Mileposts and Milestones

Architect and client agreed on modernism. But how does the house agree with its industrial-residential North Beach setting?

Stuck in your car at the railroad crossing on the Elliott Avenue waterfront, a long noisy train stacked with shipping containers might be just an inconvenience. You'll be home soon enough, right? But what if the roaring freight trains, passing two dozen times a day, are right in your front yard? "We love the trains," says the owner of a striking new home perched above the tracks in Seattle's North Beach neighborhood. Designed by Seattle architect Eric Cobb, the place reflects both his modernist sensibilities and those of his married clients, who prefer to remain unnamed.

Above the tracks is a panoramic Northwestern view from the sailboats at Shilshole to the cargo vessels steaming down Puget Sound. You can see the attraction, but also the trains—there's no ignoring this stretch of track running north along the shoreline beyond Golden Gardens. Quiet and bucolic it's not. The house is even known as "Mile Post 9," named for a marker down by the tracks. Yet the juxtaposition of the gritty railroad setting and a spectacular view appealed to the owners, who'd purchased a tear-down "Uncle Ole beach house" on the property in the mid-1990s. They commenced building a replacement with Cobb in 2003, completing the residence last summer. It subsequently earned a merit award from the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Cobb's firm, E. Cobb Architects, is known for a progressive aesthetic—without being dogmatic about it. The owner started out on that same page: "We like modern stuff. I like clean edges, simplicity. The house in North by Northwest has always had a big influence on me." At the same time, this had to be a practical and durable modernism—not delicate and white. "The exterior had to be utterly maintenance free [with] as little wood as possible." Being a contractor himself, and supervising the job morning and evening, the client and Cobb settled on sturdy, functional materials—aluminum and galvanized metal, plus lots of Hardy-board, a product like the cement-board commonly used on apartment buildings. Rather than fighting the elements, the expectation is for these humble materials to be "enhanced with use and over time," gaining a weathered patina with the seasons, the owner explains.

Architect Eric Cobb

(Chris Eden)

COBB SAYS he's "done a lot of evangelizing" about modernist design while building his 11-year-old practice. His values are "simple and straightforward and not fussy . . . no nonsense, go for the space [with] not a lot of exotic materials." Fortunately, there was no need for such sermons with these clients. Rather, there was the challenge of designing for "the extreme conditions" of the sloped site so that the result wasn't just a stack of boxes in a top-down pile. A brutal, inelegant solution would've been to build a massive concrete retaining wall near the street, then bunker the house up to it, each of the three floors set squarely on top of the next. Instead, the slope is preserved by thrusting the house more toward the water (incorporating the original foundation), with the gap spanned by an entryway bridge. Then the house's mass is further reduced—to the eye—by shifting the stack with overhangs and projections, almost like three distinct structures (or four, counting the detached street-level garage).

Cobb's focus also had to be on how the clients live, building on the modernist imperatives of "space and light" in the central living-dining-kitchen area, while achieving some separation and privacy in other spheres. Connecting the three main levels is a central open stairwell, which also serves as a dramatic light shaft. At one landing, what might appear to be closet doors lead to private little rooms for the computer and TV areas. Looking down from the entrance level, one stands on a floor that's partly a window; rather than the easy, obvious choice of opening the front door directly to a water view, the glass floor invites your eye down the stairwell and to the living area. This was a change added by the client, and Cobb approved: "Design doesn't end where construction begins."

The house stands in opposition to what Cobb terms the "cold" stereotype of modernism that has perhaps limited its prior acceptance in the Northwest. (Somehow the midcentury modernism of Paul Thiry and Roland Terry stalled at about the same time.) Yet the modernist idiom itself is inherently neutral, he emphasizes. Choice of materials, like this home's bright maple floors and red-green-silver exterior palette, makes the place emphatically warm. Light, he notes of our cloudy climate, always ought to be a paramount concern.

