The new headquarters for the American Institute of Architects/Portland chapter, the Center for Architecture, is just breaking ground under general contractor Howard S. Wright with completion set for mid to late August at the former SK Josefsberg art gallery. Holst Architecture is the official architect for the project, although Architecture W was also involved in earlier stages leading up to this point.
Several weeks ago I exchanged a few emails with Brian White of Architecture W about the project. Brian sent me a few computer-model images of a unique and visually striking wall planned. The idea was to shade the building’s south wall, since it absorbs a lot of light and heat, by adding a kind of second skin that still allowed the majority of the natural light to penetrate the windows.
As part of an overall design that is posed to earn a ‘Platinum’ LEED rating, the concept of the new wall was to let plants of some kind grow up and down the long thin strips spread almost like a spider web over the façade. It was made of folded steel plating Brian White designed with a New York firm called Aranda/Lasch. It would provide shading in the summer and act as draining system to a series bioswale-like planters in the surface of the sidewalk—only the second building in Portland to do so after the Gerding Theater. In the original rendering I saw, the AIA wall looked almost like a spider web attached to the building. It had a very functional purpose but also seemed to make me go, ‘Whoa, cool!’
After talking with Dave Otte of Holst earlier this week, it appears the original concept has been scaled down—although not necessarily for the worse. Still, we had a laugh when I asked him half-facetiously, “You mean architects are designing for architects and there’s value engineering?”
Much of project will draw from re-used and donated materials. Instead of the custom web shaped folded steel plating, the wall will now be made hanging strips of rebar going from the gutter down from into the sidewalk planters. That will allow vines to go up and water to go down. During rain, it will provide evaporative cooling from garden wall. Irrigation for plants in summertime also will work with natural ventilation to cool the interior.
There’s less of a “wow” factor, but we’re talking about a nonprofit that depends on member dues and donations. Also, Otte told me the neighborhood organization had some reservations about the steel web. The rebar is more in the spirit of Portland, I think, embodying the aesthetic of places like The Rebuilding Center.
Personally, I would have loved the original design, especially for its intersection of an historic building with an unabashedly modern and very visible addition to its façade—and all for functional, sustainably oriented reasons. But I think people will like and maybe even prefer its more humble successor, particularly because the concept even in a scaled-down version will still stand out as something special. It’s natural for the AIA (where I worked from 1999-2000) Center For Architecture to act as a demonstration project for both technologies and, most importantly, ideas.
And this garden wall I think represents the way much of architecture is going: making buildings into more organic spaces that harness natural resources and foster healthier, more stimulating environments.