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Sheraton’s 25th gingerbread village explores Seattle’s past and future

Local architects run wild with gingerbread architecture

Callison RTKL’s gingerbread “house” is the most conceptual, but still includes the Ballard Bridge and a mechanical miniature of the Locks.
Courtesy of Sheraton Seattle

Every year for the last 25 years, the Sheraton has brought together Seattle’s architecture community to work with some nontraditional materials: candy, fondant, and, of course, gingerbread.

And these aren’t the tiny, tabletop creations from your youth. These houses are massive, with elaborate mechanical elements, integrated lighting displays, and interior scaffolding.

“Every year it’s bigger,” Ben Mulder, principal and designer at 4D Architects, told Curbed Seattle as he put finishing touches on his creation: an ultra-futuristic vision of Pioneer Square and Sodo that’s equal parts Seattle, Dubai, and Atlantis.

4D’s futuristic Seattle scape.

“It’s another way of being creative,” Mulder explained. “in my profession I have to be an adult and follow all sorts of rules every day [like zoning and client wishes]... here there are very few rules. I just have to make sure it fits out the door.”

This year, architects were told to create Seattle’s past or future. There’s one thing all the future designs, including 4D’s, have in common: We’re underwater. Some creations are more extreme, like MG2’s design with bulbous jellyfish below the surface that dwarf an underwater train. Another, by Mackenzie, imagines a more wholly underwater scenario, with the Space Needle submerged and surrounded by coral made from Froot Loops and Cheetos.

Top left: Mackenzie’s underwater gingerbread world. Top right and bottom: MG2’s underwater transit system.

4D still acknowledges a rising sea level, but the result is less dramatic. “I’m a more positive thinking guy, I guess,” said Mulder.

Still, 4D designs around the new environment, including a little second coming of Bertha digging below the sea. The candy cutterhead even spins, thanks to a disco ball motor that Mulder said cost about $10. (“Unlike that one, this one works,” someone called off from the side as we were speaking.)

Above, some familiar structures are built primarily of gingerbread: Smith Tower, King Street Station. But new structures, consisting mostly of melted and molded Isomalt—a sugar substitute made from beets—rise even further above, taking twisty shapes, inspired by both the past and by Mulder’s imagination.

“That’s exactly the whole intent, is the dark kind of wavy gingerbread that’s not perfect and then offset it with this high-tech LED-lit modern stuff,” explained Mulder.

Next to the Smith Tower is a futuristic take on what used to be Seattle’s tallest skyscraper. Another, facing the water, draws inspiration from the bow of a boat. A tall, spinning building stands out among the newer buildings, though: Mulder said it’s a residential high-rise that would make a pretty penny, because “you can sell all units as water view.” (It was only after he conceived the structure, Mulder said, that he learned that this idea is already in the works.)

4D also shares a similar vision of the future as many Sonics fans: In this future, Chris Hansen’s vision for an arena in Sodo is a reality. The Sounders get their own stadium, shaped like half a soccer ball and gently rotating—“because we can,” said Mulder. An unnamed hockey team also gets a stadium of its own.

An elevated bus lane connects the towers at mid-height, although the State Route 99 tunnel, currently under construction, is still present. “All we’re going to have left are buses,” said Mulder, “and hovering Priuses.”

The past takes, despite more finite possibilities, are perhaps even more diverse than the future. Master Builders Association built a spinning Pioneer Square with a burning Seattle Fire underneath. Another by Bailly & Bailly built Seattle’s piers below St. James Cathedral—before the dome collapse—with a Seattle Metropolitans logo down one side. Apparently there are a lot of hockey fans in the room.

Left: Master Builders Association retell Pioneer Square’s history. Right: Bailly & Bailly’s construction of the past.

Callison RTKL’s is the most conceptual. Originally designed as the Fremont Troll holding a Space Needle, the design evolved to evoke old Ballard. The troll became a massive, stout fisherman in a blue-striped tee and yellow coveralls with a red beard, shouldering a boat. He’s emerging from a half-circle of seawall, with a mechanical Hiram Chittenden Locks on one end, topped by half of the Ballard Bridge. A seagull in a matching shirt flies overhead.

Callison RTKL’s sea captain on his orca.

A fish peeks out the front pocket of his overalls, “in case he needs a snack or a friend,” said Michael Trenary, senior designer at Callison.

“We wanted to play with scale, make nature kind of the larger element,” Trenary said of the design. Human-made elements, like locks and boats, stay relatively small, while natural elements stay in scale with the fisherman—an octopus wrapping around his leg, fish below the surface, the orca he’s using as a steed.

“We really wanted it to be something that was whimsical and magical,” Trenary explained, “not really a literal retelling of the past.”

The base structure is papier-mache—and like all the submissions to the gingerbread village, it’s mostly inedible. But most visible elements are. That octopus, wrapped in red Swedish fish, took around 300 hours to complete. The fisherman was sculpted out of 20 pounds of fondant.

“It’s fun having these amorphous shapes,” said Trenary, “but getting the full 360 degrees of every surface has been really challenging. But ultimately rewarding.”

The sea captain, the Sodo stadiums, and the rest of these candy creations are all available for visits through January 1 at their new location in City Centre.

Ballard Bridge

, Seattle, WA 98107

St. James Cathedral

804 9th Ave, Seattle, WA 98104

Fremont Troll

Troll Avenue North, , WA 98103 Visit Website

King Street Station

303 South Jackson Street, , WA 98104 Visit Website

Smith Tower

506 2nd Avenue, , WA 98104 Visit Website

Space Needle

400 Broad Street, , WA 98109