JetModern: Power and Preservation

Posted on: September 28th, 2009 by Guest Writer 2 Comments
Space Needle, Seattle

Space Needle, Seattle

In one brief day in Seattle, I met with three great preservation groups, DOCOMOMO WEWA, Historic Seattle, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.

If, as Eugenia Woo of DOCOMOMO WEWA and Historic Seattle noted, the region’s first population boom came at the beginning of the 1900s with the gold rush, the second wave came after the Second World War. Both booms had an impact on the appearance of the region as significant building projects had to be undertaken to support these new populations. It is no coincidence that one refers to some of mid-century buildings as “atomic.” Although the atomic age was driven to develop weaponry, nuclear research was also used to develop technologies to generate electricity. While weapon development programs were clouded in secrecy, the generation of “peaceful” electricity was, as Chris Moore of the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation suggested, a positive outcome of the Atomic Age that was significantly more transparent that the defense programs were.

Nuclear Reactor Building, University of Washington Campus (Seattle)

Nuclear Reactor Building, University of Washington Campus (Seattle)

As a major research university, the University of Washington in Seattle participated, I imagine, in both types of nuclear explorations. However, it is the Brutalist nuclear reactor (TAAG, 1961) that I toured as part of my trip that captured my attention. In addition to being one of the most unexpected Brutalist structures I’ve ever seen (next to our Brutalist fire station in Washington, Engine Company No. 2 in Chinatown, at 6th and F Streets, NW), this power plant is located in the heart of both the campus and a growing controversy over whether it should be razed. A number of people are fighting to save the structure, maintaining that it is a very important cultural and historical marker and that its unusual design makes it a structure of incredible significance.

In discussing the significance of buildings, from reactors to carports, it is important to position the structure as more than just something to look at. It is the cultural history of the reactor as much as its aesthetics that make it worth saving. The use of nuclear technology for power generation, and the incorporation of research into the possibilities for this power generation as a part of an engineering program at the University of Washington is part of the historical record of the structure, right? For this power plant, the atomic age was just as much about weapons as it was clean, cheap energy and a nation that looked to all things nuclear as a hallmark of the future. Wearing here DOCOMOMO WEWA hat, Eugenia Woo made the good point that programming for buildings needs to be based on thorough research and context explanation so that, as I’ve previously suggested, the message isn’t just about the visual appearance of the structure.

Preservation is more than skin deep. It’s about more than the façade.

Next stop: San Francisco

Seth Tinkham is a self-employed grant writer and preservation planner located in Alexandria, Virginia. Prior to starting his own business, he worked for the citywide preservation organization in Washington, DC helping to plan activities related to modern architecture.

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2 Responses

  1. Score one for Seattle’s historic nuke site :: Last Men Stand

    October 5, 2009

    [...] by UW grad student Abby Martin, to nominate the building for national historic status has gained it national attention. The building has also been listed on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation’s [...]

  2. Score one for Seattle’s historic nuke site | Seattle News

    October 5, 2009

    [...] by UW grad student Abby Martin, to nominate the building for national historic status has gained it national attention. The building has also been listed on the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation’s [...]