Shooting Bellevue

Posted on May 23, 2016

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In Search of a City’s Soul

My new job is in downtown Bellevue. Geographically Bellevue is to Seattle as Oakland is to San Francisco. However, Bellevue is a little more upscale. From the freeway, I always thought the shiny glass buildings set on the horizon amongst the trees looked a movie set that Godzilla was going to smash at any moment. I’ve always found it amazing that nestled among these monstrosities there yet remain numerous cheap one-story houses, C. 1950, which are clearly sitting on millions in real estate, but still house either marginal businesses or their original occupants. It’s a contrast between the settlers and the usurpers.

Before my job here, most of my other experiences with Bellevue have been hours in traffic going the short few blocks from 405 to the mall or other downtown businesses, watching women in $80k cars with $200 haircuts who yet seem to be terminally miserable as they shop through life. In short, I’ve always found the town to be superficial during my superficial visits. I was not engaged to remain and explore. Once I started working here, I took my lunch breaks to walk around and rectify this. For a while I was taking my camera, in search of beauty in this urbanscape. When I was young, I thought I was going to be an architect, and so I have always been very interested in design and architecture. For a couple of weeks I roamed around with my camera constantly looking up. I took shot after shot and was planning on renting a tilt-shift lens for my camera. Now that my own medium format camera is fixed, I even intended on taking it with me, or perhaps using my photos to plan a shoot on a weekend.

It’s always very important to me when shooting buildings, especially in black and white, to make sure there are clouds in the sky. Spring and fall in Seattle offers an endless interplay of clouds and light and are my favorite times of the year to shoot large scale. Therefore it is no surprise that many of the shots I found aesthetically pleasing turned out to be shots of the reflected clouds. As I toured the city over and over, looking to expose its beauty, I finally had a revelation. Most of these buildings are actually pretty hideous. City hall looks like a beached battleship, mildly interesting from the prow, but otherwise shaped and colored like a navy vessel, right down to the copper paint below the water line. Likewise next door to where I work I’ve been watching them build a new Marriott that rivals Soviet housing or perhaps post WWII US school design in its pure functional ugliness.

The battleship that is City Hall. Intentional Metaphor?

The battleship that is City Hall. Intentional Metaphor?

 

The least interesting building ever built.

The least interesting building ever built.

And what makes a building hideous? As a designer, I’ve always reveled in form that is perfectly integrated to function, but there is no beauty here. Finally, I realized one thing that all of these buildings have in common: all decorative traits are craft, and not art. By this I mean, they might vary the window placement or outjog one of the panels.

What value the changing window sizes. Is this design?

What value the changing window sizes. Is this design?

But there are no distinct design details which are not made of the same material as the rest of the building. If you walk around Seattle or most other cities that have buildings dating even a few years back, you will see the buildings grow in layers, with design elements changing every few floors. There was an effort to draw your eye up and revel in the verticality and beauty of the landscape. Downtown San Francisco fills me with energy and wonder as I explore it. I can’t explain it, there is a power to the downtown. I was even very much missing my camera when I was last in Oakland, which is full of marvelous architectural detail and light. In contrast, Bellevue seems to be built without decoration, without any of the uplifting features that elevate a building from a victory of civil engineering to architecture. The beauty they have is only the beauty they reflect, and stripped of that, it’s still just a trip to the mall.

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