It was a bright spring day in Seattle’s lower Queen Anne neighborhood when nonprofit alt-rock radio station KEXP (90.3 FM) opened the doors of its new 25,000-square-foot digs designed by local firm SkB Architects. The new KEXP space—part of Seattle Center, a 74-acre park, arts, and entertainment area that includes the Space Needle—was packed for its soft opening. There was a hushed tone as English singer-songwriter-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock performed. He ended his set with the cheeky ode to Seattle, “Viva! Sea-Tac”—the first song KEXP played when staff moved into its new office in December 2015 after the phase one completion.
SkB designed the new KEXP headquarters in a structure originally built as an exhibition hall for the 1962 World’s Fair with tech and studio designer Walters-Storyk Design Group. It includes on-air studios, DJ booths, production rooms, staff offices, and more—KEXP expects to continue to host over 500 in-studio performances each year, which the public can now view live from an adjacent room that can hold up to 75 people. The new KEXP also houses a 4,500-square-foot public community space with a coffee shop and showroom.
“We wanted to bring the outside in,” said Shannon Gaffney, SkB cofounder and co-lead designer on the project. Circulation was a challenge and required striking the right balance between openness and decompression, public and private. Gaffney explained, “It was like a puzzle.”
KEXP builds on the growing trend of public-private collaboration—where privately owned space (or privately-publicly owned space, as with KEXP’s new home) is open to and used by the public. In St. Louis, for instance, the independent community radio station KDHX operates out of the Larry J. Weir Center for Independent Media, with a ground floor venue space that can hold up to 140 people.
The public gathering space is open and light-filled, pulling together exposed silver and white ductwork with turquoise accents, low-key stenciled concrete floors, and roll-up garage doors. It’s an effect that transforms the area into an indoor plaza and public extension of the courtyard to the east. Many of its materials were donated, said Gaffney. This includes the dark wood paneling, sourced from Puget Sound, that frames the glass-windowed DJ looking into the space. When not being used for live concerts, the gathering space converts into a lounge.
A key feature of the new HQ is KEXP’s 50,000-album music library. The library is non-circulating, but it embraces the public-private concept by being located at the most extroverted part of the KEXP site, hugging its southeast corner. There is large floor-to-ceiling UV-protective glazing, so albums are protected, but still visible from the street.
Back inside the public gathering space is a cafe, La Marzocco, which SkB designed with creative branding agency States of Matter. It is the Florentine-founded espresso machine manufacturer’s first cafe and showroom. Seattle company Mallet, Inc. built the cabinets locally. The colored-glass panels were made in Italy using traditional techniques, said Gaffney. Each month, the cafe features new roasters and a curated coffee menu.
By weaving together public-private elements in the new space, KEXP is able to connect more closely with its listeners while the public can hear (and watch) musicians, meet friends, study, have an espresso, and peek into the daily workings of an indie public radio station.