Recently, after reading Alison Ryan’s Oregonian article about the new Thomas Lamb Eliot Center at First Unitarian Church in downtown Portland, I spoke with the architect, Thomas Hacker of Thomas Hacker Architects, about the design.
The Eliot Center will consist of several classrooms as part of the church’s ongoing outreach, and there will be an inner courtyard area uniting the space as well as the adjacent church architecture. Hacker explains:
"The whole idea was to unite this whole educational complex, to connect these classrooms and other rooms to the existing areas that they already have. Those were built in three different eras and they’re not aligned properly. It’s a kind of puzzle. This design hopes to unify that with a central courtyard space, and all of these education rooms are revolving around that. Because of all the level changes, there is a stairway and lobby area that makes those connections both for handicapped access and a stair connection. The idea here is that the overall ed facilities for the church are brought together and updated with this one wing. It’s going to make a big difference."
The building’s exterior features alternating vertical brick and glass strips that tie in with the original sanctuary’s windows. The Eliot Center’s upper floor is also made with class. Hacker again:
“Which would allow the original to retain its character without being mimicked. That’s what drove the idea of a very transparent upper floor. It has these strong piers of brick (true bearing wall construction) and above that it moves to a column structure. It’s transparent and it reads in a line that is less massive, in keeping with the lines of the existing church. And those windows open onto classrooms, which will bring a lot of light into the space.”
Along with the Urban Center at Portland State University, the Eliot Center will give Hacker’s firm a real presence in the downtown area that nicely compliments the host of libraries and a few other buildings scattered throughout the metro area. More importantly, this seems to be a work of modern architecture that beautifully integrates with its historic neighbor. As with Holst Architecture’s Apple store on NW 23rd Avenue, it’s a case where not every modern building would fit so nicely here, but with nimble design prowess comes triumph. Hacker’s buildings in particular have always been a warm, emotive kind of modernism with a real sense of craft and bountiful natural light. Seems like the Eliot Center will be no different.