Last week I caught up with Randy Higgins, a designer who always fills my brain with ideas and theories about architecture.
Randy first gained notice in the ‘90s working at Holst Architecture. Although not registered as an architect, he worked on projects like the Pacific Northwest College of Art and the Edge Lofts. But just as Holst was really taking off, Randy left to do his own thing.
In the last few years, he has designed the Elizabeth Leach Gallery’s new space, a Mario’s boutique clothier at Bridgeport Village, and came up with the incredible exterior paint job at PNCA (I wrote about it for Metropolis magazine in June 2005) in which a Rimbaud poem is literally translated into a language of yellow, gray and white rectangles.
No matter what he’s doing, though, Randy is like an academic in that he devotes a lot of time to research and theory. He reminds me of something I heard Thomas hacker say about his time working in the great Louis Kahn’s office: that private architectural practice should always be intertwined with the academic side of design. Not only is there a fountain of youth there, with new young designers always arriving each year. But even more importantly, there exists the freedom to pursue ideas with much more time and deep scrutiny than the pace of the building industry realistically allows. Design can’t advance in the private sector alone. There has to be a laboratory for new ideas. But a private practice does itself a disservice by being too completely severed from that kind of inquiring intellectual environment. (“Inquiring minds want to know!”)
Perhaps ironically, to be able to approach design this way, Randy increasingly works outside traditional architecture, and more in the sub-field of retail and experiential design. The multidisciplinary design firm he’s working at now, Vizwerks, is more akin to a Ziba Design than a traditional architecture firm. Yet these kinds of firms are increasingly getting involved with designing the built environment and not just graphics, Internet, consumer products, etc.
As we talked over lunch at Gotham Tavern--and by the way, don't let me make him sound like some Buddhist monk of design; he's very easygoing--I was making a case to Randy that I thought because of various trends over the last decade, from sustainability to the condo boom to the influx of many young creative people, the overall caliber of design being generated here was improving. While not disputing the basic premise, Randy played the kind of devil’s advocate role I imagined and wanted to hear.
Randy laments that so much of the architecture filling the skyline is speculative. When the project is a condo or office buildings, in most cases instead of architects designing for clients who will occupy their spaces, they’re designing for the person who will sell them. “Without a more direct relationship between the public and architects,” he asked me later over email, “then how can the few (architects) truly know the needs of the many (public)?”
Major developers like Gerding Edlen have grown more and more sophisticated about how they market their spaces. On projects like the new Cyan condos downtown by Thomas Hacker Architects, for example, the developer hired Ziba Design to come up with a concept, from the blue-green color the building is named after to the concept of the potential occupants aspirations and values far beyond the countertop they choose.
Randy also had something interesting to say about what we often call modern architecture: that it’s no longer really modern in the sense of modernism, but more like a postmodern building—the exterior having very little to do with the interior functions—only dressed in a classic modernist language.
I don’t know what it is about people named Randy in the Portland design community. There’s writer/editor Randy Gragg, developer Randy Rapaport, and the aforementioned designer Mr. Higgins (who is not pictured in these attached shots). It reminds me of a children’s book read to me many years ago, “Randy’s Dandy Lions”. I guess, then, that maybe this trio would be our Dandy Randy Lions.