No region of the United States has a stronger, more deeply rooted, or more characteristically regional modernist architecture than the Pacific Northwest. Nowhere is the concern for environmental sustainability more interwoven with the modernist approach. And for a generation, no architecture firm has played as central a role in exploring, advancing, and celebrating this way of creating buildings as The Miller|Hull Partnership. After some three decades of the firm's existence, one cannot discuss regional modernism or sustainable architecture in the Pacific Northwest without reckoning the unique influence it has had—and continues to exert—on both.
For founding partners David Miller, FAIA, and Robert Hull, FAIA, though, the road to Pacific Northwest regional modernism led very far from the shores of Puget Sound. The two met as architecture students at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., graduating at the height of the Vietnam War. Given the alternatives available to young men at the time, Hull says, “Both Dave and I chose the Peace Corps.”
Miller worked for two years on self-help housing projects in Brazil, building with site-produced blocks of stabilized earth, before returning to the United States and earning a Master of Architecture degree from the University of Illinois. Hull designed schools in Afghanistan, drawing lessons from the ancient building types he encountered there. “One of those lessons,” he says, “was passive solar.” On sunny winter days, Hull found, “the best place to be was not inside but outside, next to a mud-brick wall.” Thus the model for the schools the Peace Corps built: “a string of classrooms and a string of courtyards.” Warmed by the sun during the winter, the buildings offered shade in the summer and opened to the northwest, taking advantage of seasonal winds for passive cooling. “These were sustainable ideas that had been around for 2,000 years,” Hull says. As he and Miller would find, they were ideas that had applications closer to home.
green shoots After four years in Afghanistan, Hull returned to the U.S. and found work with Marcel Breuer and Associates in New York City. He also reconnected with Miller, then working for Rhone & Iredale Architects in Vancouver, British Columbia. When an economic recession took the fun out of working in New York, Hull joined Miller in Vancouver, where business remained relatively healthy. By the late 1970s, the two had opened a branch office of Rhone & Iredale in Seattle, where in 1980 they declared independence as The Miller|Hull Partnership.
It was an auspicious place and time for a new firm focused on buildings that worked with the environment. Seattle's population was educated and environmentally aware, and the energy shocks of the 1970s had jolted the country into a new cognizance of where its heat and electricity came from. “The long gas lines … the cost of fuel shooting up,” Hull remembers. “People were desperately looking for alternative building approaches. They wanted to be independent.”
Seattle is a long way from Kabul, but its diffuse winter sunlight delivers a useful amount of energy. In both feasibility and client interest, Hull says, “The door was wide open on passive solar.” The region's topography lent itself to earth-sheltered construction, and that, he says, “was part of our vocabulary too.” Periods of uncertainty often yield opportunities for new ideas to flourish, and Miller|Hull hatched at just such a moment. “We didn't have to do architecture that people had seen before,” Hull says. “We were inventing our own architecture.”
So were many others, of course—much of it undistinguished, at best. Miller|Hull produced buildings that were more than mere solar collectors, that pursued architectural rigor and delight, as well as thermal performance and environmental virtue. The firm's houses have always been shaped by their sites—often hillsides with views—and by the region's climate, but they also embrace modernist principles and build upon the work of previous generations of local architects. “Our design approach has always been to deal with structure as part of the aesthetic of the building,” Miller says, “and that came out of the early Northwest modernism of Arne Bystrom, FAIA; Paul Hayden Kirk; and others—the Seattle School, as it was called. We were reinventing that approach.”
Extending themes already well-established in the region, Miller and Hull inserted their buildings even more subtly into the landscape, gave them a bolder geometry, and made economical and inventive use of off-the-shelf industrial materials. In every Miller|Hull building, large openings—most famously in the form of glazed garage doors—allow freedom of view and access to the outdoors. “That's always been a big part of our expression,” Hull says: “the operability of our walls.” Deep, overhanging eaves shed winter's rain and provide shade during the dry summer. Uncomplicated forms, local materials, and an insistent bias toward structure over finish recall the region's industrial and maritime structures and the architecture of its indigenous peoples. Elevations often deploy exterior materials in broad, unbroken planes, which, along with the firm's powerfully expressive roofs, give each building a unique and iconic presence. The firm made its name with a series of tiny weekend retreats and compact houses that married the principals' environmental agenda with their modernist architectural training in a distinctly regional way. “Those struck a chord because they were so small, so efficient,” Miller says. Widely published and much awarded, those early projects led to larger residential commissions, which embodied the same cabinlike spirit. “We were fortunate enough to have some university work too,” Hull says. “That allowed us to move in two directions, and [the private and public projects] actually stimulated each other.” He recalls noticing parallels between a small cabin in the San Juan Islands and a cafeteria for The Boeing Co., which were on the boards simultaneously. “They were both glass envelopes with solid cores,” he says. “It got us thinking: whether the program is private or public, inside the buildings, it's still the same people.”
Nonresidential projects now constitute some 80 percent of the firm's work, and its staff—now nearing 50 people—has grown accordingly. Norman Strong, FAIA, LEED AP, who runs the business side of the firm, became a partner in 1985; design principal Craig Curtis, FAIA, LEED AP, in 1994. The firm recently elevated a third generation of partners: Ron Rochon, AIA, LEED AP; Sian Roberts, AIA, LEED AP; and Scott Wolf, AIA, LEED AP. But the design of dwellings remains central to Miller|Hull's identity and function. “Residential work does a number of things for our firm,” Curtis says. “There are a lot more opportunities for publication. Houses are quicker; they allow us to experiment more. In the constant back-and-forth between large and small projects, our large projects benefit much more.”