“Houses are more about being containers for activity than the objects of activity,” says Seattle architect George Suyama, FAIA. “Looking at the building as an object is really antithetical to creating a sense of place.” It’s a truth he’s found to be self-evident, yet it’s one of the rare declarative statements he makes during a conversation; pronouncements aren’t in his nature.
Suyama is a clear thinker with a disarming modesty, traits that carry through to his buildings. Since opening an eponymous architecture practice in 1971 (it was renamed Suyama Peterson Deguchi in 2003), he’s become known for tranquil houses that blend seamlessly with nature and the land, the result of a thought process rooted more in intuition than in theory.
“Just calling him an architect doesn’t really do him justice,” says Bruce D. Hinckley, a frequent, close collaborator and founder of the Seattle landscape architecture firm Alchemie. “He’s always looking, whether walking down an urban sidewalk, or fly fishing, or looking at something in a thrift store.”
“George is a deep, quiet, circumspect individual,” Hinckley says. “You need to spend time with him to appreciate the subtlety he brings to the design process.” The two explore what-if scenarios using topographical surveys and weather and climate analyses to develop indoor–outdoor relationships, the compression and expansion of space, and the contrast of light and shadow. “The design process goes on quite a long time without any discussion of architectural materials or style,” Hinckley says.
A certain serenity has been developing in Suyama’s work for years, but that calmness belies its complexity. To quote a Seattle Times article by arts writer Michael Upchurch, the “rhythmic momentum” of his buildings is easy to read. “But the way in which the bits and pieces dovetailed together could be dizzyingly intricate. In one vast hybrid of private home and personal art gallery … floor surfaces, walls, and ceilings form numerous planes that seem to float and harmonize within the house, without fully filling the space they occupy.”
Suyama, who is 71, has had a long career as a pioneering architect who integrates the reductive spirit of the Case Study Houses with influences from his ancestral Japan and the climate, light, and geology of the Pacific Northwest. The firm’s houses filter the region’s soft light through layers, and their walls, textures, and sheltered outside spaces reinforce the connection to nature. Many of its designs feature high, overhanging roof planes that rest lightly on clerestories and exposed columns, and glass walls that open strategically to sweeping views. Concrete, wood, and metal are favored building materials.
At the helm of one of the region’s leading architecture firms, Suyama and his portfolio of work have garnered an enviable list of AIA awards. Yet his place in the profession wasn’t always assured, at least not in his mind. “In college I had no inkling of what I wanted to do, except for the fact that I did not like spaces that were unfinished,” he says. “There was always that sense of how one wanted to live.”
He declared an architecture major in his senior year at the University of Washington (UW); but reading was not his strong suit, and theory left him cold. “I never felt that becoming an architect was the ultimate goal for me,” he says, recalling how he spent the next three years pursuing a master’s degree—an alternative to military conscription to Vietnam. “By default, I tried this and liked it,” he says.
That’s not, however, to say Suyama left college without a muse. Just before graduating in 1967, he spent six months working for Gene Zema, a free-thinking UW alum who built many of his elegant, spatially complex wood houses by hand. It was a pivotal moment. In addition to introducing Suyama to a design sensibility that shared some traits with traditional Japanese craftsmanship, Zema also was an inveterate collector of Japanese artifacts and crafts. That influence tapped into Suyama’s cultural heritage, and his particular fondness for using decorative objects to create atmosphere in an austere space.
“Later there came a shift, where decoration wasn’t as important to me as what the surrounding shell was able to do to create that same sense of ambience,” says Suyama, who worked for modernist architect Ralph Anderson for several years after graduation. But he admired in those objects “the craft of putting things together in the most elemental way, so they have an inherent logic and visual simplicity. Maybe it goes back to the primitive human condition we all have within us,” he says.
Suyama, who has amassed an eclectic collection of rocks, shells, fine art, and American and Japanese folk art, speculates that he is drawn to objects, in part, because he had so few of them in early childhood. His first three years of life were spent in the Minidoka internment camp with his Japanese-American parents during World War II. “I don’t really remember, but I think there was an overall feeling within the camp that we were bereft of the things we had left behind,” he says.
