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THIS PLACE IS LAYERED WITH CRUD,” JIM GRAHAM OF Graham Baba Architects said point-blank at his pitch for the makeover of the Seattle Center atrium food court last September. “This building started out as a 1939 armory. They drove tanks in the atrium during World War II. There was a rifle range in the basement. Let’s strip it back to its essence, search for its authenticity, and celebrate it.”

“The word celebrate was the aha! moment,” recalls Seattle Center director Robert Nellams. “The other firms pitching design proposals were all about covering up and hiding the building, marketing and signage. Graham Baba’s approach was, ‘You’ve got this funky old armory—let’s hug it to death.’ Jim knew we didn’t have the big money for the big gesture. So he told us, ‘When there is no money, you have to think.’ ”

Nellams knew to the penny just how little money there was to whip the dingy Center House food court into shape for the April 21 kickoff of the Next 50, the six-month-long series of festivities celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1962 World’s Fair. The fact that Graham Baba’s thinking was more about demolition than construction—not so much less is more as less is everything—sealed the deal. “There were four firms pitching that afternoon,” says Nellams, “and three of them got the equivalent of hearty applause. For Jim Graham it was like a standing ovation.”

Jim Graham and his partner Brett Baba, both in their mid-40s, have been getting a lot of standing ovations of late for their architectural striptease. They transformed an old Capitol Hill garage into the Melrose Market (a mini mall of foodie shops anchored by the laid-back, locavore restaurant Sitka and Spruce) and recast Ballard’s century-old Kolstrand Building, a former marine supply place, as an inviting complex of brick-walled shops and restaurants (including Staple and Fancy Mercantile and the Walrus and the Carpenter oyster bar). Call it adaptive reuse.

Call it creative recycling. Call it adding by subtracting or design on the cheap for lean times. The architecture studio that Graham and Baba started five years ago is small, fresh, edgy, and young—but they have found success in turning cruddy old buildings into magical, minimalist urban spaces.

Now they’re peeling away decades of incrustations from the enormous, forlorn Center House atrium. To Graham the place “felt like the vacant concourse of an airport terminal.” A stage juts incongruously from the northeast corner; a big gap in the floor disgorges a display of fake trees from a subterranean wing of the Children’s Museum; the restaurants clustered along the north and east sides run the gamut from Subway to Orange Julius to Kabab; long sagging green and blue awnings on the upper walls war with cheery cheesy murals; stage lighting and beams from skylights half a football field overhead meld in a harsh unflattering glow.

There’s a lot of history not only in the building itself but in the ongoing struggle to update it. Duke Ellington played here with his band during a 1941 UW junior prom; a “Food Circus” with 52 internationally themed fast food concessions occupied the space during the World’s Fair; the Bubbleator connected the various levels before being put out to pasture; all manner of community groups still sing and dance on the atrium stage. But the interior itself is awkward, to put it mildly. Before they started planning the Next 50, the Seattle Center had commissioned local architecture firm SRG to come up with a master plan that called for a $250 million face-lift for the Center House, complete with a glass roof and a roof-level restaurant; a wall of windows on the south side would overlook the spot now designated for the Chihuly glass museum. In the fantasy sketches, the born again Center House looks like a crystal cathedral, an ethereal shrine to fun times. “We were dreaming but not crazy,” concedes Nellams. “Given the current fiscal situation, we scaled back the glass roof and the grand gesture. We’re still on the path to that vision, but we’re phasing it.”

In the current phase, seven openings have been cut into the concrete structure—the four on the west side will become big glass doors connecting the former food court area to outdoor seating on a new terrace overlooking International Fountain; three holes in the soaring bank of windows on the south side will let in more natural light and unify the facade. Levy Restaurants, a Chicago company that provides food and drink to sports stadiums and arenas, has been hired to “elevate food service offerings.” As of now, instead of the original $250 million dream budget, $4 million have been earmarked to “refresh and reshape” the atrium, and they have three months to do it.

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Architectural Recycling From armory to Food Circus to Center House, and back to basics again.

