Westbank is a practice dedicated to the creation of inspiring environments. We fundamentally believe in the power of well-functioning cities and the overarching values best described as the common good — that the solutions to our greatest challenges will be found in helping our cities live up to their full potential. Established 30 years ago, Westbank is a private company that partners with likeminded global organizations to become ever more impactful. We concentrate primarily on projects that serve as catalysts for broader change in our core cities of focus: Vancouver, Toronto, Seattle, Tokyo and San Jose.As a global leader in net zero development and the co-owner of one of North America's largest district energy providers, we are committed to large scale net zero carbon initiatives. Our body of work includes residential, hotels, retail, creative workspace, district energy, affordable housing, exhibitions and public art, with over $50B of projects completed or underdevelopment. As our practice has evolved, we have woven together an ecosystem of cultural enterprises including restaurants, gyms, spas, music venues, private members clubs, fashion, dance schools and food halls. We bring this ecosystem to life through collaborations with some of the most talented artists, architects, designers and entrepreneurs in the world. We look for every opportunity to strengthen the bonds that unite us–to create shared experiences that bring people together and help build more inspiring, sustainable communities. Through these and other endeavours, our evolution continues as we become a cultural platform for the creative city.
Light as a Common Thread
John Hogan: on Craft, Design and Ideas for First Light
All visual art relies on light. Glass art is perhaps unique in its relationship with light, capable of capturing, reflecting, transforming and empowering its expression, altering it within to transfigure both its own surface and the space around it. Artist John Hogan has sought in his practice to discover the softer, gentler side of light, seeking ways for his artwork to “stay out of the way” and let the beauty of light express itself.
Finding a language and expression in his work that keeps quiet and allows light to be of focus, is central to his art. Hogan believes that “in an era of technological belligerence, with our short attention spans, art can form anchors for the mind.” In his view, the best art incites needed moments of stillness. Hogan offers his personal experience of the Rothko Chapel in Houston as an example: “When there, you are not able to connect directly to life’s experiences, so you kind of float in a cosmic gel. The truly new is something without connections, something that is raw, forcing an interaction.” Hogan believes that art can create portals or connection points, places where the material can link with the non-sensory experiences of reality.
The prospect of working with Westbank on First Light, a project spanning a quarter of an entire city block, is an unprecedented chance to test the experience of glass art at the building scale. Hogan’s work for the past 15 years has been extensive but of a finer grain; this new commission raises many new but interesting challenges. More so than earlier experiments in architectural collaboration, the installations on First Light will require innovation, creativity and a far greater scope. Hogan is interested in the creative challenge of how art work, spread throughout the project and around the entire podium, can open up new possibilities for glass art. “This is definitely a ‘big picture’ approach to art-making – something I’m looking forward to exploring further.”
John’s work will be incorporated throughout First Light: in veils around the podium and the amenity space, in the residential lobby, and in a secret garden on the roof. His current designs for the podium veil feature digitally-cut disks of tempered glass strung at intervals along lengths of steel cable, set in tension on all sides of the podium, but having minute vibrational movement in the wind. Each glass disk will act as both prism and reflector – every one of them a unique landing point, interacting with the light that strikes it in different ways at varying times of day and season. The glass will not act as aloof works of art, but as permanent architectural elements that will also form an integral layered detail, part of a larger visual ensemble. They rise to the challenge of evoking the look and feel of a veil, draped and flowingover the architecture.
Echoing the sentiment, Westbank and James Cheng began with their own exploration of layered screens. Much of Hogan’s work reflects the idea that sometimes you want to look through things, not directly at them. He is most interested in how this new work for First Light will be perceived as one walks or moves through the city. “I hope that when it is seen obliquely, it will be as if you’re driving late in the day along the side of a lake – you are moving, the water is moving, perspective and multiple light points are moving.”