The 1970s were not exactly an auspicious time to go solo. As a recession ran its course, Suyama accepted nearly every small project that came through the door. The prevailing economic conditions—and the sense, as a child of Minidoka, that one should not expect too much—played out as a decade that was “not that much fun.” Suyama was designing low-budget projects that were visually pleasing but had no intellectual conviction. Missing, he says, were the “aha” moments he had anticipated in an artistic endeavor. The work that did get published came from houses he bought for himself, fixed up, and sold.
A condo renovation in 1983, for Jack and Rebecca Benaroya, was the turning point that shifted his career to a new caliber of clientele. At the suggestion of a former client, the Seattle couple included him in a mini design competition for the job, and his proposal won. With a generous budget to unleash his creativity, Suyama experimented with refined details in the raw loft, including sliding wall panels and a highly articulated wood ceiling that read as structure while masking a flexible lighting system. The success of the design led to more ambitious commissions, ranging from small, exquisitely executed camp-style retreats in the San Juan Islands to sprawling homes overlooking Seattle’s waterways, including the Fauntleroy Residence on Puget Sound that he designed for himself and his wife, Kim. (Fauntleroy II, built 15 years later on the adjacent lot, won two AIA Honor Awards.)
If a singular event can inspire a philosophical shift in practice, for Suyama, this event was the 1997 purchase of an old building to use as a studio in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood. Having led former lives as a livery and an auto repair shop, “it was a building of its period,” he says, “and the material textures were absolutely overwhelming to me—concrete, old painted wood trusses, gnarly wood floors.” The firm’s design intervention deployed the simplest materials possible—plywood, drywall, and steel—to create contrast while allowing its industrial character to shine.
“I discovered an ability to create the atmosphere I was looking for, but in a different way,” he says. “It did not need wood detailing or decoration—the little objects I’d collected—to make it work.”
Since then, the firm has focused on creating a sense of place by eliminating everything extraneous. “Materials and a sense of hierarchy reinforce an attitude of place,” he says. “We think about nature as the driving element: flora, fauna, wind. So often architects think first about what a building will look like and how will it photograph.”
Suyama shares the open studio with Ric Peterson, FAIA, who became a partner in 1983; Jay Deguchi, AIA, a partner since 2002; and 10 employees. The three partners work on separate projects but use each other as sounding boards. “We don’t present multiple solutions, but have variations,” Suyama says. “You should stand behind something you believe in. But that’s not to say we don’t go back and start over.”
Throughout his career, Suyama has championed the arts, serving on the Seattle Arts Commission and on the Board of Directors for organizations such as Pike Place Market and the UW Henry Art Gallery. Occupying part of the architect’s Belltown office is 3x10, Suyama Peterson Deguchi’s furniture and accessory showroom; and Suyama Space, an art gallery housing the large-scale installations of local, cutting-edge artists.
The more-with-less aesthetic, so much a part of his DNA, has brought Suyama full circle. Now the firm is trying out these ideas on smaller-scale projects and budgets. He is particularly excited about Fauntleroy III, a 1,500-square-foot house on piers that he’s designing next door to the place where he and his wife live. With its 12-foot-tall walls, the 90-foot-long “boathouse” will also function as a mini-warehouse with shelving to hold his collections.
“The most important thing is to create a sense of place for the project,” Suyama says. “Everyone uses it as a descriptor for what they’re trying to do, but if you can feel it’s working, you’ve succeeded.”
His colleagues seem to agree. “There is a perennial debate about whether the built environment can influence human emotions,” says Portland, Ore., architect John Cava, who wrote the foreword to 3X3: Architecture of Suyama Peterson Deguchi (ORO Editions, 2008). “I’m firmly in the camp that believes it can, but for many reasons, usually does not. The houses designed by George and his firm are about humans living in nature and bringing those two things closer together. All of this is done at a decidedly human scale, a term notoriously difficult to pin down, but something that we know when we see it.”