Wen's Interviews - Jim Dawson

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James Dawson: Architect, Dreamer/Promoter-in-Chief of the Seattle Chinese Garden     (Mar. 14, 2011)

The threee Chinese characters above Jim say Seattle Chinese Garden.

With spring just around the corner and gardens probably in your thoughts, I bring you today the ultimate garden story.

Yes, a Chinese garden in Seattle has been a dream of James Dawson, a founder of the Seattle Chinese Garden Society. But "garden" may be a misnomer. It is a project with an estimated cost of $40 million, on 4.6 acres of land, with 15 structures on it, when completed, from pavilions to courtyards, from lakes to bridges, from a gathering hall to an education center, plus horticulture. It's more like a garden-park-cultural center in one. For this dream, James Dawson has been working for 25 years, and counting. If it sounds exhausting, that's only his part-time, non-profit work.

To find out how he got started and more, from the very beginning, I interviewed him on March 8, 2011 at the Seattle Chinese Garden, now partially built. This is James Dawson at the entrance of Knowing the Spring Courtyard, just completed last November. Here are the highlights of the interview, in three parts:


 Part 1. From Boyhood to Architect

Wen: Are you a native Seattleite?

Jim: Yes. I'm a minority here. (laugh)

Wen: Which part of Seattle did you grow up in?

Jim: Quite a few different parts. I was born in the Wedgwood area, northeast of Seattle. First went to Green Lake Elementary School. My grandfather actually settled on the property where the Green Lake library is now in 1892. So my family had a history in that area.

Wen: Are you related to a James Dawson who was part of the Olmstead Brothers and designed the Washington Park Arboretum?

Jim: Not that I know of. (laugh)

Wen: Same name?

Jim: Funny you say that. I went to the Arboretum many years ago to talk to a group about the Chinese garden. When they introduced me, there was quite a chuckle in the audience.

Wen: Where did you go to high school?

Jim: We moved out to Lake Stevens. So I went to Lake Stevens High School. Then I moved back to Seattle to go to the University of Washington.

Wen: When did you decide you wanted to major in architecture?

Jim: Pretty early, when I was about 8.

Wen: 8?

Jim: I thought the word architecture an interesting word.

Wen: Why?

Jim: One of our neighbors was an architect. So I started being aware. My dad's father was a carpenter and builder. My dad also loved to build things. So when I was growing up, we were always in the midst of projects.

Wen: What kind of projects did your dad's father build?

Jim: He came from Ireland after the Seattle fire, because he heard there would be a lot of construction work, rebuilding after the fire. He built houses and stores. Do you know the flat area west of Green Lake, before you go on to the Phinney Hill? He developed a lot of that area.

Wen: That's probably where your influence came from. So you knew you were going to major in architecture. And UW was a good school for that?

Jim: UW was a very good school, well known in the late 1960s. It still has a fine architecture school.

Wen: When did you get your degree?

Jim: 1970.

Wen: What was the degree?

Jim: Bachelor of Architecture.

Wen: When you were a student, did you have an architect you admired?

Jim: From when I was 10 years old, I was a big admirer of Frank Lloyd Wright. He was at that time considered a modern architect, breaking new ground. So as a kid through high school and college, I read everything I could get my hands on. Frank Lloyd Wright opened up a whole new attitude of looking at things, not so much in the past, but more in terms of land, light, relationship to the ground especially. That was appealing to me.

Wen: What do you think of I.M. Pei? What kind of architect would you call him, modern, traditional?

Jim: Very modern. When I was at college, I.M. Pei was way up at the top. I still enjoy his work a lot. It's interesting what he has done in China, too. I think he is one of the great architects of the century.

 Part 2. Land Architect and Suncadia Planner

Wen: After you got your degree, did you join a firm or do an internship?

Jim: Actually before I got my degree, I had worked during the summer for an architect by the name Donn Sibold.

Wen: What kind of architect was he?

Jim: He did mostly resort planning. That's actually one of the reasons I went to work for him, because that's something I had identified I would be interested in. Actually when I was 9 years old, there was an incident that sort of led me to that direction. That's still mostly what I do.

Wen: Really? You had a vacation at a resort?

Jim: We were living out in the Shoreline area, our next-door neighbor had gone off a long weekend and came back late Sunday and said, we'd been to the end of the earth up in the Methow Valley. You know where it is?

Wen: No.

Jim: In northeastern Washington, way north on the other side of the Cascades. They told my parents that there was going to be a major resort up there someday, beautiful area, snow in the mountains. I was there next to them when they were having this conversation. My parents just laughed. At that time, it was such remote area. Nobody was even thinking of going that far in the 50s. But it stuck in my mind. I always wondered, "Why isn't there a major resort in Washington?" It wasn't until I was almost 50 years old that I got to be the planner of the biggest resort in Washington State.

Wen: In the same area they talked about?

Jim: Suncadia, on the other side of the Snoqualmie Pass.

Wen: When you were 9 you were thinking about it.

Jim: Thinking about it ever since.

Wen: When did you have your own firm Dawson Associates?