James KM Cheng Architects
First Light Architecture
The fundamentals of the design devised by James KM Cheng Architects for First Light began with their careful study of its location within Seattle at Third and Virginia. At the macro level, this corner site can be interpreted variously as being at the eastern edge of Belltown, the northern edge of the downtown core, or at the southern extension of South Lake Union. Without doubt, this crucial corner site is subject to influence from all three of these key zones of Seattle’s urban core. From the start, Cheng felt a tower here needed to be restrained in its massing and detailing, not addressing just one of these adjacencies, but all of them. This represents a significantly greater design challenge than shaping a typical building.
At a finer grain of understanding this locale within the city, Third and Virginia is an unusually prominent location, being one of those places where Seattle’s urban grid shifts, slightly. By virtue of this block pattern change around it, the site can be seen many blocks away when looking west along Third Avenue, and also from downhill, when looking up Virginia from the Pike Place Market area. The design team began thinking of this as a turning point, as one of those places where the city shifts, meaning that simple design discriminations of what is “front” and “back” or “prominent” and “subordinate” could not be made. This urban situation meant that First Light’s corners would have unusually prominent architectural features, requiring a true building in the round.
JKMC Architects has envisioned ingenious design features in response to these considerations. The design team wanted to avoid a monolithic presence; using the same elevation treatment on all four sides would not work within the urban grain of Third Avenue and the Pike Place Market area. It was decided that the elevations would change as they went up, zones with differing details and palette to break the uniformity, creating visual interest and reducing the apparent mass of the tower. Residential suites with larger balconies were grouped together at the corners in blocks of multiple floors on the west and south elevations, their surface color a more prominent band of white. Moreover, this white banding would wrap around these prominent corners, alternating as they go up. That this detail communicates onto the exterior of the building the differing residential unit types within is a feature typical of the updated Modernism that is the core design philosophy at James KM Cheng Architects.
Many of the decisions regarding the building’s composition were driven by its immediate context. Early on it was decided that about one fifth of First Light’s floor space would be devoted to office space. The adjacent brick YWCA Building and many other neighbors are five to eight stories high. This became the cue to set the First Light office block’s height, a wider building mass, which serves as a podium for the residential floors above. Moreover, this allowed the amenity decks for the office component to look out onto neighboring Belltown’s historic roofscapes, with partial views out to the harbor and the Olympics, an apple orchard planted there to bring a natural element into the built environment. John Hogan’s “veil” of strung glass disks beaded on cables set outside the windows of the office floors have several functions. As the views from these lower floors are mainly out towards parking garages and brick walls, the glass artwork also serves to both diffuse views and increase privacy within. From the outside, the slight movements of the glass works forms an utterly contemporary elevation and a series of luminous sculptural moments shrouding the podium in soft, multi-faceted displays of light.
James Cheng’s design for First Light echoes the Chicago high-rise pioneer Louis Sullivan’s promotion of a tripartite composition rule for tall buildings. Inspired by design of columns from the Greco-Roman tradition, Sullivan proposed that towers should have a base, a pillar, and a cap, or capital. Conforming to this logic for the composition of tall buildings, at First Light, the retail and office podium are the base, the many floors of residential suites form the pillar and the penthouse and resident’s amenity floors that blossom on levels 46 and 47 are the capital. At the top of the tower, Cheng’s cantilevered swimming pool with wood-grain printed aluminum panels covering its soffit, supported on huge V-columns provides a distinctive addition to the Seattle skyline. This up-top massing provides a strong horizontal line that masterfully terminates the rise of vertical lines up through 47 stories, whether viewed from the sidewalk below or from across the city. This same concern with proportion and beauty informs all other exterior details, down to the most minute detail.
Like the tree-topping large nests that provide homes to eagles, the rooftop at First Light will become a haven for its residents, one which will fast emerge as a symbol for a new way of living downtown. Visible from around the city, the composition of a living green wall, secret rooftop garden, and a fine steel mesh wrapping around is composed and elegant. These, in addition to the amenity rooms shrouded in glass, make for a carefully resolved ensemble as climax to the tower. Through-out his career, James Cheng has elected to design small and medium scale private residences. These skills are evident in the finesse of First Light’s spectacular top floors, which will update the notion of a landmark tower in dialogue with the iconic Space Needle, with which it aligns, in many senses of that word.
