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Burien Transit Center

Oct 26, 2009

 by Doug Lundman, Architect for VIA Architecture

Public projects at any scale involve elaborate collaboration processes. Burien Transit Center was a very small project for us, but it involved all the trappings and a drawn out schedule, four years from design start to construction completion. Normal and necessary processes in public projects often present obstacles to, as well as benefits for, coherent end results. With small public projects, the obstacles can loom larger than the benefits of the process. We feel that in this case the building came through with coherence and a measure of success.

The brief called for a bus transfer (4000 events/day) and bus layover facility on existing and acquired property adjacent to the cities’ town center project. It required that bus movements and layover functions not occur on city streets. An existing Park & Ride was reconfigured, 250 user cars a given. The client and the city hope for eventual replacement of the Park & Ride lot with mixed-use TOD, incorporating the parking.

The project gave VIA an opportunity to consider again difficult issues in suburban low population density landscapes (4,200/sq mi overall, 2,615/sq. mi downtown) and how transit might mitigate, if not transform, those landscapes.

Richard Rogers’ voice is one of many calling for compact cities:

“The creation of the modern Compact City demands the rejection of single-function development and the dominance of the car. The question is how to design cities in which communities thrive and mobility is increased- how to design for personal mobility without allowing the car to undermine communal life, how to design for and accelerate the use of clean transport systems and re-balance the use of our streets in favour of the pedestrian and the community.

The Compact City addresses these issues. It grows around centres of social and commercial activity located at public transport nodes. These provide the focal points around which neighborhoods develop.”

Cities for a Small Planet, 1997, edited by Philip Gumuchdjian

A critical concomitant in Rogers’ definition of the Compact City is the overlap of zones of work, leisure and living. That’s why the word “compact ” might be preferred to “density.” Density is too often understood as simply the number of persons in a given area or the number of units in an area. Seattle’s neighborhoods, Ballard, Fremont, Capitol Hill, work well as neighborhoods because of the critical overlap and complexity of urban infrastructures. When the same neighborhoods fail it is because the complexity breaks down and they become bedrooms. The compact city is about maintaining the full spectrum of conditions, flows, social/cultural/material/ informational/transportation networks comprising an urban milieu.

The City of Burien was incorporated in the early 90’s, a condensation of power and voice in a political struggle to control single family housing sprawl and to affect plans for a new runway at the SEATAC airport. The airport was created during WWII when the military appropriated Boeing Field. The context Burien planners struggle with is common in areas near major airports. (Possible exception: Kansai airport. It’s built in the middle of Osaka Bay.) The dominance of the car, seen in this photo from the early 1940’s, has long been evident in the Burien landscape.


(photo permission Highline Historical Society)

When we began our project four years ago, the City had undertaken an effort to reinvent “village” with a new mixed-use town center. Completion of the first phase will hint at prospects for that effort. Our initial response to the transit center brief was to think that we might at least define a “place” amidst the field of surface parking and single story commercial buildings. We were committed to a place that would also function in possible future contexts, when the transit center might be part of a sustainable pedestrian-oriented, mixed-use community. Burien may eventually achieve complex constituents of density, interconnected layers of flow, movement, information. And information systems and other technologies continue to redefine possibilities, yielding more liquid forms of urban density.

One analysis suggests that suburban landscapes are primarily about events rather than spaces. This facility may be seen as an improvisational theatre of short skits about states of transit. In the future, improved connectivity might yield an expanded repertoire. To suggest “theatre” is not a trivialization of the function of the facility. We look for poetry in the mathematics of engineering and in everyday events. Poetry distinguishes urbanity from density. Poetry is an essential characteristic of sustainable development. Poetry raises living to the level of dwelling. But poetry is not fair words about a fine day. Poetry reflects truths and contradictions, aspirations and limits, ambiguity. The word “drama” is derived from a Greek word for action, the word “theatre,” from “theatron,” seeing place. Like some forms of modern theatre, architecture blurs distinctions between actor and audience. Poiesis is composition, production. Poiesis is implicit in Stan Allen’s definition of infrastructure:

“Infrastructure works not so much to propose specific buildings on given sites, but to construct the site itself. Although static in and of themselves, infrastructures organize and manage complex systems of flow, movement and exchange. Infrastructures are flexible and anticipatory. By specifying what must be fixed and what is subject to change, infrastructural design can be architecturally precise yet programmatically open. Instead of progressing toward a predetermined state (as with master planning strategies), infrastructure provides a framework for evolution within a loose envelope of constraints. An infrastructural approach establishes a directed field, where different architects and designers can contribute, but it sets technical and instrumental limits to their work. Lastly, infrastructures allow detailed design of typical elements or repetitive structures, facilitating an architectural approach to urbanism.”

In complex urban situations, transit facilities sometimes achieve the status of public space when they are knit into and overlap with mixed uses and vital streetscapes. Consider the complex intermodal stations in Tokyo’s Shinjuku or Shibuya. The success of such places can be understood in terms of the Ten Principles for Creating Successful Squares.

In the instant context the team considered that transfer, in-transit, users might find a “beacon”, the resident user might find a “center.” Not The Center, just a center (or an interval), an event, both location and path, both time and space. Possibly this station achieves the status of place to some extent because it is a precise form located in an austerely undirected field. But it is also, in fact, a node of everyday activities, a relative concentration of personal and communal drama. Architects and urban designers don’t insinuate themselves in the drama beyond construction, they provide a stage upon which action may take place. In suburban landscapes the pace of action can resemble a Noh performance but the drama is no less real.

The architectural design challenges for this project were typical of the transit genotype: adherence to prescriptive and performance operational and maintenance parameters provided by public agency clients; and incorporation of functional materials, components, details, and dimensions specific to transit. In this case we attempted to slightly alter the genetics, to redefine the order and method of application for these standard components. The design is composed of standard modules and materials in a system of variations that reinvents their use yet remains true to comprehensive and essential functional requirements. We were looking for a hybrid “civic infrastructure.” We attempted to discover something like a phenotype through observed and remembered site character. Included in this effort is a custom pattern in the laminated glazing interlayer, derived from photographs taken of the nearby tree canopy. (project artist Julie Berger) The graphic images also recall indigenous grasses found in a nearby clearing in 1870 by Mike Kelly, prompting him to bestow the name “Sunnydale” on the area.

During construction workers said the canopy felt like the hull of a boat, an important image for construction workers in any coastal community.

The morning of the first bus service we were on the platform in the first light as users wandered cautiously onto the platform. One of them, in conversation with an absent adversary and oblivious to the cameras, aggressively tested the rigidity of the various building components. A queue formed, the photo-sensor shut off the lights a bit early. A bus rolled up to the bay on the south end, boarding began with radiant Mt. Rainier in the background, an in-bound flight silver overhead, the echo rolling over the . It felt new. Since then a user has reported to us that the canopy hums in the wind and that he likes the sound. The building is a figure in, and support for, the imaginations and experiences of its users.

It’s a transit node, a stage, a bit of an island, a seed.

One Comment

  1. Richard Rogers’ quote about density and the extrapolation of density to compact cities is a great way to steer projects away from shear numbers and talk about the design elements through a social lens. Thanks for posting.