There’s a mechanical buzz inside the architecture office on Seattle’s Pier 56. I hate this sound. In the summertime it makes opening my windows at home, back in Manhattan, a bad idea. What with all those cooling systems running in my dense condo complex, even on balmy nights there’s no escape from the racket. No way to take a breath of fresh air without hearing the persistent noise, no way to drift into an uninterrupted sleep. Heading to work in the mornings, I run into the same wall of sound on 8th Street. And when I travel, as I do so much these days, each time I check into a hotel room, I face the same din. Turning off the AC doesn’t help; I continue to hear the building’s system humming.
But things are not always what they seem. I discover this as I tour the former dockside storage shed, home to the integrated-design firm Mithun, and I suddenly realize that the building is not air-conditioned. The sound I hear is not from the structure’s mechanical systems, but from the traffic on the nearby viaduct. Inside this cavernous space, with its operable clerestories and windows, and large glass doors opening onto the dock, I feel water breezes and hear seagull cries and the occasional blast of a ship’s horn.
Later in another corner of Seattle at NBBJ, in a recently redeveloped area with an old church and community garden nearby, I hear exterior louvers close with a whoosh as the sun starts to heat up the curtain wall. As I step into the shady side of this large open office, I notice a green light. It’s there to alert workers to the cool temperatures outside; some opt to open a nearby window to let the breeze in. I feel the air move, and with it my spirits rising.
The next day in the enormous concrete-walled central atrium of the Busby Perkins + Will offices in Vancouver, British Columbia, I notice that the warm air is wafting upward and out of the building. Here we’re gathered around a long conference table, from where we can observe the sidewalk and hear its errant sounds. On this warm July afternoon, my hosts wear lightweight summer casuals as they talk about shedding and adding clothing in response to the constantly varying temperatures in the building. Some grouse, but most like it this way. One woman says she hasn’t had a cold since she started working here. A man mentions how he looks forward each morning to hearing the chatter of kindergartners pass by.
My visit to the Pacific Northwest reaffirms my belief that our buildings can put us in contact with the earth and its creatures as well as each other. Indeed, I come away thinking that we have many choices about how we want to experience our world. Working behind sealed glass windows, in steady settings of 70 degrees and 50 foot-candles of light, may not be as universally desired as we’ve been led to believe.