The architecture and advocacy of Seattle-based architect Fred Bassetti have had a profound influence in the shaping of Seattle's skyline and Northwest urban communities, and on the professional and civic culture of design. Beginning in the late 1940s, Bassetti contributed significantly to development of modern architecture in the Pacific Northwest, via the buildings designed under his leadership as well as the influence of his exemplary and contagious civic spirit on his colleagues in and beyond the design professions. As Billy King notes in the introduction to a 2004 interview of Fred Bassetti for SCCTV, "It's hard to turn around in Seattle and not see a building influenced by the hand of Architect Fred Bassetti -- the Federal Building, Woodland Park Zoo, Key Tower, and Pike Place Market ... to name a few. What's not as obvious are the influences of his thoughts about space, structure and the Northwest mind-set" (Billy King interview).
Born on January 31, 1917, in Seattle, of Norwegian and Italian immigrant parents (Sophie Marie Forde Bassetti of Forde, near Bergen; and Frederick Michael Bassetti of Torino), Frederick Forde Bassetti described his “country boy” childhood in the Mortimer Heights neighborhood in the small and sparsely populated town of Foster in the area now known as Tukwila. His father published the Gazzetta Italiana, the Italian-American colony newspaper.
Bassetti recalled that he first met fellow architect Victor Steinbrueck (1911-1985), later to become an ally in urban activism, in their teens, when Victor led him on hikes as a Boy Scout patrol leader. When Bassetti turned 15, his father sent him to stay with his widowed grandmother in Torino, Italy, “to get a little education” and cultural acquaintance. Like many children of immigrants at that time, Bassetti and his sisters, Yolanda and Helen, had not learned either of their parents’ native languages; at home they spoke their common language, English.
Bassetti picked up rudimentary Italian as a member of the crew of the Italian freighter on which he crossed the Atlantic, typing up the onboard newspaper for the few passengers aboard from items received by the radio operator. In Torino, he attended school and “learned fast.” After a year abroad he sailed homeward to rejoin his parents. The family moved back to Seattle to a home in the Denny-Blaine neighborhood. Bassetti attended Garfield High School, graduating in 1936 (Steve Inge interview).
Always Building Things
Bassetti went on to the University of Washington. Speaking with Dean Stahl in 2008, Bassetti recalled his entry into architectural studies:
“Q: What led you to architecture?
A: I started in engineering. I had had visions of being a surveyor, but I did very poorly in the first year. I went on a double date with a friend in the architecture department, and switched. Later, I. M. Pei had the desk behind me at Harvard. He was the best in the class.
Q: How did you learn to build?
A: I was a country kid who was always building things. I never learned the fancy ways. I only realized this after I was 60. I sometimes think no architect should be designing a house until he's 60 or 70. We often get our best jobs when we're young -- but you haven't lived yet” (Stahl).
Bassetti recalls the imprint of studies at the University of Washington with Lionel H. “Spike” Pries (1897-1968): “A God-damn good sketcher, renderer, watercolorist, who really connected with his students -- especially Roland Terry (1917-2006) and also Robert Shields and Robert Dietz (1912-2006, Dean of the UW College of Architecture and Urban Planning 1962-1972).” Bassetti speaks of Pries’s “unmatched intensity and commitment to the quality of his teaching and the value of design. And Spike was always right!” Pries would come to the studio at Architecture Hall late at night as his students labored over their drafting tables, to urge them on – “and one night he threw a radio out the studio window, so that we wouldn’t have that distraction from our thinking and drawing” (Stahl).
Bassetti graduated with the Bachelor of Architecture degree in 1942, just as the United States entered World War II. With 4F draft status because of a health problem, he worked as a draftsman during the war, designing and directing construction of housing for wartime workers, in the Seattle office of the Federal Public Housing Authority as well as with architect Paul Thiry (1904-1993).
After the war he attended Harvard University, where, along with classmates including I. M. Pei (b. 1917), he studied with Marcel Breuer (1902-1981) and Walter Gropius (1883-1969) among others. After his graduation in 1946 with the Master of Architecture degree, Bassetti worked briefly in the Cambridge office of Finnish architect Alvar Aalto (1898-1976).
