When you're a Portland Architecture blogger, life is good. People invite you to look out at the city from atop the 31st floor penthouse of their new condo buildings. Such was the case yesterday when I kicked the proverbial tires of the John Ross Condominiums with architect Robert Thompson, honcho of TVA Architects.
As my car sped around the various detours in the perennially under-construction South Waterfront, late for my appointment as usual, it hit me that I'd never really explored this new neighborhood on foot. I'd been to the OHSU building nearby, but always wound up in the underground parking garage and then in the building. Luckily Bob was waiting outside, and before stepping in to this 325-foot lipstick-shaped building, we took a brief stroll in this new neighborhood.
The John Ross (which I like to think of as being named after TV's John Ross Ewing) has about an 8% smaller floor plate than a rectangular building on this site would, and some of the leftover territory has been landscaped by Murase Associates - Bob believes it may have been the one of the last projects the late great Bob Murase worked on before his untimely passing. (Like all landscaping, it's also gonna take awhile to grow in before looking its best.)
Inside, the double-height lobby is wrapped in tall glass. It feels like a dramatic space, even though many of the units in this building are smaller and (in relative terms) more affordable than the Atwater and Meriwether condos next door. The curtains, in case you're wondering, operate by remote control, although I'm sad to report I didn't get to give it a try - I had in mind some kind of choreographed thing with the two stories of curtains moving back and forth to 'The Blue Danube' - but maybe I've still got 2001 stuck in my head from a couple weeks ago.
From a distance, both the John Ross and the adjacent Atwater Condominiums (pictured at left), the latter designed by Thomas Hacker Architects and nearing the end of construction, seem like dark buildings with dark glass. Up close, though, it becomes more apparent that the glass is clear and untinted, but merely looks dark in daytime because interior spaces are naturally darker than outdoor light. Up close, the Atwater and John Ross seem more like transparent buildings than the adjacent Peter Busby-designed Meriwether (pictured at right), which seems to have much more reflective glass. (GBD Architects was a partner in all three projects, by the way.) That said, the golden colored non-glass portions of the Meriwether brighten that building up. And the metal that clads the John Ross with the glass feels handsome in person. There isn't any questionable-looking concrete yucking things up. The Atwater's form looks pretty bulky, at least from this back end (I think it looks a lot more slender from the river) but the detailing is exceptionally nice, not unlike The Eliot downtown and perhaps the best in the neighborhood so far.
With both the John Ross and the Atwater next door or any project of this type, the tower is what grabs the attention, but the adjacent smaller, wider buildings are worth a look on their own. The Atwater does a nice job of breaking its portion into a contemporary version of row or townhouses, although I'm not completely sure about some of the concrete surrounding the glass. On top of the John Ross low-rise space, like on a lot of these buildings, there's a nice rooftop deck (pictured at left).
Although the John Ross is, as I said, kind of circularly shaped like lipstick, portions of the facade extend out of each other from the pattern of balconies. You get more of a sense of that in person than driving by from a distance on I-5 or the Ross Island Bridge.
Whomever the Mr. or Ms. Moneybags who will be calling that 31st floor penthouse home (perhaps Mr. Ewing, as a refuge from the pressure cooker of South Fork Ranch), they'll have the entire floor, providing a 360-degree view from inside or out with the help of a perimeter balcony. This is not for people afraid of heights. As I told Bob, I could do without a television if I lived here, because the view and the weather outside would be plenty of theater on their own. That said, I'd also keep a parachute in the closet.
A few years ago when South Waterfront was still just in the idea stage, I remember Brad Cloepfil talking excitedly about this neighborhood could be "a laboratory for modern architecture". It hasn't necessarily turned out that way in terms of pushing the envelope of design - at least not in a strictly sculptural sense.
However, when you stand down there between the towers and beside the riverbanks, even as the streets are still mostly empty and there are vacant lots nearby on every side, one can tell that this is going to be a unique, vibrant part of Portland in which the architectural vocabulary is nothing but modern and people are enjoying themselves. There'll be the streetcar going by, the tram, boats on the river, cars on the bridges, and all visible at once. Throw in a few places to eat and shop, and South Waterfront is quickly going to morph from the building industry media to another swatch in Portland's urban fabric. We're not gonna make jaws drop with these condos, but to me this seems like it's really going to be a successful urban space.
Of course I, like most people, could never afford to live here, but it will be fun to visit.