Should the UW's Brutalist Nuclear Reactor Building be Saved?

Embracing the Nuke building’s iconic status links the roots of our tech past to the future
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Even when something is “saved,” it’s never saved in Seattle, at least not during boom times.  

Case in point is More Hall Annex, aka the Nuclear Reactor Building on the University of Washington campus. The 1961 building used to house a small nuclear reactor used in training atomic engineers. It was designed by a trio of superstar Northwest modern architects from the UW—Wendell Lovett, Gene Zema, and Daniel Streissguth, along with artist Spencer Moseley. It’s a concrete box with large windows that allowed the public to witness the modern alchemy that took place within. It’s a kind of Brutalist cabana, and was radical in its notion of making the process of nuclear energy “transparent” for the public. 

In 2008, the UW wanted to tear it down for an expansion of the engineering department. But activists, led by a UW grad student, intervened and, despite the building not being 50 years old, it was found worthy of early addition to the state and National Register of Historic Places due to its exceptional historic character. The Great Recession slowed things down and the demolition of the building was tabled. It has sat neglected, but not forgotten, ever since.  

But now, demolition is back on the table. The UW wants to expand its computer science and engineering program and is targeting the Nuke building site for a major building expansion. A new draft Environmental Impact Statement is out and has spurred a renewed coalition of supporters into action. Historic Seattle, the public preservation non-profit, has announced a new website, SavetheReactor.org, devoted to preserving the structure. They are joined by two key collaborators: Docomomo-WeWA, the modern architecture preservation group, and the Washington Trust for Historic Preservation.  

Preservationists argue that while the draft EIS looks at alternative sites and possible incorporating the Nuclear Reactor Building into a new design, that the option seems clearly preferred by the UW would result in simply demolishing it and using the site for an all-new structure. The group insists that demolition should not be an option, justified by the building’s historic value and status. The group is hoping fellow supporters of preservation will speak out and soon. “Tell the University of Washington it can do better, and must do better,” reads an email appeal from Historic Seattle. The deadline for public comment on the draft EIS is Monday, November 23.  

The effort faces a number of challenges. One is the UW’s need to expand its program and the demand for training tech engineers. Second, is the continuing belief—despite National Register status—that the Nuclear Reactor Building is a disposable relic of the nuclear age, though Washington state, which played a unique role in that history through Hanford and the Manhattan Project is now the site of a new national park devoted to that topic. Proponents have long argued for some kind of adaptive reuse for the building—a museum, a coffeehouse, study or class area.    

Yet another objection is that Brutalism—an era of stolid, concrete modern structures from the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s—is often aesthetically unpopular or controversial with the public. As the buildings age into potential historic status, some people are dismissive. Of course, the same was once true of Victorian architecture.  

But popular aesthetic appeal isn’t the point.

Preservationists at SavetheReactor argue for its historical importance as embodied in its form and former function: “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.” 

As such, the building surely qualifies as a landmark structure that reflects the same commitment to the power and value of technology that the UW seeks to promote today as it evolves the university campus and surrounding neighborhood into a high-tech innovation center. You would think embracing of the Nuke building’s iconic status would provide a valuable continuity between the roots of our tech past and the future.

Unfortunately, that embrace is not reflected in the draft EIS and the UW might have an unnecessary preservation fight on its hands.

 

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