Soboleff Center design reflects past and future

A second giant crane now towers over downtown Juneau at Front and Seward Streets and, like its companion on Willoughby Avenue, it signals bright days ahead for Juneau’s — and the state’s — arts community. The Walter Soboleff Center on Front Street and the Alaska State Library Archives and Museum building on Willoughby will both house public facilities that promise to strengthen Juneau’s position as a hub for arts and cultural activity in the state, while providing many new resources for artists, educators and researchers from Southeast and beyond.


Like the SLAM project, the Soboleff Center also brings an exciting new addition to our urban landscape — a modern building on a street that hasn’t changed too much in the past 100 years.

The design for the building was undertaken by MRV architects, a local firm with strong ties to the region’s Native communities that extend back to the 1930s. MRV Company President Paul Voelckers said company founder Linn Forrest came to Alaska in 1934 to join the efforts of the Civilian Conservation Corps, specifically the push to restore Alaska Native clan houses and totem poles throughout the region.

“He came to Alaska as this young, excited guy and immediately got thrust into a lot of cultural projects (through the CCC),” Voelckers said.

Some of Forrest’s early work in restoring clan houses — including Chief Shakes Tribal House in Wrangell and Chief Son-I-Hat House in Kasaan — are projects that MRV is still actively involved in, Voelckers said.

“MRV has been involved in most of the work that’s happened over subsequent decades on any of those (clan houses),” he said. “We worked two years ago on Chief Shakes house in Wrangell, and we did the design work for Son-I-Hat in Kasaan.”

Voelckers said when he joined the firm in the early ‘80s he made it a priority to keep that connection with the Native communities active. The firm also designed both local high schools and the downtown library, among many other buildings.

For the Soboleff facility, which will serve as an Alaska Native cultural and heritage center, MRV staff worked closely with Sealaska Heritage Institute and a panel of Native elders to develop overarching design concepts, but Voelckers said SHI gave them a lot of freedom to execute their ideas. One major focus, that extends in both aesthetic and practical directions, was on having the building reflect a balance of traditional and contemporary energies.

“That’s sort of the heart of the issue,” Voelckers said. “SHI is about ‘Yes, we honor our past and our traditions but we’re a living culture, we’re forward projecting.’ So we had our own strategy for how best to do that. And they liked it.”

SHI President Rosita Worl said MRV was the unanimous choice, in part because they were successful at communicating this balance through the building’s design.

“We were absolutely enthralled with the design,” Worl said. “It spoke to everything that we had wanted in the architecture. We wanted something that reflected our heritage but also wanted a statement that looked forward, ... It really does reflect, I think, and incorporate our aspiration of surviving into the future.”

To that end, MRV used traditional materials such as yellow cedar and copper, juxtaposing that with glass and modern, clean lines.

“The design aesthetic is a contemporary handling of traditional materials, done very minimally,” Voelckers said. “The emphasis is on giant, expressive, honest cedar and glass.”

The main entrance, which will face the current parking lot at the corner of Seward and Front Streets, will be mostly an open stretch of glass, with beams suggesting a roof line that echoes the angles of traditional clan houses. Visible through this glass wall will be a multi-story atrium, and beyond that, the clan house itself.

“We’re picking up that traditional angle in setting up the entry, and you can look through to the traditional clan house in an otherwise contemporary building,” Voelckers said. “It’s held in there like a pearl.”

The clan house will serve as the building’s main performance and gathering space. To the left, on the Front Street side, will be the Jinéit gift shop, with space for artists to work. Jinéit, currently located on the first floor of the Sealaska building, will have its own entrance onto Front Street. To the right of the atrium will be an exhibit hall.

The bottom floor will highlight another important aspect of the new facility, that of a research center and library. Resources will include books and other texts as well as audio tapes that can be used for language study, music research and other projects. Worl said the archives are already very well used by a wide range of researchers, from beginning students of Tlingit who benefit from hearing the cadence of the spoken word to scholars from MIT.

“We have scholars from across the world, linguists, who come in and study the Native languages,” she said. “It’s really a very active archives.”

On the second floor, in addition to Sealaska offices, will be a “living classroom” space outfitted with audio visual equipment that will help SHI reach out to neighboring villages, for example, by offering classes remotely.

Both the research and classroom departments highlight what Voelckers calls the “hub and spoke” aspect of the building.

“Sealaska has an important regional role,” he said. “Yes, they’re in Juneau and there are Juneau-specific issues, but they also want to represent and be a reflection of all the smaller villages. So one of the key things with this building is that it gives an opportunity for cultural and economic diversity and diversification.”

Closer to home, Worl said she expects the facility will help strengthen cross-cultural ties and ongoing projects between SHI and the Juneau School District and the University of Alaska Southeast, as well as Perseverance Theatre and other arts groups.

The space around the building is also important in the overall design, Voelckers said. The Seward Street corner of the building will be angled in to create more sidewalk space, and a pedestrian walkway is slated for the area between the building and the Sealalska parking lot, providing a small urban plaza downtown. The plaza, like the orientation of the building to the Seward Street side, also points up the important connection between the Soboleff building and the Sealaska Building. An outdoor carving space is also designated for the Seward Street side, and a glass canopy, etched with totemic designs, will extend around two sides of the buidling.

On the practical side, MRV intends to try to reach the gold level rating on the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) scale of sustainability, a program operated by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Voelckers said these practical issues — like the constraints of operating within a budget and making the building usable — are the tethers to the balloon of conceptual design.

“Somebody has a joke — while a painter can draw a tank with square wheels to illustrate the futility of war, (an architect’s) stuff has to actually work,” he laughed. “It’s an interesting blend between those real world pragmatics versus design intent.”

MRV was one of seven firms that put in proposals for the Soboleff building; another well-regarded proposal was developed by local firm NorthWind Architects, who partnered with Alaska Native owned firm RIM First People for their project.

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