Jim: I was with Donn Sibold for about 13 years. Then I formed a firm with two other architects: Bob Hoshide and Jack Williams. We were doing quiet a variety of work, some resort planning.

Wen: How long have you been on your own?

Jim: About 15 years.

Wen: How many years did you work on this resort? Sounds like a very big project?

Jim: Suncadia? Started 1996, about 15 years.

Wen: How many resorts have you done?

Jim: Quite a few. Several in Washington, several in California, Arizona, Utah.

Wen: Everywhere.

Jim: Mostly West Coast.

Wen: You say you are a planner. A land planner? What good word would you put before planner?

Jim: People are constantly trying to figure out a term for what I do. It does not really fit in exactly any of these categories. It's not pure architecture, not pure land planning. Some people call me a land architect. It's not a formal term. But that may be the best description.

 Part 3. Hooked on China and Chinese Gardens Since 1985

Wen: So you said you were with the Seattle trade delegation in China in 1986. But I read that you first visited China in 1985. What was that trip?

Jim: I was with my dad, my wife, and brother.

Wen: It was a family one. Was it a tour?

Jim: It was basically a three-week tour, a small group. It started out Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing, Beijing, Xian, Guilin, Guangzhou.

Wen: At that time, you were not involved with the Seattle-Chongqing Sister City yet.

Jim: No.

Wen: Did you know about Washington State China Relations Council yet? They came into being in 1979.

Jim: Not at that time. So we went on this trip. I was astonished at what was going on in China.

Wen: It's said that you fell in love with Chinese gardens on the trip.

Jim: I didn't know what really to expect and was amazed by the gardens, especially in Suzhou. What really captured my imagination was the integration of all aspects of the culture. It wasn't just architecture. It wasn't just landscaping. It was all these other things. It was painting, calligraphy, music and poetry, rocks and water. You couldn't name a part of the culture that wasn't represented in the garden. It was also obvious to me that we didn't know very much about Chinese culture or Chinese gardens.

Wen: You hadn't been interested in China before.

Jim: I hadn't. It had started to open up, with the Nixon visit and a few years after that people started visiting China, but we really had very little information on the country and its culture. This trip in 1985 opened my eyes. I came back from that trip, thinking wow, we'd better learn something about this, because it's going to be a big part of our lives in the future, whether we like it or not.

Wen: So how did you get involved in the Sister City?

Jim: A few months after I got back, I heard that the Seattle Parks Department had just started to talk to our sister city Chongqing about the possibility of doing a Chinese garden in Seattle and a sister city trade mission to Chongqing being planned. So I signed up to be on the mission Mayor Charles Royer led. That was May of 86.

Wen: It was said that Mayor Royer got the idea of having a Chinese garden in Seattle. Was that the case?

Jim: The idea grew out of discussions between of the two cities and some of the founding members of the Seattle-Chongqing Sister City Association.

Wen: Mayor Royer appointed a citizens committee to study the garden idea. Were you on the committee?

Jim: Yes. I was the chair of the committee. We were faced with a task of studying the feasibility, trying to find a site, trying to determine what would be in a Chinese garden in Seattle, what would it be like.

Wen: All these happened in the late 80s and early 90s. But you created the Garden Society in 1997? That late?

Jim: No. I think it was 90, Jan. of 90.

Wen: After Tiananmen. You were not discouraged, with the sanctions? You didn't stop. You actually went ahead and created the Society.

Jim: Yes. We didn't stop. It was just that things slowed down because everybody was kind of in a shock.

Wen: You did not say lets wait and see what would happen?

Jim: No. I mean it's not a political project. If anything, the idea was to get around politics and bring people together no matter what their politics. We had no intention of stopping. It was harder to do things. But we kept going.

Wen: It's now 25 years since the Royer trip and the idea, 20 since the creation of the Society, and with Song Mei Pavilion and Knowing the Spring Courtyard complete, how many more years to go to finish?

Jim: If I can't finish, my kids would have to. (laugh)

Wen: Would you make a prediction?

Jim: No.

Wen: Maybe five years. What do you see?

Jim: In the last 25 years, I have been hearing people ask when is the garden going to be finished? Number one, gardens are never really finished. My work in large resorts taught me these things take a lot of time. Last year, I presented the idea of trying to finish the whole garden in five years.

Wen: That's wonderful.

Jim: A lot people say, "You will never do that, you can't raise that amount of money all at one time." I think when you raise funds, for instance, asking somebody to write a check for half a million dollars to support construction of the Floating Cloud Pavilion, you need to give them some vision of how and when the entire project will be finished. We may not be able to do it in five years, but we need to have a clear plan to get to the finish line.

Wen: What if you also sell naming rights? You could say this tower is Boeing cloud tower.

Jim: Essentially that's what we're doing. Boeing is already going to have its name on the Gathering Together Hall. Every major structure could have a name. Could be Starbucks Tea House. Microsoft Floating Cloud Pavilion.

Wen: That's right. Cloud computing.

Jim: I think we almost have to do that.

Wen: Thank you so much.