Seattle and beyond
February 18, 2014
By Nathaniel Reeves
Architect’s prolific career sparked by tour of duty in Japan
Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. The Washington State Convention Center. The King County Aquatic Center in Federal Way. All buildings people know and may have interacted with.
What you might not know is that the man who designed those buildings lives right here in Issaquah.
Phillip Jacobson, of Timber Ridge at Talus, has enjoyed a long and outstanding career as an architect. He has travelled around the world, but the majority of his 50 years in the business were spent in Seattle, both as an architect and a professor at the University of Washington. Along the way, he collected numerous awards and honors, including the AIA Seattle Medal in 1994.
The award is the highest award American Institute of Architects Seattle can confer on one of its own members, according to the group’s website. The award “recognizes distinguished lifetime achievement in architecture, including design and professional practice and service to the profession, the community, education and the arts, or any combination of these.”
In presenting the nomination, Honors Nominating Chairman David Wright cited the influence of Jacobson’s lifetime achievements, “particularly the distinction of a career combining teaching with practice in a uniquely successful way. As well, his work abroad as an emissary for the profession has contributed to the establishment of an international community of architects, with ever-increasing meaning for the future of global architecture.”
In 1985, Finnish President Mauno Koivisto conferred upon Jacobson the honor of Knight of the Order of the White Rose; in 1993, the Finnish Association of Architects bestowed upon him the SAFA Silver Award, recognizing his contribution to architecture in Finland and the U.S.
Always interested in building, Jacobson’s path to being an architect started while he was serving his country in Japan during World War II.
“Japan was the first time I really felt a sense of architecture,” Jacobson said. “The temples and shrines gave a sense of design that I had never really felt in the States before.”
Upon returning stateside, Jacobson attended Washington State University. Shortly before graduating, he met his future wife, Effie, who persuaded him to travel to Europe. He received a Fulbright grant to study in England for nine months, and he also traveled from Norway to Italy. Much like in Japan, the experience of European architecture profoundly inspired Jacobson.
When he returned home, he went to work with The Richardson Associates, later known as TRA Architecture, Engineering, Planning, Interiors. Apart from two brief years in San Francisco, Jacobson would stay at that firm and in Seattle until his retirement in 1992.
A teaching test
In 1962, University of Washington College of Architecture Dean Bob Yates invited Jacobson to give a guest lecture. What Jacobson didn’t know was that Yates was giving him a sort of test to see if he could be a good teacher. He passed the test, and taught at the UW from 1962 to 2000.
“He could excel in both teaching and architecture, where most of us would be too distracted in one or the other,” said Alan Moses, Jacobson’s business partner and lifelong friend.
Jacobson’s philosophy centered on finding a way to merge aesthetics and functionality. While Jacobson said he hoped to add an “extra measure” for people by having a pleasant environment, a building’s most important feature has to be that it does its job.
That sort of thinking has had an impact on his students, including those who work in Seattle.
“I was very lucky to have Phil as both a mentor and a teacher,” said James Suhiro, who operates his own firm in Seattle. “He had an undeniably huge impact on my entire career.”
A lasting impression
Jacobson’s skills extend far beyond buildings. He has designed all kinds of things, including chairs, reading lamps and light fixtures. Some of his most skilled aesthetic pieces include jewelry and a gorgeous belt buckle he designed for his wife Effie.
His artistic sense can be further seen through his love of photography. All of his projects are examined in a book, “Elegant Explorations: The Designs of Phillip Jacobson,” which gives a detailed overview of his career and how he managed to merge design with art.
“He’s one of those rare architects skilled in both aesthetics and technical aspects,” Moses said.
In the 13 years since he retired from teaching, Jacobson said the change in the architecture field has been incredible. Computers may be changing architecture at a rapid rate, but his career and the projects he worked on will not be forgotten anytime soon.
“I had the opportunity to impress and gratify a lot of people,” Jacobson said. “You hope your works leave some sort of lasting impression.”