Like many of his contemporary modernists working in the Pacific Northwest, architect Paul Hayden Kirk had a particular affinity for the landscape and the way the region’s thick forests and rugged coasts left nooks and crannies ideal for architectural expression.
He tended to take this passion very seriously; one homeowner said that during construction, he helped dig the basement by hand, so as not to disturb any of the nearby trees.
Kirk’s designs for Puget Sound, exuding a style he called “sculptural, muscular, and flamboyant,” helped define and promote the Northwest Regional brand of modernism. Kirk frequently appeared in architecture magazines of the time, and he may have been one of its most prominent contemporary proponents.
Like many of the other designers of his era, he saw the value of modernism, but only if it was imbued with a sense of place. The International Style, he declared, was “an architecture imposed on the land by man.” His works, delicate designs in stone, wood, and glass, were meant to accentuate, not ameliorate, what was already there.
Kirk was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and came to Seattle with his family in 1922. During his childhood, he contracted polio, which may have informed his later focus on medical buildings. He grew up with an eye toward design; both of his parents worked as interior designers. Kirk chose to study at the University of Washington, where he would learn from the influential Lionel Pries, an inspiration to many of the region’s midcentury designers. By 1939, Kirk had established his own practice.
Kirk cycled through a number of partnerships in the ’40s, including designing homes for his brother Blair, a contractor, before going solo again in the ’50s. Early in his career, beginning in 1941, he helped design the Columbia Ridge Housing Development. Due to a limited budget, Kirk was forced to work simply and modestly, a condition that writer David Rash suggests may have pushed him toward a more modern approach.
In the ’50s, as Kirk again worked by himself, he would refine his own pared-down style, with lots of exposed structural elements, local materials, and regional cultural influences, including inspiration from Native American longhouses and elements of Japanese architecture, such as shoji screens. The aesthetic becomes clear in buildings like his 1955 University Unitarian Church, which featured dramatic exposed-wood trusses and local materials like cedar shingles.
This was a time when the architectural world was focused on the Pacific Northwest. The 1953 AIA national convention was in Seattle, and Architectural Record’s April 1953 issue focused on the region, including an article entitled “Have We an Indigenous Northwest Architecture?” which improved the visibility of Kirk and his contemporaries.
Kirk’s practice was growing, focused on both award-winning homes, such as the Dowell House—which was named one of the city’s best modern designs, and later renovated by Tom Kundig—and commercial projects, especially medical offices. Kirk would even write a book on the subject, and his 1948 Crown Hill Medical Clinic received numerous accolades. From 1960 until his retirement in 1978, he was a partner at Kirk, Wallace, McKinley and Associates, where he worked on larger commissions for churches, universities, and even an IBM office in Spokane.
Buildings to know
The Magnolia Branch of the Seattle Public Library, which opened in 1963, showcases Kirk’s light touch and affinity for Japanese techniques. There, a grid of exposed wood and timber framing supports a series of glass panels and clerestories that bathe the interior in light. Originally, Kirk’s thematic ideas were reinforced with furniture by midcentury craftsman George Nakashima. It was recently renovated by SHKS Architects.
Another Kirk gem, completed in collaboration with Victor Steinbrueck, is the University of Washington Faculty Club. Suspended above the hillside on steel beams, the posh meeting hall exuded a confident, contemporary air, replacing a former log structure from the 1909 Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition with clean, contemporary lines and floor-to-ceiling glass walls. Despite Kirk’s penchant for using local materials—the interior is lined with locally sourced wood—he showed he could also excel at designing a more straightforward, streamlined International Style structure.
Legacy and reputation today
Kirk has long been an inspiration to architects in Seattle and beyond, and his is a name dropped constantly by local homebuyers seeking midcentury design. When the city’s AIA chapter began awarding an annual medal of honor in 1984, Kirk was one of the first in line to receive the award. His homes are still sought after by local midcentury-design connoisseurs, with a cliffside home in Magnolia, Washington, going for $3.5 million last year.