Bassetti returned to Seattle and in October 1946 began work as a designer at Naramore Bain Brady & Johanson (later NBBJ). Within two months, he and his then-wife Mary had won first prize in a home design competition sponsored by The Seattle Times, the American Institute of Architects Seattle Chapter (AIA Seattle), and the Seattle Master Builders.
Bassetti describes the winning entry: “a small house then meant about nine hundred square feet, that was the limit. You couldn’t make it larger then because houses were in great scarcity after the Second World War. Seattle had had this influx of population, but people were building, you know -- a normal house was considered fine [at] under a thousand square feet” (Steve Inge interview).
On the strength of two clients’ asking him to design houses for them based on the resulting publicity -- including his picture on the front page of The Seattle Times -- Bassetti rented a drafting board in the office of fellow Harvard graduate John L. “Jack” Morse (1911-2000), in a building at 4th Avenue and Cherry Street in downtown Seattle where architects Paul Hayden Kirk (1914-1995) and Robert L. Durham (1912- 1998) had offices down the hall.
By 1950, the firm of Bassetti & Morse had had its first successes, including Lakeview Elementary School on Mercer Island, recipient of national awards and widely published. Employees in the very early years of Bassetti’s practice included Wendell Lovett (b. 1922), Donald Frothingham (b. 1928), known as “Fearless Don”), and Astra Zarina (1929-2008), who went on to co-found the Rome Program of the University of Washington Department of Architecture.
Early residential projects took national design awards from the AIA for Bassetti & Morse: in 1953 the Marshall Forrest Residence on Bellingham’s Chuckanut Drive, and in 1954 the Gerald Martin Residence in Seattle, at 6544 49th Avenue NE.
In 1962, Bassetti & Morse divided into two firms, and Fred Bassetti & Company (1962-1981, later Bassetti Norton Metler 1981-1985, Bassetti Norton Metler Rekevics 1985-1991, and Bassetti Architects 1991-present) came into existence. Many employees and partners of Fred Bassetti & Company went on to prominent careers of their own in architecture and other design work and in academia. These included
- Lee Copeland (b. 1937), later dean at the University of Washington College of Architecture and Urban Planning 1972-1979 and dean at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts 1979-1991;
- Paul Dermanis (b. 1932), Streeter/Dermanis, Seattle;
- Mel Streeter (1931-2006), Streeter/Dermanis, Seattle;
- David Hancocks (b. 1941), later Director of the Woodland Park Zoo 1974-1984, Director of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson 1989-97, and of the Werribee Open Range Zoo in Australia 1998-2003;
- Fred Koetter (b. 1938), co-author of Collage City, Professor and Dean at Yale School of Architecture;
- Jim Hamilton, (1937-1994);
- Folke Nyberg (1934-2010), later UW Professor of Architecture;
- Laurie Olin (b. 1938), later chair of the Harvard Department of Landscape Architecture;
- Al Williams, Washington State Senator 1970-1994;
- Richard “Dick” Metler (b. 1948), partner in the Bassetti firm;
- Philip C. “Skip” Norton (b. 1929), partner in the Bassetti firm;
- and Karlis Rekevics (1931-2002), partner in the Bassetti firm.
Notable projects of the firm, to the time of Bassetti's retirement in the mid-1990s, include the Children's Zoo at Woodland Park, dormitories and libraries at Central and Western Washington State Colleges, buildings at the University of Washington and Washington State University, the 37-story Jackson Federal Building in Seattle (1974, originally designed with a brick exterior, which Bassetti says “unfortunately got value-engineered out as too costly”), several buildings at Lakeside School, in 1978 the United States Embassy building in Lisbon (Portugal), the PACCAR Technical Facility at Mount Vernon, the Franklin High School 1990 addition-renovation, and in 1989 the 62-story AT+T Gateway Tower (later Key Tower and Seattle Municipal Tower, also known as “Bassetti’s final erection”) -- to name projects most recognized by publication and awards.
Bassetti spoke of his work with Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter Carol Smith Monkman in 1988:
“Bassetti refers often to ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’ when describing his design philosophy. He lets his designs evolve naturally, drawing inspiration from the surroundings, structural considerations and the site itself. In the same way that the play of the sun and wind determine the growth of a plant, the environment can shape the best design for a building, he said.
