Photos courtesy Suyama Peterson Deguchi
This South Park studio explains why hand-drawn plans and stripped-down architecture make their projects stand out in the Modern landscape.
Modern Masters is a recurring 360Modern digital feature, spotlighting the top Modern architects, designers, and builders in the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Just south of downtown Seattle, on the western bank of the Duwamish Waterway, sits the main studio of Suyama Peterson Deguchi. Founded in 1971 by George Suyama, the residential and commercial architecture firm’s impressive portfolio strikes with a powerful and deliberate simplicity that resonates among the Pacific Northwest contemporary design scene. In 2002, Jay Deguchi became a partner of the firm and has since been an integral member of SPD’s leadership. Below, we talk to Deguchi about why wood is an essential element to the firm, how he defines SPD’s aesthetic, and where the firm sits in the landscape of Modernism.
What brought you to Suyama Peterson Deguchi? How did you meet George?
I was working in LA and my wife and I decided to move back to Seattle. In LA I was just working on stucco California-style houses. When we moved back to Seattle, being of Japanese descent, I felt like a lot of people would ask if I could [design] something that was inspired by Japanese architecture or detailed in wood. I knew nothing about that, having been in California working with stucco and concrete. So I thought, “Who would be the best person in Seattle [to learn from]?” At that point, George [Suyama] was known as the best wood detailing designer around, so I decided that’s where I would look for a job, and fortunately, he hired me.
What was it about Seattle that placed such an emphasis on wood?
There’s a number of things: Certainly the climate and the history of wood. Seattle was always a Stumptown. That’s what the Northwest is about—this sort of rugged, Northwest cascade sort of landscape. It attracts a different type of person with different sensibilities. It’s the clientele, the industry that draws those people, and the geographic location that then feeds into creating a certain type of architecture. In the early days, it was much more regional, where a certain type of architecture was more readily found in a certain region. I think with the advent of technology and better exposure, that sort of regionalism has been reduced.
What most influences your firm’s aesthetic?
Since George started, it’s always been about creating a sense of place and a structure that’s appropriate to its location. We’re always looking at using indigenous materials that can be found from the region or from the actual site. We’re not trying to create an object—that’s the biggest issue we strive not to do. It’s about creating a place for the inhabitants. With all the technology and working from home, there’s a real need to get back to those human conditions—how we can hunker down, gather, and stay protected in these dwellings that we create.
In your mind, what makes Suyama Peterson Deguchi a Modern architecture firm?
It’s funny because I think people think of Modernism as stripped-down architecture. When something is lacking in detail, they would say it’s “Modern.” Its clean lines, something minimal in its design aesthetic. What we’re trying to do is strip architecture down to its bare essentials to what really matters most so that one move can resolve a lot of issues, situations, and problems. In that, people automatically think: “That’s really Modern.” [We’re] trying to be efficient in terms of both the energy expended to build it, to design it, and how much it might cost to do that, but [we’re] also trying to pare it back so that each move we make really matters. When you can do that, there is this quality, this quiet beauty, that each project has. It’s not superficial and it’s not frivolous. It appears straightforward and efficient, and I think in that, it’s very Modern. Everything is thoughtfully designed, but it’s not bombarding you with details, so there is enough room and space for emotions to connect with the architecture instead of the architecture hitting you over the head saying, “You have to experience it this one way.”
How does your approach to design differ between urban and rural environments?
We did this experiment where we thought if we could take one [Seattle] house and place it in the San Juan islands or something, how would that differ? So much of what we do is about the process of getting to a house. Think of it as the difference between a paved driveway versus a gravel one. In the city, it’s paved—you’re dealing with traffic, all these things. Then there’s the sound, the noise, and the tactile experience of driving over gravel. As soon as you hear that, the project takes on a more rural kind of quality, and your mind changes. All we’re doing is trying to set up the user and give them a different perspective on the architecture. It doesn’t have to be huge differences—it’s the subtleties that make such a different feeling for a place. So if you’re building up in the islands we’re not lighting it in the same way we’re lighting a condo downtown. It should be different.
I noticed on your site that the firm places a great emphasis on hand-drawn designs. Can you tell me a little more about that?
I think hand-drawing is inherently what we’re about. If we were to design using only a computer, there would be no soul in the project. It taps into a certain side of your brain that is different, as cliche as it sounds. Through all this layering of work, the line weight of pencil—graphite to paper—it creates a more authentic architecture, one that we feel has a depth to it. That’s hard to achieve if you go straight to the computer. And it might not necessarily be perfect, but I think it adds to another layer that makes it more special—maybe less polished, but more authentic. That’s what we’re really striving to achieve.
What projects are you excited about right now, what stands out about them?
There’s a pretty big variation of projects that we’re working on right now. Some really nice houses in large scale to some really small renovations. We have a small construction company, so there are a few restoration, mid-century projects and I think it’s really nice to put them back together in a way that’s respectful to the original designs. We have really great clients, so getting to work with them makes all of the projects exciting.
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