Modern Talk: Northwest Mid-Century Architects Oral History Project

Modern Talk: Northwest Mid-Century Architects Oral History Project

DOCOMOMO WeWa, Seattle, WA

Impetus and Objectives

Preservationists are known for raising their voices to save irreplaceable properties from loss. Occasionally, however, the resources we seek to preserve have voices of their own. Modern Talk is an oral history project conducted by Docomomo WeWa (Documentation and Conservation of the Modern Movement, Western Washington). The project captures the voices of architects who designed in the Modern vein in Western Washington in the post-WWII years with an emphasis on the 1950s and 1960s. During these decades, many regional Modern architects were in the early years or their careers or had achieved a degree of prominence. Fifty years later, Modern architecture fans in western Washington recognized that many of these eminent designers were entering retirement, experiencing ill health, or passing away. This was the impetus that spurred Docomomo WEWA to capture the thoughts and memories of these living 'endangered resources' and make the information available to the public for educational or avocational purposes.

Gould Hall, built in 1971 by architect Gene Zema, one subject of the Modern Talks oral history project. Photographed by John Stamets. Courtesy of Docomomo WeWa.

Credit: John Stamets.


The pilot program, titled Modern Talk: Northwest Mid-Century Architects Oral History Project, included interviews with architects Ralph Anderson, Wendell Lovett, Fred Bassetti, Jack Christiansen (a structural engineer), and Gene Zema. Members of Docomomo WEWA spent several months researching the lives and work of these designers and writing interview questions that would best capture and showcase the designers' contributions to regional Modern architecture. The oral histories were conducted with the help of several consultants including video production company Jack Straw Productions and still photographer John Stamets. In addition to capturing the oral history interviews on high quality video, Stamets, a well-known photographer in the area, photographed the featured architects and their work to produced large format black-and-white images for the Modern Talk webpage.


Docomomo WEWA encountered a number of challenges during the course of the project that reflect the dire need for more oral history projects of this nature. As an all-volunteer organization, the non-profit had to rally to find time and resources for each stage of the project. During the course of the project, one of the original interview subjects, Alan Liddle, passed away in the spring of 2009. This loss gave Docomomo WEWA even more impetus to complete the Modern Talk pilot project. Other challenges included identifying key works for each architect, arranging for photography shoots with the owners, and negotiating the inimitable rainy Seattle weather. 

The interior of Gould Hall, the building for the College of Built Environments at the University of Washington. Photographed by John Stamets. Courtesy of Docomomo WeWa.

Credit: John Stamets

Funding Sources    

Docomomo WEWA received funding for the project from a National Trust Preservation Fund Grant and a Heritage Special Projects grant fom 4Culture, a local King County arts and heritage organization.

Measureable Outcomes

The fifth and final interview of the pilot program was completed in the summer of 2009, and the methods and framework developed by Docomomo WeWa have the potential to paving the way for future oral histories by that organization or others. Modern Talk material, including recorded audio files, transcripts, and photographs, will be donated to the University of Washington Special Collections where they will be available to the public. Additionally, the non-profit is working on a specific oral history webpage which will complement the existing material on their website Modernism 101 regarding modernism, architects, styles, and neighborhoods in the Northwest.