“For example, Bassetti designed the Gateway Tower so that it ‘looks around’ the Columbia Seafirst Center, which sits squarely across the street. He did it by designing Gateway as a six-sided building. The front of the building is the angle where two of the sides come together so that the view from inside looks tangentially past either side of the monolith across the street. Other environmental cues contributed to Gateway's design as well. Seattle's rainy climate inspired Bassetti to put a sloping glass roof on the top. The backdrop of the mountains was the inspiration for making the back of the building sheer from top to bottom, like the face of a cliff. Terracing at the top and the bottom is reminiscent of Seattle's hills.
“‘I tried to make it say something about Seattle,’ he said. ‘You couldn't have built this in Kansas City or Chicago.’ When it is complete, the 62-story skyscraper at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Columbia Street will be the second highest in the city after the Columbia Seafirst Center” (Monkman).
When asked in which of his projects he takes greatest pride, Bassetti (at the time of this writing, February 2009) cites the Forrest and Martin Residences, the Lisbon Embassy (“the building, on a great site, draws together Portuguese and American characteristics, using local materials”) and the East Pine Receiving Station, at 23rd and East Pine in Seattle, which received an AIA national Honor Award in 1968 for its design: “I doubt anybody knows about that one, but I feel pretty good about the artistic quality achieved while addressing a utilitarian purpose and serving public safety.”
"Action: Better City" and Urban Advocacy
Throughout the length of his career in architecture, Fred Bassetti worked with colleagues to advance urban themes for the profession and the community: One significant instance was his creation and leadership of Action: Better City in the late 1960s. That program had one point of origin in a 1965 presentation to the AIA Seattle membership by urban planning visionary Constantinos Doxiadis (1913-1975) of Greece, known for his urban theory of Ekistics with its principal tenent that planners must find ways to restore human scale to large cities. Doxiadis’s observations inspired Bassetti to involve himself in AIA Seattle leadership (President 1967), and to work with others in the organization to convene a group of architects and designers who over the course of a year of workshops developed visions for Seattle’s major neighborhoods.
Fred Bassetti developed extensive external support for the program and the presentation of its results at a major public gathering in 1967, with visions documented in a 64-page booklet, a 16mm film titled What is so great about Seattle?, and an exhibit at the Seattle Art Museum. Bassetti recalls, “Dr. Fuller [Museum founder Richard E. Fuller, 1897-1976] donated most of the money -- $15,000, I think -- and I guess I dug up $10,000 more somewhere” (Bassetti, “AIA Memories”).
In his introduction to the Action: Better City publication (also appearing in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 26, 1968), Bassetti evidences his broad cultural and social perspectives on the shaping of the city and also speaks to a critical moment in Seattle history:
“Seattle, a favored spot, haunted by memories of an Indian past, a lumbering past, a fishing past, by the ton of gold, by fire, remembering corruption and zeal of reformers, remembering Chinese riots, vigilantes and strikers, the town with guts enough to build two World’s Fairs, the airplane place, with two kinds of water, with hills and trees; Seattle, the place in the upper left-hand corner, is your place.
“What becomes of it depends on you. How do you want it to be? Are you satisfied with it now? Organizations such as Forward Thrust, Allied Arts, the Central Association, the Municipal League and the Citizens Planning Council are not. They work with public agencies such as the City Planning Commission to improve it. In support of such groups a band of some fifty architects and planners joined together a year ago for a volunteer effort. They decided to look closely at their city, to search out the roots of its joy and despair.
“This book is a progress report on that activity. We hope that it infects you with a touch of the city madness we contracted during a long, hot summer. We think that it will take a fair measure of such madness on the part of a number of citizens to insure this city’s development as a congenial place for friends and lovers.
“Much about Seattle is right, but an equal amount is wrong -- who can rest until the balance is improved? What follows is intended to draw attention to these problems, to help public and professional agree more closely on their city’s purpose before it is too late.
“The focus here is on several problem areas with planning suggestions offered, not as final and definite proposals, but as ideas. The areas of study were: Lake Union/Wallingford, Pioneer Square, the Downtown, Elliott Bay, Denny Regrade, and In-City Living.
“In each case we examined the existing condition and made an attempt to find ways of bringing back to these areas economic health and public joy. We have not attempted to prepare a city plan. This is the rightful province of the City Planning Commission.
