Nearly a year ago came the first in what was supposed to be a series of posts about the just-completed decade, 2000-10 or thereabouts. That first post concentrated on renovations, which comprised a major and perhaps an increasingly large portion of the market: projects like the Wieden + Kennedy building, the EcoTrust building, and the Brewery Blocks. It was the plan all along to write about another architectural grouping, one that not only symbolized the booming national and local economies, but physically embodied it: tall condo towers. Over the 2000s, they changed Portland’s skyline substantially.
It wasn’t that any individual buildings from this decade, condos or otherwise, were taller than ones of previous eras. The circa-1972 Wells Fargo Center by Charles Luckman and the Skidmore Owings Merrill-designed US Bancorp tower from 1983, both downtown, remain the two tallest structures in the city at 544 and 536 feet, respectively. And even they are modestly scaled compared to architecture of other large metropolises from Seattle to San Francisco and beyond. The Wells Fargo, back when it was called First National Bank Tower, inspired local height restrictions. But the skyline did become substantially extended in the 2000s.
Downtown, resting along the Willamette River, is now flanked by the South Waterfront neighborhood and the Pearl District. In each case, numerous buildings of ten stories or more were constructed, most all of them condominiums. Particularly because these two neighborhoods are along the river or close to it, they stand out as part of an extended architectural forest.
While Portland has long put an emphasis on maintaining pedestrian friendliness with storefront buildings that meet the sidewalk, many of the shorter, bulkier buildings of the city’s past gave way to condo towers with a split personality: built to the street for a story or two, then giving way to taller skinny tops. The 2000s will be remembered not just as the decade of the condo tower, but of the thin half-block tower rising from a wide base.
I’ve often been told that the condo tower, particularly in its residential portion rising from the mixed-use base, is a kind of formulaic proposition: How can one fit as many units as possible on to each floor while giving each one a proper amount of light and space? In most cases, those floor plans remained the same on each floor. And does one design from the outside in or the inside out?
In the Pearl District, particularly in the many condos developed by Hoyt Street Properties (holders of the former Burlington Northern rail yards property) we can see the evolution of thinking in the late 1990s and 2000s about what building type carried favor. Try walking down a street like NW Ninth Avenue and you’ll see modestly scaled two two five-story condos, all built to the street front: Tanner Place and the Riverstone Condos by Ankrom Moisan, for example, or the Johnson Street Townhomes by Seattle firm Mithun. But then as the Pearl moves east past Jamison Square Park, the buildings get taller, such as The Metropolitan and The Encore by BOORA Architects and The Pinnacle by Ankrom Moisan. There is a kind of hybrid in the other principal development of the Pearl during the decade, the Brewery Blocks, which draw their palette from the industrial past of the site but find the most success as pioneering green buildings amidst a very rich pedestrian environment.
Ultimately, Portland and the Pearl are probably richer architecturally for there being this variety. A city skyline needs both foothills and mountains.
Although downtown itself saw fewer condo towers than the neighborhoods to its north and south, there were a few big buildings that arrived here too: The Eliot, a glassy work by ZGF Architects; the Benson Tower by Vancouver-based firm IBI-HB; and Ankrom’s Ladd Tower, which necessitated the demolition of the historic Rosefriend Apartments. The Alphabet District near 23rd Avenue also saw the arrival of its tallest ever building, the 14-story Westerly condos, also by Ankrom.
The “blade tower” form was largely inspired by Vancouver, British Columbia. Portland developers often traveled there over the last decade for inspiration. It’s visible in the five building GBD Architects-designed Brewery Blocks along Burnside with buildings like the Louisa Apartments by. And in South Waterfront, this building type is everywhere. It was controversial with residents in the adjacent Corbett-Terwilliger and Lair Hill neighborhoods, concerned the tall towers would block their views of Mt. Hood. But part of the argument for these buildings was that, in comparison to shorter, squattier buildings like the city was used to building, these would actually allow more sunlight to reach the street.
These condo towers of the 2000s also came during a decade when sustainability and green design were becoming by far the most substantial architectural movement of our time. Just as Portland began to show more ambition in terms of high-density development and taller buildings, the old stylistic genres—modern, postmodern, traditional—became an almost antiquated way of basing a design. If it didn’t use energy efficiently, or incorporate natural light, how could even a pretty building have integrity? This is mostly a very good thing, both for buildings and for the world. Because buildings comprise close to half of all energy consumed, architecture has had the opportunity in this decade and beyond to literally help save the planet—not in some symbolic Kum bah ya kind of way, but literally by reducing carbon and curbing sprawl.
