UW News

March 9, 2020

Book notes: UW architectural historian Tyler Sprague explores the work of Kingdome designer Jack Christiansen

UW News

Tyler Sprague is an assistant professor of architecture who studies and teaches structural design and architectural history. A former structural engineer himself, Sprague is the author of “Sculpture on a Grand Scale: Jack Christiansen’s Thin Shell Modernism.”

The book, published in 2019 by University of Washington press, is a study of the life and work of the architect who designed Seattle’s Kingdome, among many other structures.

UW Notebook is late in catching up with Sprague for a talk about the book, which The New York Times noted in a November story about books that “take you to a wild place.” 

What drew you to study and write about the career of Jack Christiansen? 

Tyler Sprague: Jack was an incredibly creative, Northwest structural engineer, and someone who blurred the lines between architecture and engineering in his work.  He designed primarily in concrete — a typically rather heavy material — but used it in extremely light and expressive ways.  This makes many of his designs, like the arches in front of the Pacific Science Center, look simply impossible.

And Jack played an essential role in shaping the built environment of Seattle, from the 1950s through the 2000s.  Encompassing time of incredible change (from the post-war boom, to the Seattle World’s Fair, the Boeing Bust, and the rise of tech), Jack designed over 100 buildings — schools, office buildings, warehouses, stadiums, homes — each suited to their time and place.

A controversial project from the start, the Kingdome went through extreme economic and political hardship during its design, and yet, because of Jack’s tenacity and design creativity became not only a reality, but also the largest, free-standing concrete dome in the world. This was a monumental achievement of structural engineering and construction, and provided a single, multipurpose venue that brought the Seahawks, the Mariners and other professional sports to Seattle.  Because of the Kingdome, Seattle was never the same. 

What is thin-shelled concrete construction, and what are its perceived benefits?  

Tyler Sprague

T.S.: The way Jack attained this impossible lightness in his work was by designing structures not with flat beams and vertical columns, but by using curved surfaces to create “shells.” When you do this, and shape the shell correctly, the structure resists loads through membrane-like, or shell behavior (rather than through bending behavior in beams), and you need far less material to do it.  One needs to only think of the strength of an egg shell, and how strong it is when you try to squeeze it in your hand, compared to how thin the egg shell is.

By designing with shells, typically concrete shells, he was able to achieve incredible levels of material efficiency in his structures — for long-span roofs (like airplane hangars and auditoria).  The careful shaping of these shells became part of his creative expression.

So in your view, what brought the demise of the Kingdome — which Christiansen had planned to last a thousand years?

T.S.: When it was demolished [in 2000], the Kingdome had no structural deficiencies whatsoever.  It did not have luxury boxes, nor an inside environment based around a single sport or event layout.  As professional baseball and football became bigger and bigger businesses, team owners demanded new facilities to bring in more revenue, at the tax payer’s expense. One writer stated: “It wasn’t that the Kingdome had nothing left to offer Seattle, it was that Seattle no longer had anything to offer the Kingdome.” 

With the Kingdome gone, where can people see other work by Christiansen? 

Right here at the UW, Jack designed the two pedestrian bridges that connect the campus to the Montlake parking lot.  While you may not notice them initially, the bridges span nearly 80 feet over the traffic, and 30 feet on either side, and yet are only 8 inches thick at the midspan.  If you compare this to how big the older, nearby bridge is (going to the Hec Edmundson Pavilion), you will get a sense of the material efficiency in Jack’s work. They are pretty impressive.

Also, the Pacific Science Center at the Seattle Center. Jack was the engineer with architect Minoru Yamasaki. You can hardly believe that the overhead arches are made of concrete! The Green Lake Pool [called the Evans Pool] was an early work of his too. A simple barrel vault.

What seems the future for thin-shelled concrete construction?

T.S.: Thin shells are making a comeback! The technique was quite popular through the 1970s, but fell out of favor by the 1980s for a few reasons — material and labor markets shifted, aesthetic tastes changed. But, as a building technique, they still offer one of the most materially efficient ways to enclose space. Current work is exploring shells of different materials (like thin tiles, or wood), and using shells to lower the carbon footprint of construction today.  

To learn more, contact Sprague at tyler2@uw.edu.


Rick Bonus documents Pacific Islander students building community against odds at the UW

In his new book, Rick Bonus, UW associate professor of American Ethnic Studies, discusses how Pacific Islander students at the UW used the ocean as a metaphor to create community for themselves and change their university. “The Ocean in the School: Pacific Islander Students Transforming their University” was published by Duke University Press in February.

Rick Bonus

The book tells of Pacific Islander students and their allies as they “struggle to transform a university they believed did not value their presence” despite campus promotion of diversity and student success programs. Bonus interviewed dozens of students he taught and advised at the UW between 2004 and 2018 about their experiences.

“(T)hese students did not often find their education to be meaningful, leading some to leave the university. As these students note, they weren’t failing school, school was failing them.”

Bonus shows how the students used the ocean as a metaphor “to foster community and to transform the university into a space that valued meaningfulness, respect, and critical thinking.”

To learn more, contact Bonus at rbonus@uw.edu.


Jackson School’s Yong-Chool Ha edits volume on colonial rule in Korea

Yong-Chool Ha

Yong-Chool Ha, professor of Korean social science in the UW’s Jackson School of International Studies has edited a new volume in University of Washington Press’ Center for Korea Studies Publications series. Clark Sorensen, professor and director of the center, is the series editor.

International Impact of Colonial Rule in Korea, 1910-1945” was published last October.

Recent discussions of Korea’s colonial period have focused mainly on exploitation or development that was domestic in nature, with international aspects relatively neglected, publishers notes state. But the colonization of Korea by Japan also changed Japan, and has had long-term geopolitical consequences.

The essays in this volume, edited by Ha, “show the broad influence of Japanese colonialism not simply on the Korean peninsula, but on how the world understood Japan and how Japan understood the world.”

To learn more, contact Ha at yongha5@uw.edu or Sorensen at sangok@uw.edu.