On Gordon Walker: A Poetic Architecture

Gordon Walker. Photo by Zhenru Zhang.

Over dinner one December evening in 2018, architectural scholar Grant Hildebrand held court with the team for his forthcoming book on Northwest architect Gordon Walker. They discussed the nature of writing and designing architectural biographies and how this current book tells a different story from most. —Editor

An Idea for a Book on Gordon Walker

Grant Hildebrand: There are various kinds of architectural books, many of which tend to be eulogies, but I wanted to do something with a different dimension for this project. It took Gordon and me a long while to sort out what kind of book it should be and what it would say; you have to answer those questions before you get started. Once we did, we decided we wanted this to be a book about a wonderful architect and person. We wanted the reader to understand the life Gordon has lived and the work he has accomplished.

After we determined these things, we brought on board Bill Hook, whose drawings have been instrumental in my previous books. ARCADE editor Kelly Rodriguez joined the team, too, and assumed responsibility for a multitude of tasks required to create, organize, and publish a book, including identifying Jeffrey Murdock to help with the writing and Andrew van Leeuwen to shoot new photography. Lucia|Marquand was engaged to design the book, which is being published by ARCADE.

Bill Hook: The key thing to understand is that this book is about Gordon’s relationships with clients and the people he worked with. Throughout his life he has always managed to have people around who are inspired and influenced by him. It’s amazing that he has had so many clients return multiple times for new projects. He’s always been the sort of leader who people simply want to be in the room with. At the same time, there’s a modesty that flows out of his work.

Andrew van Leeuwen: Gordon, what was challenging about having a book written about you?

Gordon Walker: I have an armor, and it’s hard for me to engage with feelings. I’m struggling with that as I get older. I’ve never had anyone do anything quite this nice for me.

Architectural plans of the Orcas Island residence

Orcas Island, WA, residence drawing by Gordon Walker, 2018.

Gordon’s Legacy and Publishing This Book Now

Jeffrey Murdock: Grant and Gordon are longtime friends and colleagues, so it’s natural that Grant would tell Gordon’s story. They even taught design studio together at the University of Washington. Our weekly book-team meetings were often driven by their recollections of the mid-20th-century architecture scene in the Northwest—it felt like reliving an amazing time in Seattle’s architectural history.

AvL: It’s also an apropos time to see Gordon’s work as a measuring stick for where we’ve been and where we’re going. There is a poetry in this work that has become a casualty to the challenges of doing architecture today. There are so many factors competing for an architect’s focus and bandwidth today that sticking to a system of beliefs is more important than ever. This book is a road map of the architectural beliefs respected by many in the Pacific Northwest.

Kelly Rodriquez: There are people in the world, in our communities and in our lives, who care immensely about their environments and the spaces in which they live. Gordon has been fortunate to have those people in his life.

GW: I recently bumped into Yale Lewis, who was the first tenant of the Maynard Building—I designed his office there in 1974. Now in his 80s, he has asked me to design a bunkhouse on a property he owns on Bainbridge Island. Similarly, I’m currently working on a residential project for Jim and Kathy Youngren, who I worked with over forty years ago on a previous house. Former Seattle mayor Paul Schell was also a good friend and repeat client over the years. It all goes back to relationships.

Illustration of tyhe Smith Townhouses

Smith Townhouses, Seattle, WA. Illustration by Bill Hook.

Takeaways from the Book for Younger Architects

GW: I want younger architects to be inspired by what they are doing. It doesn’t really matter whether it’s architecture, project management, or writing specifications. It’s important to be inspired.

BH: I think it’s important that younger generations of architects not be influenced by everything that comes out in the latest magazines. Talk to your clients, learn about them and their lifestyles, see what’s important to them. Show them that the quality of space has an impact on one’s life and how you view your life.

KR: My daughter, Gemma [Gordon’s granddaughter], relayed a story to me about this past Thanksgiving at Gordon and his wife Sandie’s place on Orcas Island. Gemma told me about a moment when her three-year-old cousin, Aila, was sitting on Gramps Gordon’s lap at his drawing board, and Gordon was teaching her how to draw. There is a depth of understanding of who Gordon is and the skills, stories, and passion that he is imparting to his grandchildren that is becoming very clear to them. When Gemma reads this book, she will have an understanding of Gordon’s life that she has observed and taken in through experience.

