Lost at SEA

Architecture & Urbanism of Seattle and beyond

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    Synthetic St. & Burlap Blvd.

    Evan Chakroff
    Jul 7, '14 4:08 PM EST

    One of Seattle's true lost wonders, Boeing Plant #2 was constructed in the run-up to World War II, as a production facility for new, metal aircraft, replacing the obsolete Plant #1, whose facilities were (somewhat shockingly, from today's perspective) focused on the production of wooden aircraft, and thus lacked the metalworking facilities required for the new models.

    In a very real sense, the construction of this new, modern facility represented the shifting economy in early 20th century Seattle. The city has always, it seems, been a 'company town' in the sense that a single industry (if not a single company!) has dominated the city's economic growth in each era. The city was essentially founded as a logging community (allegedly supplying much of the lumber used to build San Francisco), and while a vibrant trading economy developed in the years of the Klondike gold rush, lumber and associated industries flourished right up into the 20th century. Boeing, the corporation that would dominate Seattle's economy for decades, was founded by a timber industry veteran, located its first production facility in a former shipyard, and benefited greatly from the pool of local talent skilled in the woodworking techniques used in shipbuilding.

    The plant was built in 1936 (function design by Boeing corp.), but with the US entrance into the war, and Seattle's relative proximity to Japan, the mission-critical facility needed to be disguised. William Bain Sr, a Seattle-based architect (and later co-founder of NBBJ) held, during the war, the amazingly-titled position of Camouflage Director for the State of Washington, was tasked with the job, along with Hollywood set designer John Stewart Detlie. To hide the plant, the heavy timber roof structure was covered with a street network, plots artificial turf and fake trees constructed of burlap and plastic netting, even light wood frame villas to complete the illusion of a suburban residential neighborhood. 

    The plant was obsolete within 15 years, due to the increasing size and complexity of the aircraft to be built, but remained standing, in increasing disrepair, until 2010. (It has had an afterlife of sorts as a supplier of reclaimed wood, and a potential model for brownfield restoration).

    Today, the story of Plant #2 has been fairly well covered by a number of sources. For architects, the enduring memory of Plant #2 still fascinates. Inevitably, we ask: why not build a *real* suburb on top of the plant? This kind of programmatic stacking and layering seems like a perfect challenge for a studio brief, if not a real-world experiment. While building a residential neighborhood atop a factory is unrealistic for a host of reasons, there are certainly precedents for this kind of programmatic layering, both in academia and reality. 

    Perhaps more interesting than the potential for functional layering, is the impact such a design would have today, in our interconnected, digital world. To a viewer in 2014, the warped images of the plant roof bring to mind the digital glitches of Apple's first Maps app, and the notion of the roof as a "fifth facade" becomes more and more relevant in this era of Google Earth and ubiquitous imagery - and ubiquitous surveillance. Is it too far-fetched to imagine a wealthy client asking for a 'camouflaged' site plan to downplay the extent of their estate? Or a government commission with a desire for a 'pre-glitched' roofscape?

    Today we can only imagine exploring the fake 'burbs of Boeing Plant #2, but the discussions sparked by the collective memory of building - camouflage, image & graphics, programmatic layering, surveillance, secrecy, authenticity, a city's shifting economy - all seem as relevant as ever.


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About this Blog

Returning to the US after years of work and travel abroad, Evan Chakroff attempts to bring a global perspective to analysis of the relatively-unknown architectural traditions of his new home, Seattle, Washington.... and beyond....

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