Nuclear Reactor Building

Seattle

Nuclear Reactor Building
University of Washington, Seattle, 1961


Designed by The Architect Artist Group:
Wendell Lovett, architect
Daniel Streissguth, architect
Gene Zema, architect
Gerard Torrence, structural engineer
Spencer Moseley, artist

Building History:

In the wake of WWII, the atomic technology that sealed victory for the United States was welcomed by the American public as a source of cheap and efficient energy. With enthusiasm for the new technology, the University of Washington and many other universities sought to establish programs in nuclear engineering. The University of Washington founded its Nuclear Engineering program in 1958, and moved to acquire a research reactor as soon as possible. To house the new teaching reactor, the University commissioned The Architect Artist Group (TAAG), a collaborative group representing different design disciplines, to design the building. The group was composed of three architects, Wendell Lovett, Daniel Streissguth and Gene Zema, a structural engineer, Gerard Torrence, and a painter, Spencer Moseley. The commission was unusual. The University policy was to not offer design projects to its employees, and all of the members of TAAG were professors at the University, with the exception of Gene Zema who had a private practice. The Nuclear Reactor Building was the only building designed by The Architect Artist Group.

The Architect Artist Group’s approach to the design was bold and innovative. Research reactors installed on other college campuses were typically hidden in basements or concrete boxes and removed from the main campus activity. The case is the opposite in the design of the Nuclear Reactor Building. It is sited in the center of the engineering complex, and the reactor and its related experiments were visible from behind glass walls, encouraging public observation. In this condition the Nuclear Reactor Building on the University of Washington campus is completely unique. The University was supportive of the building design and its aspirations. The building was published in architectural periodicals of the time, nationally and internationally, including Architecture West, Arts and Architecture, Architectural Record, Progressive Architecture, and L’Architecture d’Aujourd ‘Hui.

The Nuclear Reactor Building was completed in 1961, just before the Century 21 World’s Fair opened in Seattle. The building is small, but its dynamic form embodies the forward-looking spirit of its time. The architecture of the building is clear and logical, an expression of structure in concrete. Glass fills the space between the structural elements, allowing visual access to reactor on the level below. The structural assembly showcases concrete in its different roles, especially evident in the cast in place members which support the roof. There is a kinetic energy in the form of the building that speaks of the energy contained within.

The Nuclear Reactor Building was unable to escape the downfall of nuclear power. A combination of negative attitudes and a lack of demand for nuclear engineers led to a decline in enrollment in the Nuclear Engineering Program in. Research in the Nuclear Reactor Building was limited throughout the 1980s, and eventually the reactor was decommissioned in 1988. The Nuclear Engineering Program was closed in 1992. Since that time the building has stood vacant, awaiting the end of a drawn-out decommissioning process and burdened by fears of nuclear technology. The building has stood frozen in the past for nearly two decades.

Property Significance:

The Nuclear Reactor Building is an exceptional example of design from the Modern Movement and the ideals that drove it. Designed by renowned architects of the time, the building’s design unashamedly promotes technology and rejects the conventional academic architecture surrounding it. It is a completely unique structure, and represents a specific time and way of thinking in the history of the University, and the overarching history of nuclear power. Even after standing empty for many years, the structure still speaks of the heroic aspirations of Modern architecture and its association with technological development and moving ever forward into the future.

Note: Building history text and photographs were provided by Abby Martin, a graduate of the master's program in architecture at the University of Washington Architecture. Go to Abby's
blog on the building for more information.

The Threat/Preservation Issues:

Environmental Review Update: The University of Washington had plans to demolish the building in the summer of 2008. The University applied to the City of Seattle for a demolition permit in the spring of 2008. The Department of Planning and Development (DPD) conducted an environmental review of the proposed demolition of this building. During the public comment period, DPD received many comments from concerned citizens stating that the Nuclear Reactor Building is architecturally and historically significant and should not be demolished.

The University of Washington is producing a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) for the building. They are looking at alternatives for the site. However, their preferred action is demolition. Public comments were submitted to the UW during the SEIS scoping period advocating for the UW to look at alternatives to demolition including adaptive reuse or incorporating the Nuclear Reactor Building into a new building. The Draft SEIS was expected to be released in Spring of 2009 but has yet to be released.

National Register Update: The Governor's Advisory Council on Historic Preservation reviewed the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the Nuclear Reactor Building at its October 17, 2008 meeting in Kirkland. The Council voted to list the building on the Washingtn Heritage Register and to forward the nomination to the National Park Service and the National Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The meeting was open to the public and was well attended. Representatives from Friends of the Nuclear Reactor, Docomomo WEWA, Historic Seattle, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation spoke in favor of the nomination. The University of Washington formally objected to the nomination. Finally, in October 2009, the Nuclear Reactor Building was officially listed in the National Register of Historic Places!

Docomomo WEWA continues to work with other preservation organizations and Friends of the Nuclear Reactor to help save this building.

The building has been covered by the local press. See links below.

Crosscut
February 29, 2008
April 17, 2008
April 27, 2008
May 18, 2008
September 11, 2008
October 20, 2008
October 4, 2009

Preservation Online
April 17, 2008

Seattle Times
March 4, 2008

Photo by Abby Martin, 2008.
Control Room
Interior view. Photo by Abby Martin, 2008.
Photo by Eugenia Woo, 2008.
Photo by Abby Martin, 2008
Model. Pacific Architect & Builder, May 1959.
Photo by Abby Martin, 2008.