Photography: Getty Images AIA Seattle boasts 2,300 members and sells out nearly 80 programs, exhibits, and installations during its annual two-week-long design festival, held this month. Learn more at

The Pacific Rim, made up of nearly 50 countries on four continents, boasts striking and often volatile physical landscapes. Coastal mountain ranges, jagged in profile and part of the volcanic Ring of Fire, are juxtaposed against coral atolls mere feet above sea level—all largely prone to earthquakes and tsunamis. Vibrant and economically important cities dot the Pacific Rim—the thrum of their central business districts and ports can be felt even while strolling through busy historic cores and dozens of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

It is a dramatic cultural landscape, to be sure, but also an incredibly delicate set of ecosystems that are interdependent and ground zero for the impact of sea level rise. Despite this precarious situation (and, in fact, because of it) some Pacific Rim cities—such as Seattle and Taipei—have been ground zero for innovative design solutions.

Despite being an ocean apart, Taipei and Seattle have geographic similarities. They are both inland ports that are nonetheless deeply connected, culturally and practically, with the ocean. One of the jewels of America’s Pacific Northwest, Seattle is situated on Puget Sound and boasts a population of about 700,000 (ballooning to 3.8 million when you include the surrounding metropolitan area). The capital of the mountainous island nation of Taiwan, Taipei is a city of 2.7 million that sits on the Tamsui River.

In addition to being oriented toward the water, Seattle and Taipei are both surrounded by mountains. Seattle is ringed by the Olympic Range and the Cascade Mountains, which include nearby protected areas such as the Mount Rainier and Olympic national parks. Taipei is just to the south of Yangmingshan National Park, famous for Qixing (Seven Star) Mountain, like Mount Rainier a dormant volcano.

Seattle’s Best

With its mild northern climate and abundant natural beauty, Seattle has long attracted entrepreneurs and innovators, and is headquarters to such powerhouse companies as Boeing, Microsoft, Starbucks, Weyerhaeuser, and Amazon. Whether you are an expert barista or an aerospace engineer, it’s an appealing place to live and work, as evidenced by the city’s expanding population. (Seattle was the country’s fastest-growing large city in 2016, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.) This level of engagement and activity seems to be mirrored by the architecture profession.

As one measure of architecture’s prominence, AIA Seattle boasts 2,300 members and sells out nearly 80 programs, exhibits, and installations during its annual two-week design festival (held in September, this year’s theme is “Power”), according to Lisa Richmond, the chapter’s executive director. She says that more than ever before the chapter is advocating for sustainable innovation on a citywide scale.

Another unique project currently being discussed involves building a cap over Interstate 5, which cuts through the heart of the city, to create more downtown acreage. The new area could possibly make way for more affordable housing and parkland, and it may be more economically feasible for the city to “lid” the highway than to acquire an equivalent amount of land elsewhere.

AIA Seattle was involved in supporting dramatic changes to the central waterfront, which include a recent $400 million project to reconstruct the city’s seawall that also proved to be innovative, Richmond says. Instead of an ordinary utilitarian concrete wall, the new seawall combines ecological design and public art. Among other elements, the seawall is designed to encourage the growth of microalgae that create habitat for the region’s native salmon populations. As seas rise because of climate change, seawall construction will become more critical for coastal cities, and Seattle’s ecologically minded approach could serve as a model.

“There seems to be a huge appetite for thinking about design and designing the future of our city,” Richmond says. “I think a reason that people move here is the natural situation and the access to nature. There’s been a long-standing respect for the environment, and that’s reflected in a very forward-thinking commitment to high-performing buildings, density, mobility, and livability.”

CLTHouse in Seattle
Photo: © Lara Swimmer. Courtesy Susan Jones, atelierjones LLC The CLTHouse in Seattle, by atelierjones, is one of several projects featured in the National Building Museum’s exhibition “Timber City,” which ends its yearlong run this month.

This sentiment is echoed by Jim Cutler, FAIA, a principal of Cutler Anderson Architects, a firm based on Bainbridge Island across Puget Sound from downtown Seattle. “In Seattle, you have a pretty intact ecosystem on the perimeter, and consequently there is a combination of that powerful beauty, the national parks, and the city’s surprisingly Scandinavian heritage, which has a deep appreciation for the built environment,” Cutler says. “If there’s an AIA Seattle event, you can get 1,000 to 1,200 people showing up for it. If you look at the number of architecture firms in the Seattle phone book, you’ll find more than you have in the city of Philadelphia, which is five times the size.”

This cultural respect for efficient design and the land has resulted in some groundbreaking design initiatives and projects. Take timber: The logging and timber industry has long fueled the economy of the Pacific Northwest, but this industry has been criticized for its environmental impacts. Now Seattle design firms are promoting the use of cross-laminated timber (CLT), an engineered wood product that can replace steel and be used in high-rise buildings, yet still has a smaller carbon footprint than steel or concrete. What’s particularly beneficial is that even so-called “junk trees”—the kind that usually aren’t worth much in traditional timber markets—can be harvested and used in CLT, reducing the fuel load in a forest while helping to create a sustainable building material.

