Skip to main content

Words In Review: Should Seattle be a 'work of art'?

caption: The Urbana apartments in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.
Enlarge Icon
1 of 3 The Urbana apartments in Seattle's Ballard neighborhood.
Bill Radke / KUOW

A Seattle writer says living in a city should feel like a work of art. Can our buildings be “art” and still be affordable?

The Stranger columnist Charles Mudede chooses words for a living. He knows that our words influence our perception, our opinions, our actions. So after reading his recent interview with the New York Times, I asked him whether “work of art” is a realistic, or elitist, way to characterize a necessity of life.

Charles Mudede: I do believe that housing and art do not have to be separated.

Bill Radke: As you know a lot of people in Seattle want homes to be cheaper. Can a residential building be a work of art and still be affordable?

Mudede: As long as you don't expect an immediate return on an investment on a building.

Radke: OK, then in the actual system, in the real world, in the capitalist system we have now, are you saying then cities cannot be and residential buildings cannot be works of art?

Mudede: You hit the ground of my Marxism, I'm saying this system sucks.

Radke: So then would it be fair to say living in cities should be a work of art, but under our current system, it should be cheap?

Mudede: OK, now you're putting words in my mouth!

Radke: I'm asking! It should be a work of art in some world that doesn't exist, but in the real world … the sense I get from The Stranger, your paper, is constantly criticizing people who use aesthetics to block housing. So in the world we live in...

Mudede: No, but they negate aesthetics. I am for aesthetics. Some of the stuff that's come out of the review boards cannot be looked at. Come on, when I use the word “abomination,” I'm serious.

Radke: Your bete noire is the Urbana apartments in Ballard.

Mudede: They’re the worst! A monstrosity! I’ve even said, if the board was made of beavers, we would get a better building than what we have in Ballard. The Urbana is stunningly, I mean, it is the ground zero of all that you could imagine, you know … in a city where, you know, we live together, we should be a little more cosmopolitan, right? We should have a little more taste, right? Flair! When you look at that building and you think, “My goodness!”

Radke: You need to move into that building so that you don't have to look at it! Like what's-his-name who used to have lunch under the Eiffel Tower so he wouldn't have to look at that piece of ...

Mudede: (laughing) Yeah, I know, but then that brings up another issue: Maybe that Eiffel Tower is a reminder of how it was loathed when it was made. We never know what the future will say about what our choices were, architecturally. So maybe the Urbana will be seen by the future as a perfect work, as magnificent. And they'll wonder what the hell was this writer Charles Mudede talking about?

Radke: Would it be fair to say that, in some world that we don't live in, cities should be a work of art, but in the world we do live in, buildings … they're not works of art, they are works of building codes and design review and profit-per-square foot and we need more, more, more of them or people can't afford a roof over their head?

Mudede: Yeah. You know, I think it is a greater civic spirit in Portland. They have codes, they have all those things, but it doesn't seem to get in the way of the creativity of a number of its architects.

Radke: And have you formed a theory of why Seattle is not as artistic as the city of Portland is?

Mudede: I'd love to solve that question, but it can’t be doubted. Seattle is at the bottom.

Radke: Charles, I have a question for you. What do you think of the coat that I’m wearing?

Mudede: Oh, it's green. And it goes with your sweater. It's got this yellowish … I think it's fine. It's very Northwest.

Radke: It's very Northwest. I would say go so far as to say this is an ugly coat. This is a puffer jacket.

Mudede: Yeah, I've written about this.

Radke: You have?

Mudede: Yeah, I've written about Seattle's lack of, of, uh …

Radke: Say it.

Mudede: Of taste, when it comes to...

Radke: Yes! I wore this for you, Charles. My wife bought me this coat. I think puffer jackets are homely. I don't wear it often, but it's warm and lightweight, it does the job. And I know people who can't stand the lack of fashion sense in Seattle. But are you offended when you see me wearing this drab coat?

Mudede: I’ve given up that fight a long time ago! What is interesting is, though, there was an article that came out in Esquire December last year. They said Seattle is becoming the fashion capital of the world because this no-style is becoming a style.

Radke: Yes, it's spreading.

Mudede: It's spreading. And I think when I went to New York, in December, I noticed that Seattle had had an impact on the cities on the way that people dress in that city. What happened was, we had this massive lockdown and people started spending time at home and people stopped dressing completely, getting up in the morning, making sure things were matching. No, they just put on these kinds of jackets, these kinds of clothes that you're wearing and went to the store? Now they say, 'Well, if I go to the store, I’ll just go to the restaurant.' Then it just became, nobody dresses anymore. If you go there, it was really shocking to me to see up and down East Village, people dressed in the style of a lot of Seattle.

Radke: But they start dressing that way because they like it, this is the style. Can't you reconcile yourself with, your quote from the New York Times was, “Living in cities can and should feel like a work of art and that's what sad for me.” Do you want to go around being sad or angry at the Urbana apartments? I mean, it's superficial, the outside, the skin of a building. Isn't what matters the life that's inside the buildings and on the streets and right here between you and me in this room? Why be depressed about Seattle architecture?

Mudede: You know, you can't be a great artist without some gripe! (laughs)

Why you can trust KUOW