In devising a palette of materials appropriate for First Light, James Cheng’s design team drew inspiration from Seattle’s long tradition of craft and invention, from the marine workshops lining the Ship Canal to Boeing’s factories, the simple but improvised concrete sheds of the Pike Place market and the futurism of Seattle Center. The JKMCA organizing philosophy was to use building materials and finishes in the most direct form possible, in contrast to the artificiality of overpolished design. Concrete is exposed wherever possible, its formwork markings left in place. This includes inside residential suites, where concrete columns are typically boxed-in with surrounding wallboard, reducing usable space. In the view of the architects, residents appreciate this reminder of the larger building in which they reside, providing a touch of the aesthetic of downtown lofts, rather than hotel rooms. James Cheng’s firm has been praised over the years for careful space planning considerations like these, making every corner and square inch usable, evident even when examining the floorplans of the smallest suites.
The lobby will present more like a gallery, with polished concrete walls, a floor and concierge desk of honed basalt, and a ceiling of smoked, polished stainless steel, all bathed in a wash of light that will emphasize the custom Fazioli piano and John Hogan’s artwork. To emphasize the openness of space, in-floor windows set within this concrete floor will provide views to the bicycle storage room below. Matte black panels leading residents to the elevators will be finished with jade onyx panels and terrazzo interiors. The cast concrete structure and V-shaped pool supports at the rooftop amenity level are similarly direct and exposed. With this, the composition of the building balances horizontal elements with vertical ones. “Light as a Common Thread” applies to even the simplest of architectural details, like the edges of balconies. The building is clad in pre-manufactured structural glass panels, detailed to visually evoke the aesthetic of a continuous wall. Authenticity and directness in architecture – like minimalism in the visual arts – seems inevitable when experienced, but requires great care in conception and construction. First Light’s dedication to an architecture of amenity coupled with a lack of artifice will inaugurate a new class of residential buildings for a changing Seattle.
First Light Landscape Architecture
While those may have been gentler times, Seattle has been known throughout the decades as the “Emerald City” – a green city, its skyline defined by towers, and known for its diverse, cultured residents. Seattle, like its Pacific Northwest neighbor is surrounded by the vast natural beauty of the pacific temperate rainforests. Through this connection, the Seattle’s inhabitants share a love for nature that permeates the city’s culture. Seattleites love parks and have taken the traditional park further, creating one in the sky, surrounded by views of towers, the Sound, the Olympics. Sky gardens are one of the specialties of Vancouver landscape architects PFS Studio, previously known as Phillips Farvaag Smallenberg. Chris Phillips’s team at PFS Studio designed one of Seattle’s most original and successful sky gardens, one adjacent to what was then called the WaMu Tower, now Chase Bank, a garden constructed on the roof of the office built over the Seattle Art Museum. Seventeen floors up, this is one of the most spectacular perches in the city, a realm of imagination and relaxation set high above the streets of downtown. The PFS Studio concept of a sky garden is neither a simple green roof without access, nor a hard-edged roof zones without greenery, but rather a true garden in the sky. PFS Studio founder Chris Phillips believes a great sky garden should have sustainable aspects while still being a social, comfortable, and symbolic space like any fine garden at grade level. PFS Studio has designed previous sky gardens for Westbank, including one at the top of Vancouver’s TELUS Garden, but none compare with what has been planned for First Light. Principal landscape designer for First Light, Kelty McKinnon, describes her design as “focusing on nature, in both its wild and cultivated forms.” The building is 47 stories, comprising condos on top of a retail and office podium. There is a distinct garden planned for each of these building components which combine to form the tower at the meeting point of the Belltown and Downtown neighborhoods.