“We have tried to find a few modest ways in which the city might serve man rather than the reverse. The hunting society is past, the food-gathering society is past, the agricultural society is past. What we have now is a different society in which the average man is adrift. All the former ways of life contained within them a process, a natural order leading almost inevitably to individual and group well being, psychological as well as physical. Today’s urban condition -- which cannot and perhaps should not be reversed -- does not naturally lead to such a reasonable balance. It is our task to discover ways of reestablishing that necessary equilibrium within the context of today’s and tomorrow’s form of social organization.
“In a small way this volunteer effort may help point the direction. It will take the most penetrating thought, the most complete and sympathetic commitment from us all to find our way again.
“One final word must be said about the problem that makes all of the above seem trivial: the explosive problem of race relations and minority housing. Why should we bother to plant roses when our cities are being burned? It is because we see a correlation between the quality of our communities and the mood of our neighbors. As one of our members has pointed out, 'Ugly streets, neighborhoods, and communities form an excellent backdrop for ugly behavior.' The nearer we approach a truly human city, the nearer we may come to truly civilized behavior.”
Chairman, Action: Better City
Many credit the civic conversation that Action: Better City helped ignite as a major influence in their thoughts about the city and the plans and buildings that shape it, beginning then and continuing for several decades. Bassetti enumerates these areas as among those positively affected by public investment stimulated by Action: Better City: Westlake Square, Pioneer Square, the Denny Regrade, Gas Works Park, and the Burke Gilman Trail.
"Ask What You Can Do For Your City"
Bassetti remembers a special inspiration in his career, in 1961. Having served on the design jury reviewing projects submitted for AIA national Honor Awards a year or two earlier, he said “Yes” when an AIA staffer asked him to fill in on the jury seat vacated by the death of Eero Saarinen (1910-1961). Bassetti called his friend and client Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson (1912-1983); the two met originally at the Metropolitan Democratic Club. Senator Jackson found him a seat at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, “right up there with the Supreme Court Justices.” Bassetti, a lifelong Democrat, had a direct personal experience of “Ask not what your country can do for you -- ask what you can do for your country.”
Bassetti’s civic commitment, then and onward, engaged him in community service and leadership including terms with Forward Thrust (1969-70), Allied Arts of Seattle (President 1970-1971), the Seattle Landmarks Commission (1974-1975), and the Seattle Design Commission (1977-1981). This service coincided with a key era in the creation of a historic preservation framework for Seattle including the preservation of the Pike Place Market, which Bassetti referred to as "an honest place in a phony time” (HistoryLink.org, Pike Place Market Thumbnail History).
Not only his advocacy but also his projects addressed critical urban contexts, for instance Woodland Park Zoo (1966), Seattle Aquarium (1971), the Triangle Market building (1975) and reconstruction of the Sanitary Market (1979) in Pike Place Market, the Makah Cultural and Research Center at Neah Bay (1974), and the Franklin High School rehabilitation and addition in 1990.
Conversations with Fred Bassetti, whether in a business session, an organization meeting, or over a friendly and delicious meal, have often resulted in his companions’ commitment to get involved in civic endeavor as well as to reach for excellence in their design projects. Bassetti’s circle of friends has drawn together fellow city-shapers Ralph Anderson (Bassetti says, “Ralph could design circles around me, and also his clients had big bucks to spend whereas mine had budgets of about $12,000”), George Bartholick (1921-1998), artist Richard Beyer, Al Bumgardner (1923-1987), Arne Bystrom (b. 1927), landscape architect Richard Haag (b. 1923, , founder of the UW Department of Landscape Architecture), Ibsen Nelsen (1919-2001), Paul Schell (b. 1937), Dean of the UW College of Architecture and Urban Planning 1992-95, Mayor of Seattle 1998-2002), and Victor Steinbrueck, among many urbane cohorts.
