In Friday’s Oregonian Randy Gragg reports on the unveiling of much-anticipated designs for Laika Entertainment’s new campus. Unsurprisingly given that Nike co-founder Phil Knight owns Laika, the new project’s designer is TVA Architects.
No quarrel about that: TVA and head principal Robert Thompson exhibit, as Randy put it, a “brand of classical, highly modernism, a la Mies van der Rohe by way of Richard Meier.” And the Nike campus architecture is first-rate. I also like what I see from the initial renderings (to be posted soon).
But what about putting the headquarters in suburban Tualatin?
The announcement of Laika going to 'burbs reminded me of something said in a Metropolis magazine article I wrote in 2001 comparing the new Adidas headquarters in North Portland (revamped from the former Bess Kaiser hospital) to Nike’s headquarters in Beaverton. Charlie Hales, a City Council member at the time, said this:
Both companies have shown a lot of community spirit and willingness to be good corporate citizens. But I think the real distinction is where these corporations choose to live. That's about as sharp a contrast as you can see.
Nike's corporate campus is the ultimate well-designed, well-executed, attractive suburban pod. It's offices surrounded by parking lots inside a berm across the street from a trailer park and down the street from strip malls. It's great architecture, but it's terrible place making.
Laika’s campus won’t have a berm, and it might be better integrated into the surrounding fabric. I also think the renderings so far look very nice: not as grand as Nike, but perhaps better for it. Laika will also have lots of very nice landscaped open space on its site, something that probably wouldn’t have been possible in a Portland location.
But think of the massive influx Portland is experiencing right now with young creatives, precisely the talent pool from which Laika will hope to draw. I’d wager they’re overwhelmingly choosing to live in Portland proper and not Tualatin or any other suburb.
Laika certainly will have more space and cheaper land way out in Tualatin, as well as ideally close proximity to both I-5 and I-205. But the company has also chosen to sequester itself far from the energy and life in which even most of its employees will live. That means hundreds more people will be driving down the highway each day to get to their job. In that same Nike-Adidas article, I remember Owen Clemens of Adidas (where, in full disclosure, my girlfriend works) saying of the company’s relocation from their own suburban offices to North Portland, “Our lifestyles revolve around downtown more than the suburbs, and being in Beaverton made for some nasty commutes.”
There's one hope for Laika's hapless Portland-habitating employees: a MAX line that takes them there. If that were to happen in time, and Laika were part of a community of businesses advocating for such transit investments, then their going to Tualatin could ultimately be a good thing. But that's a far cry from reality.
It's also not my intention to villify Laika, Nike or Phil Knight. As a longtime film writer, I'm excited about the transformation of the former Vinton Studios into Laika, a studio that could one day compete directly with Pixar and other Hollywood animation studios. Laika has some tremendously talented people on board like director Henry Sellick of Nightmare Before Christmas fame. And I'm also proud to have Nike here, particularly as a Ducks fan, since Nike was born from the Oregon track program. But I wish the locating of these companies' offices was as progressive in its thinking as what they produce.
This shouldn’t be about bashing TVA or even Tualatin. TVA does excellent work, and there are plenty of companies located in the suburbs for whom that was probably the right decision, because their employees and customer base are congruent with that location. But Laika shouldn’t belong in the suburbs. And it’s a shame that Oregon’s most prominent corporate citizen and leader didn’t come to that realization.