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Under the watchful gaze of Chief Sealth, whose face adorns the municipal seal, the Seattle City Council convenes for the day. The docket is relatively light on the afternoon that monocle visits – approving nominees for a handful of city commissions, a resolution supporting a citizen initiative to establish statewide universal health care – but this early- December session is the calm after the storm.

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Seattle City Council chambers

A week earlier, the council voted 6:3 to approve a two-year, $7.4bn (€7.1bn) spending plan after a bruising budget season. With an economic downturn sparking a revenue shortfall of more than $145m (€137.5m), the mayor and councillors sparred over how to balance the books while preserving their political priorities on matters such as policing and affordable housing. During the tense negotiations, one constant fostered the final outcome: City Hall itself.

The glass-and-steel building by architect Peter Bohlin has a streamlined design that keeps the most essential city functions under one roof. Neighbouring administrative buildings handle everyday bureaucracy such as construction permits and marriage licences, while City Hall is reserved for the conceptual work of crafting and executing public policy. 

At the same time, the building provides nearly unparalleled open access for citizens with hardly a security checkpoint to be found. An entry staircase yields to an exterior plaza that is available for protests, an ample lobby encourages members of the public to linger and the basement even doubles as a severe-weather homeless shelter.

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Council member Dan Strauss

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Tammy Morales makes her case in chambers

Council member Dan Strauss spends most of his time on the horseshoe-shaped second floor, where a blue-sky bridge over an airy limestone and quartzite atrium connects the titanium-walled council chambers to councillors’ offices. When the city budget office informed Strauss one morning that an issue that he was stumping for might leave insufficient emergency reserves – and he had a noon deadline to propose amendments – he kicked into gear as he shuttled from chambers to his office to staff financial analysts, all within easy reach. “Without the ability to walk down the hall and talk to someone, I wouldn’t have been able to get all that done in time,” he says.

In mid-November, with the budget deadline nearing, thousands of secondary-school pupils converged on the plaza in front of City Hall to demand more funding for mental-health counsellors in the wake of a school shooting. The rally worked: a last-minute amendment added $4m (€3.8m) for their cause. “We were able to pivot and work with council members on finding money to help the students,” says the deputy mayor, Greg Wong, who went out to meet with the petitioners. “When you have a building like this that feels very open and conducive to allowing for those types of interactions, then you can do the work of government better.”

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Brise-soleil

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View towards Elliott Bay

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Approaching the dais

While the mayor, Bruce Harrell, occupies a prime office on the seventh floor with sweeping views of Mount Rainier and Puget Sound, there is no power-play gamesmanship in this egalitarian building. Harrell takes the elevator down to councillors’ offices on the second floor as often as anyone ascends to his lofty perch. Those offices, meanwhile, reflect councillors’ own taste. Mexican-American council member Tammy Morales’s walls pop with bright yellow and orange, and artwork by the likes of Seattle-based artist Alfredo Arreguín, part of the extensive municipal collection from which city officials can decorate their offices.

On the day that monocle visits, she has just come out of a debate on the transportation committee about relaxing food-truck regulations, which she supported in order to grow business opportunities for immigrant entrepreneurs. But understanding the old regulations’ protections for bricks-and-mortar restaurants, adopted long before she was elected, required consulting the council’s central staff. Like Strauss, she relishes her office’s proximity to City Hall’s keepers of institutional knowledge.

As the day winds up, Harrell makes his way past the atrium’s babbling brook en route to the Bertha Knight Landes room, which is named after the first female mayor of a major US city, where he will sign the budget into law. There is a festive atmosphere with plates of jerk chicken and beef brisket, while a DJ spins funk and soul tunes. “We are in a functional piece of art,” says Strauss before heading into the budget-signing shindig. “Beauty gives people more space to think.” 

Why it works:

Seattle City Hall gives true expression to the idea of open democracy, with spaces allocated to public assembly and participation. It is a place beloved by citizens and politicians alike. 

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