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.

 

CULTURAL

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

own adaptations.

 

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.

 

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