Shoreside Architecture

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One of the reasons that I love small boats is that they allow me to hover at the edge between land and sea. Along that fine line is where the beauty of the land creeps down and shakes hands with the richness of the water. When I’m cruising far from town, that shoreline is mostly rocks, grasses, and trees, but when I’m in the more populated areas, houses become more common and I can’t help but observe and comment about them. 

If I hadn’t made a wrong turn in college, I probably would have ended up as an architect.  Because of that, I have a keen interest in buildings. Combine that with my love of boats and I’ve got a built in source of entertainment, inspiration, and revulsion as I move through the shallows.

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Along the Willamette River, near downtown Portland.

Aside from the grim reach of the Columbia River at Longview, Washington, I think industrial uses along the water are, if not acceptable, at least understandable; water is an obvious, efficient, and historic way to transport goods.

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Look at me, look at me. Oh wait, don’t look, I might fall in!

Houses on the other hand, don’t necessarily belong on the water. And man do people make some curious decisions about their homes.

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Some houses are follies- they were built based on a dream and regardless of how they turned out, you have to respect the commitment it took to build them.

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Others seem to have been placed on the shore just to make a statement that the owners had the dough to own a waterfront property.  These are too blatant to me. Too many windows, too little context, and too little respect for the environment.

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A tale of two houses.

I laughed when I saw these two homes. The one on the left is a what I termed a “window house”; one where the view from within is prized over the look from the outside. I’d be happy never to see one again.

Andy Boat is most often the victim of my endless rants about houses. When we rowed past these I thought that the pueblo-style house on the right was a riot of out-of-placeness. Andy asked me which one was less visible from the shore and I had to reevaluate my opinion.

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Some structures, like the one above, seem to have been carefully considered, and whether I like the style or not, I can reason that a thoughtful approach was taken and nod my head in approval.

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House or outhouse? In either case, you have to wonder how they built it.

If I can see a house from the water, I hope that it has a relationship to the water and the land, one that makes the house seem like it belongs to that particular place, not something that was dropped from the sky, out of a subdivision.

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But regardless of the architectural style, the best shoreside houses are the ones that you can hardly see at all.


  1. I recognize many of the houses you chose. We must haunt the same waters. Many years ago, when I was a South Sound contractor, I worked on several homes on Steamboat Island. The one you picture, on the north end, was sloughing off into the radically deep water below. I wasn’t part of the salvage (thankfully) when the bare bank was sprayed with concrete. At the time, Olympia planners had recognized the need to retain vegetation to impede erosion, which flew directly in the face of Dept of Agriculture policy that had informed the mainstream bulkheading of the previous era. That poor island is stacked with homes three deep and one day they will all fall in.
    I had a waterfront home on Totten Inlet, to the south, at the time, with a 180 degree view through the trees, and looking from the water you couldn’t see it. Never did understand why people didn’t want trees in their view.
    I too, observe architecture when sailing close to shore and am amazed and disgusted, at turns.

    1. Trees are so wonderful, shotcrete, not so much. One friend was really kind about some of the exposed houses. He said, maybe it’s just too cold and they really need the sunshine’s warmth. He’s clearly a better person than me…

  2. Interesting topic, and it is surprising that not more is written about it. So often the needs of developers are given priority over the needs of the water users, and the water itself. The views of the edges, the land as seen from the water, receive much more exposure than the reverse views, which are very private. Occasionally I come across a lovely stretch of natural looking water edge and I realise that some one or some agency has enforced a level of restraint to enable the natural values of the area to dominate the built structures. Big picture planning.

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