American Institute of Architects member Blair Payson, who helped lead the recent renovation of the Space Needle, gives his guide to Seattle.
Blair Payson is a maker at heart. As a member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and a principal at Seattle-based global design practice Olson Kundig, Payson’s work ranges from small-scale projects and set design to massive cultural investments—including the recent renovation of the iconic Space Needle.
“There’s a nostalgia for the bungalow city Seattle once was.”
“Seattle is appealing to nearly everyone: It’s beautiful, and it strikes a balance between urban and natural,” says Payson. “There’s a nostalgia for the bungalow city Seattle once was and a quiet outward modesty that cloaks a wildly innovative city with global ambitions. Oh, and the food is amazing.”
Payson’s designs are largely informed by a deep appreciation of history, and his more than 15 years at Olson Kundig have fostered a passion for rigorous research in his work. Here, the architect shares his guide to the Emerald City, from Bainbridge Island to where you’ll find Seattle’s best sweet treats.
Seattle’s architecture = the best history lesson
Seattle isn’t traditionally known as an architectural city, but modern history is surprisingly evident in the architecture here: Many of Seattle’s earliest settlers were loggers and their floating homes still line Lake Union; what used to be the most affordable lodging in town is now the city’s most desirable housing. The Space Needle perfectly captured Seattle’s 1960s coming of age and eager embrace of technology, and it remains the city’s defining icon.
In the International District, the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience is in a remarkably preserved building that housed Chinese clubs focused on making it easier for immigrants to settle in a challenging and often unwelcoming city. Seattle’s public investment priorities are guided by the city’s reputation for high literacy and education rates. One example is the Seattle Central Library, designed by Rem Koolhaas. It’s a fantastic building. Visit the balcony at the topmost level for a view of the atrium.
What to see in Seattle (other than the Space Needle)
I’m fascinated by buildings that teach me something new or make me see things differently. I’m hopeful the newly renovated Space Needle is already on everyone’s list, so here are three more. If you’re curious about Seattle’s newest iconic building, visit the Amazon Spheres. The indoor plantings, communal spaces, and subterranean bar are all interesting additions to the city’s architectural landscape. I also love to visit the moss garden and the Japanese Garden’s Paul Hayden Kirk Guest House at the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island. Lastly, the Center for Wooden Boats is a favorite new addition in South Lake Union. It’s a building that celebrates and continues the craft of wood boat-making, ironically surrounded by offices for some of the most advanced technology companies.
Where to get inspired in Seattle
I love walking through Pike Place Market as vendors are setting up for the day—they have such camaraderie, and I’m always surprised and delighted by what I see or overhear as I pass. The market is well-known for good reason, and it pays to visit early before the rush. Pioneer Square is a lively neighborhood that mixes historic brick and stone buildings with art galleries, boutiques, and restaurants. Pair both of those locations with views of Puget Sound and the Olympic Mountains beyond, and it’s hard not to be inspired.
Three places to see art in Seattle
For scenery and art, you cannot skip the Olympic Sculpture Park. My wife and I got married there, so it’s particularly meaningful for me. Since we’re in Seattle, I count the Boeing factory tour as a cultural destination; I love the scale and complexity of seeing these planes get assembled. I also recommend seeking out the sculptures at Magnuson Park, especially the Sound Garden piece that makes music with the wind; seeing them as a kid completely changed what I thought sculpture could mean.
Seattle ain’t Seattle without caffeine
You also can’t visit Seattle and not experience the coffee culture. I always recommend La Marzocco Café at KEXP for the coffee and ability to watch radio DJs curating their broadcasts. The rapid pace of change in Seattle means that many of the most interesting destinations are in buildings slated for demolition or future development, including the Dynasty Room bar, the Museum of Museums, or the Hideout Bar.
How to get outdoors in the middle of a tech city
Every time I get on the water in Lake Union and explore the houseboat neighborhoods, see the fishing fleet, watch seaplanes land, and pass by Gasworks Park, I’m reminded that Seattle is a special place. It’s so easy to get on the water with rental kayaks or even rental electric boats. I love taking the ferry with my family. Even if it’s just a short ride to Bainbridge Island, there’s something timeless about the passenger section of the ferry with the vinyl seats and everyone reading or playing cards. And there’s nothing better than returning to downtown Seattle by ferry boat.
Seattle’s best-kept secret (or three)
I have three. Whenever we’re in Ballard we stop by Curtis Steiner’s store. The art installations, window displays, cards, and hand-crafted jewelry are exquisite. Peter Miller Books is in a great space in Pioneer Square and is the best architectural bookstore in Seattle. You can always count on Peter to find the perfect book for you. And lastly, Monorail Espresso. I like to go on Sundays when Costa is working. His wife makes these dense cookies called Chubbies. They might just be Seattle’s best-kept secret.