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AIA Seattle Medalist 1989: Ibsen Nelsen FAIA

Ibsen Nelsen FAIA
October 2, 1919 - July 19, 2001

One of the Northwest's most influential architects, planners, and humanists, 1989 recipient of the AIA Seattle Medal Ibsen Nelsen practiced and professed a reverence for the qualities of the Northwest's natural and social landscape. His architecture, his thoughtful expressions of his knowledge and beliefs, and his lifelong civic activism profoundly affected both the architects and the architecture of the Northwest.

A native of Ruskin, Nebraska and the son of a Danish immigrant builder, Ibsen Nelsen moved to Oregon and took his architecture degree from the University of Oregon in 1951. He practiced with Seattle firms including Naramore, Bain, Brady & Johanson before establishing his own practice in 1953. Independently or in partnership with others, he produced notable works including a California home for the artist Morris Graves, Inn at the Market and Stewart House in the Pike Place Market, Seattle's Museum of Flight, and Merrill Court. The house he designed for his own family and where he spent his last years, on Vashon Island, recalls the Danish farmhouses of his forebears.

Ibsen grew deep roots in the Northwest. Early in his career and with other close friends and colleagues, he committed himself to the creation and promotion of an architecture close to the earth and highly accessible to people of simple means. He lived and worked in the belief that a young veteran returning from service in WWII (in which he served himself as a Captain in the US Army) deserved a well-designed and affordable family home. With others including Margery Phillips, he contributed to the Home Plan Bureau, which made residential designs of good quality accessible to those less than affluent. Homes he designed appeared frequently in the early decades of the AIA Home of the Month program which began publication in The Seattle Times in 1954 – another vehicle for his vision of quality design serving all segments of society.

One would see Ibsen often about the town, regularly in the company of his great friend and ally Fred Bassetti or George Bartholick, Victor Steinbrueck, Al Bumgardner or others (see photo below) – a colleague sincere in praise as in criticism. His straight slim figure, dapperly attired in summer tans with a straw hat, and his natural and unaffectedly courtly ways, invited comparison to a romantic figure in an Ingmar Bergman movie. With his luxuriant whiskers and gently scratchy voice, he came across at other times as the gruff and brooding Dane, speaking with concern or despair of things he found abhorrent -- especially the dangers of design that failed to embody the simplicity and naturalness consistent with his vision of the true "Northwest architecture."

In the month of his death, Alaska Airlines Magazine carried an article describing major West Coast civic projects – e.g. Gehry's EMP and Antoine Predock's designs for the San Diego ballpark and the Tacoma Art Museum – in the manner of many recent stories plying the "If You Build It, They Will Come" theme – not so very unlike Architectural Record Editor in Chief Robert Ivy's assessment of the state of Seattle design during his June visit. Ibsen decried the rash of "signature" pieces flung across the landscape like so many Michael Graves teapots on a Target shelf. As he wrote in 1996 in an unpublished essay, "(The Rise and Decline of) Regional Architecture in the Pacific Northwest:" "The pattern now, almost universally applied, is to seek 'brand name' achitects and engineers for all major local projects. We have accumulated .. a collection of unrelated monuments having little, if anything, to do with each other, with this area, its culture, or the environment. By and large they are buildings whose main purpose is to advertise the latest magazine fashion of the time, created by imported designers." He continued, "It is as though we had no culture of our own, no ability to discriminate and identify the talented designers we have in our own region, that we have learned nothing from our history."

Along with his life's partner Ruth, Ibsen Nelsen read widely and wisely, and believed profoundly in living honestly and ethically. Their life together as parents of four children expressed their humane values and a deep conviction about the individual's responsibility to contribute actively to society and to speak out in one's beliefs. Instrumental in the initiation of the Seattle Design Commission, the Seattle Arts Commission, Allied Arts of Seattle, and the Save the Market campaign, he became a Fellow of The American Institute of Architects in 1981. Jeffrey Karl Ochsner FAIA profiled his career in the 1994 publication Shaping Seattle Architecture: A Historical Guide to the Architects.

Lengthy obituaries to Ibsen Nelsen appeared in The Seattle Times (7/21, by Frank Vinluan and Sheila Farr), the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (8/6, by Gregory Reports), and on HistoryLink (a tribute by Art Skolnik FAIA).

Seattle Mayor Paul Schell Hon. AIA joined Fred Bassetti FAIA, Marjorie Nelson Steinbrueck, Rich Haag FASLA, Hon. AIA, Mary Randlett, and a throng of friends, family, and professional colleagues in sharing memories and tributes to Ibsen Nelsen at private memorial services held August 11 at University Unitarian Church in Seattle.


Ralph Anderson, Al Bumgardner, Ibsen Nelsen, Fred Bassetti, Victor Steinbrueck (photo by Mary Randlett)


Ibsen Nelsen FAIA.
Photo by Mary Randlett, 1985.

 

 

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