WSU leads team to determine state’s iconic architecture

By Ethan Nash, Voiland College of Engineering & Architecture intern

PULLMAN, Wash. – The Hanford nuclear site, Seattle’s Bullitt Center and the historic center of the Washington State University Pullman campus are among the most significant and representative architectural sites in Washington, according to WSU researchers.

The team led by Phil Gruen, interim director of WSU’s School of Design and Construction, is part of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) Archipedia Classic Buildings project, an online encyclopedia that aims to feature 100 significant buildings from each of the 50 states.

The project selected Gruen to coordinate and select Washington’s sites. He is working with former graduate student Robert Franklin; they expect to complete the work by the end of summer 2016.

“This 100 list is trying to present a story, or several stories, of the state through the built environment,” Gruen writes in the SAH blog.

The Hanford Site, for instance, is important historically because its B reactor produced plutonium for the first nuclear bomb, which was eventually detonated over Nagasaki, Japan, and led to the end of World War II.

“We’re constituting a very different way of thinking, or at least raising the question about how one understands a built environment,” says Gruen, adding that people tend to judge architecture primarily based upon beauty or style.

“Is it just about aesthetics and famous people, or is it about the significance of the site and its stories in relation to American culture or American history?” he asks. “This is one of the challenges of creating Archipedia, because it’s not just buildings; it’s the most represented spaces and places. Everything counts.”

Selecting the buildings was the fun part, he says, but also the most challenging.

“A lot of people think we should have all these famous, beautiful works of Victorian or Classical architecture, including libraries, banks and homes,” he says. “We certainly have some of those, but there are also urban green spaces, rural grange halls, ethnic religious buildings, innovative bridges and even a modernist parking structure.”

He relied on the expertise and suggestions of colleagues and tried to make the project geographically balanced.

The Archipedia project started with an award-winning print series called Buildings of the United States, which contains over 13,000 building histories, maps, pictures and essays, according to the SAH.

Gruen says he hopes the Archipedia project will enlighten the general public about architecture.

“Information about architecture should be accessible,” he says. “It shouldn’t be arcane in terms of its information, it should be understandable and it should be talked about it ways that anyone can understand.”

He also wants to challenge the way people think about the built environment.

“As an educator and scholar who teaches this to students, I want everyone to think more critically about what constitutes the most represented buildings or spaces,” he says. “I want to make people think. I want them to question all this, even for an online encyclopedia.”