Seattle-based design firm NBBJ carries tradition of Alaska building

Posted: Thursday, January 20, 2005

During their visit to Juneau last December, Steve McConnell and Richard Dallam were inspired by a group of elementary school students on their way to see the governor.

"It was raining and they were all in their rain gear, but they looked delighted," said Dallam, lead architect of NBBJ, a Seattle-based firm. "We want to keep the intimacy while expressing the grandeur of the state in our design of the new capitol."

The designers see connectivity as the key element of the project.

"The capitol should be a symbol of democracy. Democracy is about connection with people," said Dallam, 50. "Whereas many Capitols in other states are about power, you have an opportunity to create a capitol that conveys democracy, that connects people virtually or physically with technology and multiple uses of the facility throughout the year."

McConnell said their recent work, the United State Federal Courthouse in Seattle, demonstrated the team's expertise in expressing abstract ideas through architectural design. The 23-story courtroom tower features a transparent glass curtain that allows passersby to catch a glimpse of justice in action and feel included in the process.

"Justice and courts are at risk of becoming ambiguous. People need to have a connection with law and justice much the same way they need to have a connection with their capitol," said McConnell, 43.

The designers said Alaska's capitol should show the capitol's significance as a democratic forum, a commitment to public accessibility, sensitivity to culture and history and a connection to the majesty of Alaska's land.

"The capitol building presents the opportunity not only to present government at its best and most open but to project a symbol of Alaskan statehood to the rest of the world through the building's siting, form, materials and the poetic and pragmatic accommodation of programmatic functions," said the designers, in their letter to the Capitol Planning Commission.

Bill Johnson, an urban designer who will work with McConnell and Dallam, calls Telephone Hill a dramatic intersection between rugged mountains and great sea.

Dallam said his firm's long history of building throughout Alaska, enables them to address specific challenges of the site such as winds coming from the east, significant rainfall and the limited amount of daylight in the winter and abundance of daylight in the summer.

NBBJ has built many projects in Anchorage and Kodiak since its foundation in 1943.

Their recent project, the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, has become a gathering place for Natives all over the state.

To design "a village of healing," the design team spent 18 months researching Native Alaskan cultures. Dallam spent weeks at a time visiting and living in Native villages throughout the state.

Dallam uses Native artworks to help people navigate through the medical center. The information desk tells visitor directions by such items as the halibut bones or Chilkat blanket.

"These artworks are memorable because they carry cultural meanings," he said.

Dallam said the medical center has become a crossroad for Alaska Natives. "In the same way, the new capitol should be a gathering place for all people in Alaska, too," he said.

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