For many, the image of Fred Bassetti and Ibsen Nelsen walking together through the city before or after their weekly lunch at Rosellini’s, Dublin House, the Athenian in the Pike Place Market or at Crepes de Paris epitomizes not only these two remarkable architects’ spirited camaraderie but also urban hopes and schemes on their way to realization. As David Brewster observed:
“In the early days of Seattle reform politics, starting in the late 1960s with the effort to save the Pike Place Market and toss out the greybeards of the City Council, Bassetti was a key figure, along with his great architectural buddy, the late Ibsen Nelsen. They were early, loud, persuasive voices for urbanism and urban planning, and Seattle owed a great deal to their advocacy. There was more at stake than saving old treasures like the Market and Pioneer Square, funding the arts, and making streets pedestrian-friendly. Bassetti was a leading advocate for the kind of humane modernism that lay just outside the more severe modernism of the European heartland” (Brewster).
Bassetti’s idealist care and concern for Seattle have made him a resource for ongoing generations of urban observers and activists. In 1989, Seattle P-I reporter O. Casey Corr invited his views on the city’s accelerating growth, asking, “Can big be beautiful? Could Seattle become the Paris of Puget Sound? Yes, says architect Fred Bassetti. Seattle could become what he calls a Noble City, with a downtown of stylish, friendly architecture and a suburbia full of protected forests. It's a vision, he says, compatible with growth, more people and more tall buildings. In short, there can be a meeting of the ideal with the inevitable. Bassetti is not the only dreamer” (Corr).
Action: Better City -- Second Generation
Beginning in 1999-2000, a new generation of design activists, with Bassetti’s support and public encouragement at a kickoff event attended by several members of the “A:BC original cast,” organized a program of urban research, conversations, tours, publications, and a website, reviving both the spirit and the name “Action: Better City.” As the announcement of the group’s presentation to an October 2001 AIA Seattle event describes it:
“Inspired by the original successes of 1968, the current roster draws together architects, developers, artists, and concerned citizens from all walks of life with a dedication to advancing a vision for a more livable community. Since its reconception, the group has toured the city with multi-media presentations sponsored by the Seattle Architectural Foundation, Allied Arts of Seattle, the Seattle Art Museum, and AIA Seattle ... [also including] a traveling research project to document the status of main streets and town centers in small towns in Western Washington as well as the thoughts of the people who live there” (AIA Seattle).
In this and many ways, the Bassetti heritage continues to advance urban place-making in Seattle and beyond.
Fred Bassetti at Home
As the only son of an only son, Fred Bassetti engineered a large family of his own, most of whom remained in the Seattle area. Fred Bassetti’s family has included three wives and their children: He was married to Mary Wilson from 1944 to 1971, and their children are Ann, Catherine, and Margaret; he was married to Moira Feeney from 1971 to 1985, and their children are Megan and Michael; he married Gwenyth Piper Caldwell in 1989. She was mother (by a previous marriage to Gardner Davis) of Megan, Ben, Piper, and Sam.
Bassetti purchased a houseboat on Lake Union in 1968, and resided there and at the CDB (Caldwell Davis Bassetti) Farm in Goldendale -- home to Fred and Gwen Bassetti and also to the Bassetti Apple, from a tree on the family property in Mortimer Heights. In both residences, bookshelves sagged with the weight of great literature and philosophical texts as well as architecture tomes and artistic portfolios along with Bassetti’s own sketchbooks and journals, evidencing his wide-ranging intellect and the breadth of his good taste and cultural erudition. A world traveler -- often by bicycle and in the company of his wife Gwen -- at age 85 Bassetti set out on a cross-United States bike trip.
Honors and Awards
Fred Bassetti received local and national recognition for his design achievements and for his civic and professional influence. In addition to his 1968 election to the AIA College of Fellows, Bassetti took national honors in his election to the National Academy of Design, and in his 1989 nomination for the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize. Locally, in 1988 his AIA Seattle colleagues accorded Bassetti the organization’s highest honor to an individual architect, the AIA Seattle Medal, in the same year Seattle Weekly readers voted him "Best Local Architect."
Bassetti lectured extensively throughout the United States, with stints at MIT, Columbia, Rice, and the Universities of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia. In 2008, the University of Washington College of Architecture and Urban Planning added Bassetti’s name to the Roll of Honor inscribed on a frieze at Architecture Hall recognizing those who have contributed significantly to design education in the Northwest.
In concert with others and as his own man, Bassetti made a distinct mark as an architect on the shape of Seattle and the Northwest, and on the profession of architecture. Fred Bassetti died in December 2013 at the age of 96.