That's certainly true of the owner, who doesn't intend to hang any sunshades on the predominantly glass Sound-view side of the house. "We didn't try to fight the UV," he says. "We wanted as much light as possible. [We live] kind of a Mediterranean lifestyle. We eat outdoors as much as possible." This is made easier with 2,000 square feet of decking, adding to the home's 3,500 square feet of interior space. If dinner guests get the evening sun in their eyes, there's a bowl of cheap drugstore sunglasses to borrow. For that reason, "We don't have any art," his wife laughs. What she means is that framed posters aren't meant to last forever before becoming sun-bleached, and they have the same view toward their rugs and furniture. The value lies in the volume and light, not the furnishings.

Befitting the owner's desire for clean lines, a rooftop patio remains uncluttered.

(Chris Eden)

THIS SPEAKS to the cost equation of new-school modernism. The owner wanted to leverage value away from the moldings and ornamentation of a traditional house, away from premium materials, into space. "It's all about value and efficiency," i.e., paying for your core goals—not the frills. (It doesn't hurt that he probably saved almost 25 percent of his hard costs by acting as his own contractor; the bottom line is otherwise about what you'd expect for waterfront construction and fees.) He characterizes Mile Post 9 as "not a blind adherence to modernism." Materials were allowed to drive the design, not the other way around. One of the home's most striking features, its top-floor entryway bridge, was fabricated from aluminum and fiberglass by a firm that ordinarily makes marina gangplanks. Is it what Richard Meier would do? No, but so much for purism; the ad hoc can be elegant in its own way.

That's not to say this mitigated modernism can be made cheap. But, Cobb says, you can save money "if you do it right. Smart, reductive, and restrained modernism can be done effectively." He notes that in our super-heated housing market, where older view properties are being replaced with new structures that seek to maximize light and perspective, the value lies in how the design suits the siting of those view properties. But, even in a shady, no-view, north-facing modernist home, "You don't have to turn the lights on" with the right use of fenestration. It helps, too, that since the age of Thiry and Terry, glass and other favorite modernist materials have gotten cheaper and better.

Apart from the economic imperative to build the maximum house on a given property, Cobb sees a helpful influx of design-savvy newcomers to the Northwest. "Seattle has a tendency not to go outside of its limits. Here, architecture is seen more in light as an investment . . . not naturally as an art form. There's a reluctance in Seattle to view architecture in that context." Yet both he and his client point to new local excitement and awareness about modernism—from Frank Gehry's EMP and, especially, Rem Koolhaas' Central Library. (They also cite the work of Steven Holl, the former local who designed the Bellevue Arts Museum and Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University.)

Working in the trade, Mile Post 9's owner sees increased awareness and receptivity to modernism in new-school shelter mags like Dwell. Cobb points to how the ease of browsing portfolios and résumés on the Web has expanded a once-narrow constituency that could afford expensive architectural coffee-table books and read Progressive Architecture. Increasingly, modernism has been broadened and popularized from the snobby stereotype of the Mies van der Rohe–worshipping purists in their little round glasses—made more friendly and forgiving, more democratic. Even retailers like IKEA and Design Within Reach may help in this regard.

LIKE ITS FRIENDLY occupants, there's nothing rigid or hierarchical to Mile Post 9. Living flexibility comes before design dictates, but it helps that architect and client are in sympathy. Cobb speaks of "not trying to make it a serene experience where you block out the train," of living with "the actual fact and not just the picturesque." Indeed, the endless procession of those colorful, weathered shipping containers—arriving by sea, dispersed by rail—does suggest a certain correspondence. The presence of the trains "was undeniably a design influence" for Cobb, but not to the extent of simply mimicking the shipping containers.

After all, modernism isn't about boxes, but about how you arrange boxes. Cleverly cantilevered and offset as its cubes descend the slope, Mile Post 9 is practically hidden from the road, which certainly pleased the neighbors. The goal was to "not damage anybody's view," says the owner.

Indeed, in architecturally polyglot North Beach, where Tudors and ramblers and mission-style houses tumble down the same slope, Mile Post 9 is a standout that—by careful calculation—also fits in. It belongs there, in a sense, like the trains.

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