Nuclear Reactor Building (aka More Hall Annex)

University of Washington, Seattle, Built 1961 (Demolished july 2016)

Designed by The Architect Artist Group (TAAG):
Wendell Lovett, architect
Daniel Streissguth, architect
Gene Zema, architect
Gerard Torrence, structural engineer
Spencer Moseley, artist

 

Why the Nuclear Reactor Building Matters

The Nuclear Reactor Building is an exceptional example of Brutalist design from the Mid-century Modern era and the ideals that drove the Modern movement. Designed by renowned architects of the time, the building’s design promotes technology and rejects the conventional academic architecture surrounding it. It is a completely unique structure, and represents a specific time and way of thinking in the history of the University, and the overarching history of nuclear power. Even after standing empty for many years, the structure still speaks of the heroic aspirations of Modern architecture and its association with technological development and moving ever forward into the future.

 

Architecture, art, and science

In the wake of World War II, the atomic technology that sealed victory for the United States was welcomed by the American public as a source of cheap and efficient energy. With enthusiasm for the new technology, the University of Washington and many other universities sought to establish programs in nuclear engineering.

The University of Washington founded its Nuclear Engineering program in 1958, and moved to acquire a research reactor as soon as possible. To house the new teaching reactor, the University commissioned The Architect Artist Group (TAAG), a collaborative group representing different design disciplines, to design the building. The group was composed of three architects, Wendell Lovett, Daniel Streissguth and Gene Zema, a structural engineer, Gerard Torrence, and a painter, Spencer Moseley. The commission was unusual. The University policy was to not offer design projects to its employees, and all of the members of TAAG were professors at the University, with the exception of Gene Zema who had a private practice. The Nuclear Reactor Building was the only building designed by The Architect Artist Group.

The Architect Artist Group’s approach to the design was bold and innovative. Research reactors installed on other college campuses were typically hidden in basements or concrete boxes and removed from the main campus activity. The case is the opposite in the design of the Nuclear Reactor Building. It is sited in the center of the engineering complex, and the reactor and its related experiments were visible from behind glass walls, encouraging public observation. In this condition the Nuclear Reactor Building on the University of Washington campus is completely unique. The University was supportive of the building design and its aspirations. The building was published in architectural periodicals of the time, nationally and internationally, including Architecture West, Arts and Architecture, Architectural Record, Progressive Architecture, and L’Architecture d’Aujourd ‘Hui.

The Nuclear Reactor Building was completed in 1961, the year before the Century 21 Exposition opened in Seattle. The building is small, but its dynamic form embodies the forward-looking spirit of its time. The architecture of the building is clear and logical, an expression of structure in concrete. Glass fills the space between the structural elements, allowing visual access to the reactor on the level below. The structural assembly showcases concrete in its different roles, especially evident in the cast in place members that support the roof. There is a kinetic energy in the form of the building that speaks of the energy contained within.

The Nuclear Reactor Building exhibits the character-defining features of Brutalism. Coined in 1953 to describe the architectural work of a group of British architects, Brutalism in its early phase (originally called New Brutalism) was a design philosophy, not a style. The term Brutalism is derived from the French word for rough concrete or “beton brut.” The idea was to create an aesthetic based on the exposure of a building’s components: its frame, sheathing, and mechanical systems. However, the term quickly began to be applied to buildings that used monumental concrete forms, heavy massing, and sculptural block shapes. The style represents a revolt by architects against the corporate glass curtain wall and was often seen as a quick and easy way to construct long-lasting buildings.

The Nuclear Reactor Building was unable to escape the downfall of nuclear power. A combination of negative attitudes and a lack of demand for nuclear engineers led to a decline in enrollment in the Nuclear Engineering Program. Research in the Nuclear Reactor Building was limited throughout the 1980s, and eventually the reactor was decommissioned in 1988. The Nuclear Engineering Program was closed in 1992. Since that time the building has stood vacant. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, raised concerns about the security of the building and although it was only a remote possibility, the university worried that the building's name would attract someone in search of nuclear material and changed its name to More Hall Annex.

The Nuclear Reactor Building’s more recent history (from 2008 to the present) has been about the University of Washington's plans to redevelop the site and community advocates’ efforts to save the structure and promote its adaptive reuse and meaningful preservation. Learn more about the latest news, advocacy effortsand how to get involved.

Significance content source: Abby Inpanbutr and Docomomo WEWA.

 

Learn more about the Nuclear Reactor Building’s history, architecture, and significance:

Seattle City Landmark nomination form (5.7 MB PDF), source: DocomomoWEWA

National Register nomination form (9.4 MB PDF), source: Abby Inpanbutr

Web links:

Docomomo WEWA endangered property

HistoryLink.org essay on the Nuclear Reactor Building