At the same time, because the guts of architecture became much more important, sometimes the aesthetic form of a building almost seemed to play second fiddle. Find a LEED-rated building ugly, and there almost seemed to be a disdain coming from those involved, as if one was being embarrassingly superficial by caring about looks: “Our son is so smart. Why do you care if he has acne?!”
To my eyes, the majority of Portland's 2000s condo towers were neither stunningly beautiful or outrageously ugly. Moreover, any list of personal favorites amongst the condo towers of the 2000s is just that. Even so, a couple condo towers from this time unquestionably rise to the top for me: the aforementioned Metropolitan by BOORA and 937 by Holst Architecture.
The Metropolitan, at 19 stories, is the tallest building in the Pearl but more importantly from a visual, aesthetic standpoint, it is full of interesting angles and sumptuous materials, including an exterior clad in Roman travertine with a custom glass curtain wall system that invigorates the building with lightness.
Although BOORA is the architect, a sizable contribution on the Metropolitan came from Jeff Lamb, who later moved on to Sienna and then saw the firm fold. Lamb emphasized the notion of designing the Metropolitan’s units from the inside out. As a result, they don’t feel like the bowling alley lanes that many condo units do. And yet, the exterior design benefits. Unfortunately, BOORA wasn’t able to capture that same aesthetic magic with their next Pearl condo tower, The Encore. But the firm should take tremendous pride in the Metropolitan.
Holst had built numerous smaller-scale neighborhood condos in the 2000s before designing 937, some of them amongst the most acclaimed of the decade, like the Belmont Street Lofts and the Clinton Condominiums. But 937 represented a newly large scale and Pearl District prominence for the firm, and they did not flub the opportunity.
937 has a whitish façade like the Metropolitan, only in brick rather than travertine; it recalls some of the white turn-of-the-20th Century buildings near Pioneer Courthouse Square. But like other brick buildings constructed in the Pearl during this decade, 937 didn’t have a molecule of neo-historic style. It didn’t try to tritely rehash the district’s industrial past like some preceding Pearl projects, nor did the design exhibit the faux-historic style of nearby condos like The Elizabeth or the Gregory Lofts (both by Ankrom Moisan). 937 also has a very compelling seemingly random or fractal-like window pattern, a trend that also emerged here towards the end of the decade. Some have taken issue with the red-tinted glass balconies flanking the exterior; they do feel like an add-on to the architecture, but the color helps break up the mass of the façade.
Two other buildings register very high for me, but not without some reservation: Atwater Place by THA Architecture and the aforementioned Eliot by ZGF.
Atwater has a natural elegance, and seems among the glassiest of the decade’s buildings. One gets a true sense of the phrase “glass curtain wall” with Atwater, as if the entire structure behind the glass is transparent. Yet for all its transparency, as with the TVA Architects-designed John Ross condo building across the street (itself an attractive cylindrical tower), overall Atwater Place can at times feel dark and gray, two qualities not ideal for a rainy climate.
The Eliot seems gorgeous at certain angles, particularly if one views it from the east. The project market an arrival of sorts for ZGF partner Eugene Sandoval, who seems to have a particular gift for crafting beautiful glass facades. Sandoval has since gone on to re-invigorate the firm’s once rather stodgy designs, recalling for ZGF the younger days of head principal and Pietro Belluschi disciple Robert Frasca. That said, merely walking around The Eliot to its west façade shows a different building, one with more raw concrete and less glass, and much less attractive. The best part of the building, along with its innovative patterning on the east facade, may be a double height, floor-to-ceiling glass façade entry and café on the ground floor.
Again, though, although the history is everyone’s, the opinions on which of these condo towers are merely mine. What do the rest of you like and dislike most amongst the generation of condo towers that changed the Portland skyline? (In case you're wondering, I'm planning a separate post on neighborhood condos, which arguably represented more successful architecture over the decade.) And in this new 2010s decade, what will be our aspirations for the skyline: taller, more plentiful towers, or a return to a smaller scale?