Last week, after Works Partnership’s design for a new workforce housing project won an AIA Design Award (in the Unbuilt category), I sat down with firm principals Bill Neburka and Carrie Schilling and the project’s developers, Randy Rapaport and Steve Van Eck, to talk about the project.
The building, which is officially still unnamed but may (if Rapaport has his way) be called the Mark Rothko Apartments (after the legendary painter who grew up here), has a dynamic program. Situated at Northeast 2nd and Multnomah, between the Rose Quarter and Martin Luther King Boulevard, it’s actually designed like two buildings, with one half cantilevered over the other. In between, on what is called the transfer floor, is a greenspace and community room.
“It’s interesting as a conceptual idea, a new direction for urban housing,” Neburka says.
“Three nuts got cracked, I think,” Schilling adds. “It’s the idea of doing a core study to find the most efficient plan possible on a quarter block site. Portland has a lot of quarter blocks. Then there is the mandate of [last year’s city-sponsored] courtyard housing competition to draw families back to the urban core. But courtyard housing is actually a fairly low-density solution. We wanted to take that mandate and apply it to higher density development. Then it was the idea of creating two project mixes versus saying we’re going to do one thing. It allows two objectives to be met on the same site.”
The reason for having the equivalent of two different buildings in one was efficiency: It’s a kind of puzzle being able to build affordable housing units cheaply enough to meet budget strictures. Also, the architects and developer were trying to work creatively within a system where affordable housing subsidies are given out in a per-door basis. The two portions of the building allow a layout of the units that better maximizes space and, therefore, allows more of them to fit into the 10,000 square foot floorplate. The plan also seeks to mandate floor area ratio in order to maximize density.
“We didn’t want to say, ‘This is the way everybody does affordable housing.’ You put in the same elevator core and dumb down the finishes with cheap windows,” Neburka explains. “We thought there’s got to be an intrinsic way to get a more efficient solution. We had all these different configurations and took the one most efficient for big units and the most efficient for small units. It’s not re-inventing the wheel. All of the tools I’ve think we’ve all applied are all out there. Nobody looks at what resources are available. Transfer floors have been done all over the world. Then once you have that transfer floor, why not make it an open space?”
“Think of it as the lower neighborhood and the upper neighborhood divided by a park,” Rapaport adds.
Besides the striking form of two differently sized rectangular shapes stacked one onto the other, the design is notable for its façade, a series of concrete panels that resemble mid-century modern Brutalist design but divert from that rigid geometry as the panels gently bend and curve like reeds. This is not just an aesthetic move, but one rooted in the building’s program.
“The typical problem is you’ve got a big box of repetitive windows. In ours, it’s not an office building. It’s a living space,” Neburka explains. “You’ve got regular spaces, quiet spaces, active spaces. Let’s just allow that grid to inflect a little to replicate what’s going on inside. You’ve got bigger windows where there are more public spaces. It’s an idea of where the building quiets down and where it activates.”
The reed-like pattern of the concrete panels also helps activate the building’s façade, acting as a connecting thread between the top and bottom portions to create the visual sense of stretching, almost like a piece of chewing gum or toffee being pulled. “We thought, ‘Why don’t you take this traditional building and pull it apart?’” Neburka says. “What are the qualities that can be gained from that?”
If built, the project is poised to earn participation (and funds) from both Metro and the Portland Development Commission. Their interest comes from the fact that this is a high-density affordable and/or workforce housing development that’s family friendly with lots of three-bedroom units and ideally situated for accessing mass transit (there are 39 transit connections within 1,500 feet). In fact, the building team actually discovered that the site is a PDC-owned vacant lot and approached the agency with a plan to develop it.
Besides this meeting city-desired high-density and affordable housing goals, or bringing desperately needed housing to the Rose Quarter and Lloyd District, the building would also mark a new beginning for the city when it comes to sponsoring high-quality architecture by talented local firms. Too often in the past the Portland Development Commission has produced buildings of disappointing design quality, the result of a process favoring public process for its own sake over one geared to generate design excellence. I mean, have you seen the PDC developed project at Martin Luther King and Fremont, for example? It looks like a fusion of a lighthouse and a prison.
The Mark Rothko Apartments, on the other hand, would be a superlative project for both public and private leaders to get behind.