“WE’RE DOING TRIAGE,” JIM GRAHAM TOSSES OFF AS HE strides through the Center House with Francesco Borghesi, one of the firm’s designers, a few weeks before demo is slated to begin.

Graham and Borghesi are on site to brainstorm the configuration of the two full-service restaurants that will anchor the food court. Actually, this is a doubling down of a brainstorming process that began last August when they submitted a preliminary proposal, continued through the formal pitch which won them the project in September, and acquired depth and detail at a series of design charrettes. “Look at these arched trusses,” says Graham, pointing to the atrium’s soaring steel skeleton. “Look how beautifully the rivets are articulated.”

Darting through a gap in the plastic sheeting that cordons off the ongoing construction on the west side, Graham runs his hand over the lumpy layer of fire retardant that was smeared over the lower third of these main trusses at some point in the building’s past. “If we could strip this off, you’d see how the truss comes down and lands on an elegant little point on the concrete slab.”

When viewed through Graham’s eyes, the space reveals surprising, muscular beauty: the austere geometry of window shape and roof pitch, no-nonsense raw concrete walls and end-grain wood floors, struts and trusses on an epic scale. It’s the beauty of simple functional things built to endure, and built cheap in tough times. But that beauty has vanished beneath the crud and clutter. Graham stares into the cacophony of murals, a chunk of the Berlin Wall, the old Frederick and Nelson clock, phones, and ATM hogging prominent floor space. “Where’s the visual hierarchy?” he wonders aloud. “Everything is clamoring for attention and yelling louder to be seen.”

Graham and Baba firmly believe that once they reduce the visual noise, conviviality will arise spontaneously out of the denuded, architecturally authentic space. It worked at Melrose Market, where the walls display no art, ducts and cables are exposed, cold brick and cement surround you—but somehow it’s a space you want to linger in, one that honors the integrity of materials, respects the ingredients at hand, and is open to tradition.

At the Center House, Graham and Baba plan to use the same recipe, only they’ll have to stretch it for a really big space, adding more light, more bodies (especially at night), clear decipherable signage—and some decent restaurants.

Borghesi is zeroing in on that last piece. The brother of the owner of Capitol Hill’s rustic-urbane pasta palace Osteria la Spiga (conveniently located right upstairs from Graham Baba’s office), the Italian-born Borghesi has a flair for inserting that ineffable something that makes people want to hang out in a restaurant or bar. His current task is to discern and then draw up plans that capture how the atrium will “feel” when the two anchor restaurants are in place on the south side.

“I’m thinking a bar here,” says Borghesi, waving his arms in the dusty boarded-up interior of the atrium’s southwest space. “And how about a takeout counter over there,” adds Graham, “where people coming in from the deck can grab a meal.” “It might be nice to expose the line,” interjects Borghesi—referring to the lineup of chefs at work. “And we’ll reorient the pizza oven so people can see it from the atrium.” “And a barrier here to define the outdoor seating area.”

With the demo date looming, there is still more dreaming than drawing, and the dreams are necessarily modest given the severe constraints on time and money. Graham is thinking one of the restaurants could be a brewpub catering both to families and young couples; the atrium’s west side, with its four bright new openings on the terrace and fountain, might be dotted with kiosks and food trucks offering regional and ethnic grab-and-go foods; there could be a demonstration kitchen where visitors sit and watch a rotating cast of chefs at work. “We want this to be a hub of activity,” says Graham, “a place that local people want to come back to, whether for a quick meal, picnic ingredients, or a sit-down dinner.”

Fifty years ago, when the 1962 World’s Fair opened its doors, people came here to celebrate—or at least peer into—the infinite promise of the future. But what exactly will the Next 50 be celebrating? Our fair city’s ingenuity and resilience? Its zest for continually reinventing itself? Its capacity to relish history without being wedded to the past? The challenge for Graham Baba is to coax any or all of these airy ideals out of an old clunky armory.

This article appeared in the February 2012 issue of Seattle Met Magazine.

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