The Seattle architectural firm atelierjones is one leader in promoting research and testing of CLT applications. Its design for a CLT house was recently on display at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., as part of its “Timber City” exhibition, and principal Susan Jones, FAIA, is the AIA National representative to the International Code Council’s Committee on Tall Wood Buildings. “We all recognize here that the natural environment is limited and finite and majestic and needs to be protected,” Jones says. “We’ve been trying to do that work with cross-laminated timber, to make sure our forests are sustainable and well-managed, and also provide for vibrant, innovative, and low-carbon buildings in urban environments.”

Jones says that Seattle architects have also been forward-thinking about prefabricated modular construction, something directly inspired by the city’s shipping industry, which moves containers in and out of the port constantly. She points to a forthcoming 56-unit prefabricated modular multifamily building called Inhabit Burwell that atelierjones is designing for the OneBuild company in the Seattle suburb of Bremerton, Wash., which could be revolutionary for affordable and efficient workforce housing. “You can live there in a smallish unit, and then walk five minutes and take a fast ferry across the sound to downtown, then go to work at your office or your Starbucks café,” she says. “Our firm is experimenting with different models of living and working and innovating in construction.”

Type A Taipei

Similar innovation is happening in Taipei. In 2016, the Taiwanese capital was named the World Design Capital (WDC), a designation conferred on a city every two years since 2008 by the World Design Organization (formerly the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design) to “showcase effective design-led revitalization strategies and projects that other cities can benefit from.”

This is a high honor for a city whose mid-20th-century architecture is called “shabby,” “unattractive,” and “slapdash” in The Rough Guide to Taiwan, the result of a building boom in the mid-20th century when the city took in nearly a million Chinese people from the mainland. The same travel guide acknowledges, however, that “Taipei’s newest buildings are smart, stylish, and built to last.” In applying for the recognition, city officials vowed that they would use the opportunity to incorporate more design-oriented thinking into city-government activities and to better celebrate Taiwan’s particular culture through design.

For Jim Cutler, who has worked around the world, the traditional building culture in Taipei is one in which landscape constraints are something to be overcome versus revealed through architecture. “In Seattle, physical circumstances are seen as opportunities; but in Taipei—from what I saw—they seemed to be more challenges versus opportunities,” he says. Cutler describes visiting one project on a steep hillside on which the builders had created terraces with retaining walls as high as 40 feet, with style taking supremacy over sustainability.

Taipei skyline
Photo: Getty Images Taipei’s skyline might be dominated by Taipei 101, designed by C.Y. Lee & Partners (completed in 2004), but the experience of living and working in the Taiwanese capital is about discovering innovative solutions to density.

This ethic seems to be changing, however. Taipei’s signature landmark is the 1,666-foot Taipei 101 building, which was completed in 2004 and was briefly the tallest building in the world. Despite quickly losing that distinction to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the bamboo-shaped tower designed by C. Y. Lee & Partners is still recognized as one of the world’s tallest green buildings, having earned LEED Platinum status. In its bid to win the WDC designation, Taipei officials touted a series of other recent sustainable projects, such as the green-roofed Beitou Library, the first building to earn diamond status under Taipei’s EEWH (ecology, energy saving, waste reduction, health) green-building certification system. EEWH was only the second third-party certification system in the world after LEED.

For a region prone to earthquakes and tsunamis, Taipei has also been forward-thinking in its plans for protection against seismic forces. As recently as February, a magnitude 5.6 earthquake shook the city and other parts of Taiwan but caused no casualties, whereas a 1999 island-wide, magnitude 7.6 earthquake left 2,415 people dead. Taipei 101 is built to be flexible enough to withstand some movement in an earthquake or high winds; in fact, it contains a 728-ton pendulum within its structure—a dangling yellow globe called a “tuned mass damper”—that acts as a counterbalance if the building sways too far in any one direction. (Visitors can see the damper up close for a fee and an elevator ride to the 88th floor.)

Another more recent project is Taipei-based Kris Yao|Artech’s design for the 50-story, 700-foot-tall Far Eastern Group’s Mega Tower in New Taipei City (part of the capital’s large metro area). This building optimizes seismic performance through a tube-in-tube structure, with bracings attached to the inner tube system to help absorb lateral loads—a clear recognition of Taiwan’s unique geography and vulnerabilities.

Perhaps there is a metaphor to be found in Taipei-based B+P Architects’ recent design for a shipping container art annex in New Taipei City that is covered in mirrors. The project, according to a description from the architects, allows the building to become a “delicate reflection of its surrounding environment (or perhaps you can also say this is a form of extension) and enables this artificial construction to escape from the fate resulting in vicious fighting for space against its environment.” While the fate of this conurbation is unclear, Taipei’s growth (matched only by Hong Kong and Shanghai) shows no signs of abating.

Plans are now in the works for a massive, multiyear, multibillion-dollar infrastructure improvement project in Taiwan that would focus on green energy, urban-rural projects, and sustainable transportation systems. AIA Seattle’s Richmond is interested in watching how Taipei develops for two primary reasons. For one, the chapter is considering applying to become a World Design Capital. Richmond adds that Taiwan’s ingrained bicycle culture is also of interest to Seattleites, as the city continues to build up its bike infrastructure through things like new bike lanes and to promote low-emission transit options in an increasingly congested city.

Going forward, cities like Seattle and Taipei could be widely influential in terms of how they handle geographic constraints, increasing populations, and the impacts of climate change. “In Seattle, with companies like Boeing and Amazon and Microsoft, we have world leaders that are changing the way we fly, shop, and do business,” Susan Jones says. “So we realize it’s within our realm to also change the way we build buildings.”