This past Saturday saw the official dedication of two new buildings at the Oregon College of Art & Craft: the Jean Vollum Drawing, Painting and Photography Building (DPP) and the Bonnie Laing-Malcolmson Thesis Studios. On the eve of that unveiling last Friday, I visited the buildings for the first time for a tour led by the architect, Charles Rose of the eponymous Boston-based firm Charles Rose Architects.
The two buildings, connected by a covered walkway that recalls old Sixties school architecture and even Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, are nestled into the hillside campus on its northwest edge, allowing expansive views of the coast range. They also sit beside the original OCAC buildings, designed by the late Oregon architect John Storrs.
Although Storrs is deservedly celebrated as one of the most talented local 20th century architects, with his portfolio including landmarks like Salishan Resort on the coast and the World Forestry Center in Portland, these nine OCAC buildings are modest bits of architecture: simple single story buildings with cedar siding, designed in collaboration with a landscape architect Barbara Fealy's campus plan. They are not meant to be grand, but to integrate easily with the topography of the hilly wooded site.
Rose's challenge in designing these new buildings was not only to create facilities for teaching and practicing art, but to simultaneously respect the understated original buildings and forge a more grander architectural identity for the school's future: to stand tall without crowding its parents out of the picture. Meanwhile, there was an existing campus master plan by BOORA Architects to fit into, and a series of additional buildings to follow, all of which had to achieve LEED strictures for sustainability. (Local firm Colab Architecture was an architectural consultant to Rose's firm.)
On the outside, the buildings are defined largely by their natural wood exterior, which extends to the underside of the awnings, extending the natural palette of the original Storrs and Fealy campus. Rose may be from Boston, but he knows that Northwest modernism enlivens simple forms with the texture and life of natural materials, especially wood.
These buildings are full of angular geometry. With origami-like folding roof forms, the new Vollum and Laing-Malcolmson buildings have the shape of pointy gems nestled into the hillside. Perusing a recent book about the firm by Princeton Architectural Press called (appropriately) Charles Rose, Architect, it's clear many of these moves, from the wood cladding to the pointy angles to the origami roofs, are common to the architect's portfolio. Architecture is always part functional space-making and, over time, a chance to express and refine a more personal visual language unique to that firm or architect.
If you look at the OCAC buildings through the lens of Rose's past projects like the Shapiro Campus Center at Brandeis University in Massachusetts or the Camp Paint Rock center for underprivileged teens in rural Wyoming, they seem part of a continuous visual language.
As it happens, though, and as the OCAC must have seen, Rose's buildings are well suited for such a hilly site and a client conscious about protecting the landscape. They march to their own geometric steps, but they follow and take their cues from the contours of the topography.
A couple of years ago Rose took aim in an interview at the boxy, minimalist forms of celebrated Portland architect Brad Cloepfil. I think of it as an unimportant difference: one guy is more inclined towards squares and rectangles, the other toward triangles. Rose has hinted that boxiness is somehow less authentically of the now because it's a rehashing of 20th century modernism, particular Mies Van der Rohe. But it's really all geometry, and all contemporary.
Inside the larger Vollum building, a series of classrooms are laid out successively with a common shared hallway to the right. That simple layout is enlivened by how the classrooms share a crisscrossing array of interior skylights that extend the angular jewel-like visual pattern of the architecture. When I visited with Rose, it was hard not to stop and stare at how light seemed to bounce not just from outside to inside and back, but almost ricochet as if in a prism. It felt rather dazzling.
At the same time, I wonder if the prism-like skylights are the best solution for the artists and teachers using the space. The ceiling creates visual noise for people who are trying to focus on their own paintings, drawings and photography. The light coming into these spaces can be uneven, creating bright spots under the skylight and darker spots under the ceiling. The light fixtures and the apparatus they hang from also seem a little bit cumbersome.
The best natural light, which very much affects human behavior and performance in classrooms, workplaces and other architectural spaces, is diffuse and even. I can't help but wonder if, despite Rose's criticism of Cloepfil for being boringly boxy, the skylights don't work as well as simpler, more functional daylighting design. When I visited, the teachers were already well acquainted with the interior shade used to block their skylights. But as you can see, I'm conflicted in this respect
Even so, this quibble comes in the broader context of this being a handsome set of buildings that successfully integrate with the existing buildings and hillside environment. They feel of the Northwest, attentive to light and natural materials. And while Portland has many talented architecture firms that could also have done well with the OCAC commission, the city is enriched for having the contributions of architects from other places, talented people who can challenge our design thinking with fresh perspective.
And it's a good thing Rose's firm got this right, because they're just getting started at OCAC. To follow will be a new library and a new student center with an auditorium. OCAC started out as an artist's colony and grew into an art school over time. But after years of respectful dormancy, OCAC is coming alive as craft itself has become newly relevant in contemporary culture. Across regional and natural boundaries there is a renewed interest in making things well again, in a way that extends from hand craftsmanship to enlightened manufacturing techniques - something far from just knitting and pottery. The emergence of the Museum of Contemporary Craft in its Pearl District location in recent years is but one local example, as is the joint master's of fine arts program in applied craft in design that OCAC recently created in partnership with the Pacific Northwest College of Art.
OCAC is now three years into its second century, and the anniversary seems to have been, if not an outright wake-up call, at least a healthy re-invigoration that will help the school fully take advantage of an opportune moment to increase its role in the ongoing conversation about what constitutes art, craft and design and how these disciplines overlap.