found himself on a speaker phone, mumbling through some “aw, gee whiz” remarks before 70 esteemed colleagues. After the initial shock wore off, he found it much easier to articulate what the award means. The award, he says, gave the firm a sense of validity. The honor is not just for a few of its nicest buildings, but rather shows the consistency of its work, the way the firm conducts itself, how their office works as a team, and its community service.
In his letter of support for Miller/Hull, Douglas Kelbaugh, dean and professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan, wrote that over time, architects’ personal values and personalities inevitably come out in their work. “The bedrock values that ultimately come through with Miller/Hull are integrity, modesty, and honest virtue, whether it is environmental sensitivity, community service, structural clarity, or professional incorruptibility,” he wrote.
The award represents a challenge for the future. Miller/Hull is now linked with the other top architectural firms that have won the award, such as Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, who designed Chicago’s Sears Tower, and Cesar Pelli & Associates, architects of the Petronas Twin Towers in Malaysia. From now on, any Miller/Hull project will be scrutinized more closely and examined in this new light.
“It is a challenge to work smarter and do the job even better,” says Hull. “We don’t want to change the culture of the firm,” adds Curtis. “We’re a humble Northwest firm that does really good work.”
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