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A Seattle architect embraces the rain in AIA exhibit ‘Because It Rains’

Can we design not just around the rain, but with it?

In Seattle, our lives are damp. We have a reputation as a rainy city, but in reality, it’s more about moisture—our average annual rainfall is less than 40 inches a year, which is more than, say, Los Angeles, but less than Atlanta or even New York.

“The irony about Seattle is we have this this wonderful rumor that we are the rainiest city ever, and yet we’re really not,” Laura Bartunek, an associate with Olson Kundig, tells Curbed Seattle.

“I have a lot of friends who have come from the East Coast or the Midwest and they get aggravated by rain in Seattle because it’s not—it’s almost raining,” she adds. “It’s always just almost raining and it drives you nuts, because it’s just missing ... you’re waiting for the downpour and it never really comes.”

But rain isn’t just about inches of precipitation—it’s about texture, legend, and culture. In other words: Rain does more than just fall. Bartunek explores the power and potential of rain in Because It Rains, on display at the Center for Architecture and Design through May 25. The exhibit is part of AIA Seattle’s Emerging Professionals Scholarship, an annual program that sends young architects on a journey around a specific design focus. Previous years saw Miller Hull Partnership’s Derik Eckhardt exploring smart buildings and NAC Architecture’s Garrett Nelli finding ways architects can rise to their civic duty.

In her studies, Bartunek visited five locales: Florida, New Mexico, Hawaii, London, and Norway. Each place not only had a different kind of rain, but a different design language (and, in some cases, spoken language) around it.

The Warm Mineral Springs Motel.
Laura Bartunek

Bartunek says she started in Sarasota, Florida to experience the “schedule-driven” summer rains: “They occur basically every afternoon almost at the same time, which coming from the Pacific Northwest is kind of really magical.”

Specifically, Bartunek was after the Warm Mineral Springs Motel. Designed by Victor Lundy, it came out of the Sarasota School of Architecture, a midcentury movement to create modern designs around Florida’s climate—exactly the kind of thing Bartunek set out to study.

“When you look at it the building, it just screams rain,” particularly due to its roofscape, says Bartunek. “Victor Lundy didn’t talk about it in terms of rain ... but its formal qualities were meant to inspire fountains. And so I wanted to go and experience like how he had interpreted rain differently through his design, even though it’s not documented whether or not it was an actual influencer.”

In New Mexico, rain is a catalyst—it always announces its presence loudly.

“When it rains in the desert, it really creates a new environment—the smells come out of nowhere that you hadn’t experienced and the quality of the air becomes different and there’s all these really sensory-driven experiences,” says Bartunek. “Who’s to say you couldn’t tap into that as a driver for design? It’s not necessarily about responding to just the act of rain falling. It’s like, what does it do to our environment and our experience and our senses, and how can that be something that you design for?”

It was the perfect setup for the trip to Kauai, chosen by Bartunek for “stepping back and just looking at the design dialogue or words we use around rain”—since the Hawaiian language ʻōlelo Hawaiʻi has 200 different words for rain.

“When architects or designers talk about rain, we typically use really defensive words. We’re taught to approach rain like an adversary and we design our buildings to shed water away and we basically wrap our our buildings in rain jackets,” explains Bartunek. “I wanted to open up a broader dialogue around like, ‘well, what if we changed our vocabulary?’”

In London, Bartunek observed a case study of not just welcoming rain, but actively bringing it inside. The London Mithraeum is a gallery space restored from the ruins of a Roman temple of Mithras—and gives a multisensory experience designed to bring visitors into its history.

“[The Mithraeum is] a different approach to archaeology,” says Bartunek. “Instead of just walking into a room and seeing the foundations where the temple [used to be], they wanted to recreate the experience of being in this old cult temple. And so the whole point was to utilize mist or kind of moisture in the air—what I call ‘artificial rain’—in a way to to recreate the space.”

With the haze brought in deliberately, the exhibit uses it as a kind of canvas: “They do these light projections on it and basically the temple, in a very abstract way, kind of builds itself before your eyes, and so you get like the kind of cadence of the column spacing and the proportions of the walls and things like that.”

In Florida, Hawaii, New Mexico, and London, there was an enormity to the rain. But rain’s influence on our landscape can be subtle—as Bartunek found upon her arrival in Bergen, a city on the west coast of Norway considered to be one of the rainiest in Europe.

Bergen, Norway.
Leonid Andronov/Shutterstock

“What I found to be so interesting is when I first got [to Bergen] I was a little bit disappointed—it really just felt like any Northern European city until you really started to look at the details, like the spaces in between buildings and the hardscaping or the treatment of sidewalks,” recalls Bartunek. As she started looking closer, “all of sudden there were just thousands and thousands of these kind of nuanced details all over the city that were super strategic ... responding to drainage and pulling the rain back out to the sea.”

While Bergen was full of rain-oriented design, it “wasn’t there to stand out or or be a flashy design act,” says Bartunek. “It was really there to just keep water away from your feet and just pay respect to the daily rain. I just thought that was one of the most beautiful things about the city.”

Returning to Seattle, Bartunek noticed that, despite the Emerald City’s damp reputation, there wasn’t the same conversation between rain and design she’d seen in her scholarship work.

“I spent four weeks really kind of eyes on the sky and really tried to notice all those subtle shifts,” said Bartunek. “I got back to Seattle and ... I haven’t found those moments yet.”

It’s not just Seattle, Bartunek, explained. It’s a wider issue looming about our one-way conversation with rain.

“I was just kind of amazed that we haven’t tapped into all those nuances and potentials that our landscape or rain could inspire,” she says. “What if our public spaces in the city came alive when it rains and it became these moments of delight and spectacle and the opportunities for us to re-engage with our environment instead of trying to step inside and get out of the rain?”

There are a few local rain-centric projects. Bartunek points to Dan Corson’s “Rain Drums” at the Cedar River Watershed in North Bend. “When it rains it taps on the drums and makes music and it highlights it,” she explains. “Rain becomes the activator and in a way what [Corson is] trying to do is harness the potential of rain, and not just respond or react against it.”

“Rain Drums” is one small project, though—and much of Seattle’s rain design is working around it more than embracing it as part of our local culture. “Stormwater management and rain gardens and those things are utilizing water... I’m trying to collect rainwater [and] control it to a certain degree,” says Bartunek. “I don’t think there’s a moment in the city where we’re just kind of reveling in it.”

“Wherever I went people just got excited about [rain] because everybody can relate to it,” says Bartunek. “We all have our rain stories, and it’s interesting how rain really is a character in the way we experience the world. People would just bring to the table stories about the rain from their childhoods or rains that caused floods... everybody had a story and everybody wanted to share their story.”