INFLUENCES ON ARCHITECTURAL CHARACTER -
LANDSCAPE AND ECOLOGICAL
“The great trees are seldom crowded, and their
columnar trunks may rise dozens of feet skyward
before the first branches appear. …The space
beneath may be open enough that light filtered
through the upper branches is diffused to create
a softly luminous glow throughout. The effect is
not one of gloom, but of solemnity.”
—Stephen Whitney, Western Forests
Literature about the North Pacific consistently
sounds such themes as reverence for nature and
a strong desire to harmonize with the setting.
Perhaps this is because the province possesses
such a wild and grand scale. People have a front
row seat on major ecological processes. Glaciers,
rivers that change course, volcanoes, and
earthquakes shape a young landscape that
seems only recently emerged from the primeval
era. West of the Cascades, the maritime climate
creates moderate temperatures and high
precipitation. This maritime influence sends
storms from the west to the east.
In Alaska, the steep mountains of the Tongass
National Forest collide with the ocean. Inland
are glacially carved valleys, lakes, and waterfalls.
The Coast Range meets a sea dotted with
tidewater glaciers and islands. Farther north
and west in the Chugach National Forest, the land
masses are constantly shifting in a landscape
dominated by glaciers. Broad valleys contain filled-in
fiords that have become marshlands bisected by
glacially fed rivers. The archipelago of coastal islands is
foggy, heavily forested, and separated by
deep channels. Throughout Alaska, the
landscape, sky, light, and water reflect the colors
of glacial blue, of gray fog, and of white winter. For
a brief burst in summer, wildflowers alter the
landscape with an explosion of color.
The most visible geology results from angular
forms of graywacke shale. Even at lower elevations,
trees cover the landscape only in patches. The
treeline can occur as low as 1,500 feet.
The Cascade and Klamath ranges of Washington,
Oregon, and northern California are extremely
rugged, with large mountains dominated by volcanic
peaks and deep, heavy snows at higher elevations.
Some of the world’s largest and oldest trees live
within this lush, cool coniferous forest: Douglas fir,
Sitka spruce, western hemlock, and coast redwood
among them. The Cascades are
a place with abundant rivers, streams, and
waterfalls. The west side comes in many shades
of green dictated by ferns, mosses, and big trees
that stay green through the year. High rainfall
intensifies colors in the landscape.
East of the Cascades is much drier with sparse
vegetation. Rolling hills and high prairies are
punctuated by volcanic cones. Space between
trees seems open and expansive with long vistas.
The landscape is generally rural rather than
wilderness with irrigated fields, pasture, orchards,
and rangeland. Colors are warm with pastel hues
varied by the rock and soil visible through the
vegetation. Shades of dark gray, dark brown, and
black are evident in rock formations of columnar
basalt. Signature trees include ponderosa pine,
lodgepole pine, and sugar pine.
North central California includes the Mediterranean
subarea of this province embracing the northern
Sierra Nevadas. Here coniferous forests, shaped
by long summer droughts and mild wet winters,
are extremely diverse. Species range from giant
sequoia in the high mountains to California red fir
to bristlecone pine.
Native American Design: The original Native
American inhabitants built to deal with
precipitation. Along the Pacific coast, on the
Columbia River plateau, and within the Great
Basin, the inhabitants of each area made their
In the coastal zone, houses were made of planks
from driftwood logs or sometimes split from the
sides of living trees. The large communal dwelling
might be a gable-roofed long house with vertical
plank walls, as among the Quinault in Washington,
or shed-roofed long houses, as among the
Tillimook. In southern Oregon and northern
California, the Umpqua, Chetco, Yurok, and Hoopa
built related types of “hooped branch” houses.
European Settlers: The first European settlers
built log structures, often using trees cleared for
farming. They built farmhouses (Scandinavians,
English, Germans), trading posts (French), and
forts (Russian). They typically used broad-hewn
logs locked in dovetail joints. Onion-dome Russian
churches endure along coastal Alaska.
Agricultural Structures: The simple forms of
traditional Willamette Valley barns have inspired
many contemporary architects and artists. These
picturesque barns employed building techniques
in use since medieval times: heavily timbered
frame construction held together by skillfully
made mortice and tenon joints.
Rustic: From about 1890 to 1940, architects
and designers created a Northwestern variation
on the rustic design called Cascadian. An early
example is the Cloud Cap Inn, a hikers’ lodge on
Mt. Hood, perhaps inspired by rustic buildings
then being constructed in the Adirondacks.
The CCC of the 1930’s incorporated rustic design
and a high level of craft into public works. A
notable example is the shelters, pavilions, way
stations, and comfort facilities built along the
Columbia Gorge Scenic Highway. In the late
1930’s, the WPA built Timberline Lodge, an Arts
and Crafts extravaganza that employed scores
of masons, carpenters, sculptors, and artisans.
Alaska: Many Alaskan buildings and sites were
designed for access by boat or float plane.
Alaskan design ranges from the Quonset huts of
the Aleutian Islands, to the Russian churches of
Sitka, to industrial oil terminals and canneries.
Coastal fishing villages are a building type
somewhat unique to Alaska. These villages
typically feature brightly colored cottages rising
on steep slopes straight up from the waterfront.
Northwest Modernism: The Modernist movement
aimed to create a worldwide design—the so-called
International style. The Northwest responded with
variations. In the 1930’s and 1940’s, architects
Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon designed modernist
churches inspired by barns of Oregon’s Willamette
Valley. They adapted their buildings to the
Northwest by using wood as a structural material
and by including broad roof overhangs to keep
rain off windows. More recent architects skillfully
meld natural and industrial materials suggesting
that modern design can be contemporary in
spirit, massive in scale for durability’s sake, and
yet comforting to the human touch and scale.