BH: There’s a gorgeous line in Thucydides’s History of the Peloponnesian War—Pericles is talking about the soldiers killed in the war, and he says that great men have the whole earth as their memorial, for their thoughts and deeds live on not in some tangible form but woven into the fabric of others’ lives. It’s a beautiful line, and I think it’s what happens with people like Gordon. We tell the story, and it’s woven in, but we don’t know what the cloth is, and we don’t know what it’s woven into.

AvL: This book isn’t just about Gordon’s work—it’s also communicating how to be an architect. Being design conscious and living an architectural life is in everything a person does. It’s in how you cook a meal, where you go for a holiday, and how you visit with friends. It’s so much more than a portfolio of work or what you accomplish professionally.

JM: In a culture where each work of architecture seems to scream out for attention, there is so much for architecture students to learn from Gordon’s approach. His careful attention to site, materiality, and craft has resulted in truly inspired, albeit quiet, designs that still convey meaning as richly today as when first constructed.

Illustration and photo of the Raff residence.

Raff residence, Seattle, WA. Illustration by Bill Hook; photo by Andrew van Leeuwen.

Reception of the Work, Then and Now

GH: I would have thought that the Raff house on Queen Anne, which is constructed of concrete masonry units, would have caused more controversy when it was built, but it was accepted among a neighborhood of traditional craftsman-style homes. Since then it’s become a point of pride in the neighborhood.

GW: The neighbors referred to it as “Fort Queen Anne” when it was completed.

AvL: Recent photographs of Gordon’s projects show how much they’ve softened and acclimated to their surroundings simply from the accompanying vegetation filling in and maturing. A few of the projects, like the Smith Townhomes, are difficult to document now because the wisteria and other plants have filled in the trellises just as they were intended to. The vegetation has become as prominent as the building.

BH: Other projects are about to transform for different reasons. Hillclimb Court, a multifamily project in downtown Seattle, originally shielded itself from the adjacent Alaskan Way Viaduct that was built in the 1950s. Now with the viaduct slated for removal, the project will have the opportunity to open up to the waterfront.

Gordon Walker's Hillclimb Court

Hillclimb Court, Seattle, WA. Photo by Andrew van Leeuwen.

On Revisiting the Work for the Book

GW: I wished that I had kept the drawings from many of my early projects, like my own first house in Kirkland, Washington. I was just a kid then and was too anxious to get on with the next project to save the drawings from the last one.

BH: We never trusted you with drawings because you’d take the originals out into the field even if it was raining. We’d get them back all folded up from being in your back pocket.

GH: But that’s Gordon.

Residences by Gordon Walker

Left: Orcas Island cabin, Orcas Island, WA; Top Right: Lopez Island residence, Lopez Island, WA; Bottom Right: Whidbey Island residence, Whidbey Island WA. Photos by Andrew van Leeuwen.

How Gordon’s Work Changed over the Course of His Career

GH: With many well-known architects, you can see change over time and trace the growth step-by-step. But with Gordon, I’ve never seen that pattern. His work doesn’t exhibit the same linear progeny. He reinvents every time around.

JM: Just as Gordon’s work is not linear in its narrative quality, his own story is equally complicated. Sometimes we would meet to discuss a chapter that felt complete, and Gordon would reveal some new “bombshell,” sending us back to the drawing board.

AvL: The unfortunate state of design today is that architecture has to be sensationalized in order to be noticed. Gordon’s work signifies a time when architecture was appreciated for its mastery without relying on unnecessary theatrics.

Gordon Walker: A Poetic Architecture by Grant Hildebrand will release in the summer of 2019.

Grant Hildebrand—architect, professor of architecture at the University of Washington for 40 years, and author of ten books on architecture—is a recipient of the university’s Distinguished Teaching Award, the Governor’s Writers’ Award for work of literary merit and lasting value, and the CBE Distinguished Faculty Award for Lifetime Achievement.

Bill Hook practiced architecture for 15 years before launching a second career as an architectural illustrator. He has worked with Gordon Walker for over 30 years as both an architect and an illustrator. wghook.com

Jeffrey Murdock is an architectural designer and historic preservationist in Seattle.

Kelly Rodriguez is ARCADE’s editor/executive director.

Andrew van Leeuwen is an architect and an architectural photographer (avl.photo) in Seattle, where he is a partner at BUILD llc. He conducts a quarterly interview with architects and designers for ARCADE.

Gordon Walker is a 1962 graduate of the University of Idaho. He was cofounder of Olson/Walker Architects (now Olson Kundig), worked with NBBJ in Seattle and San Francisco, and practiced in his own name for 12 years before joining Mithun as a consulting principal.