BY BRIAN LIBBY
Continuing last week's look back at 10 years of freelance architecture journalism - for the purpose, hopefully, of painting a picture of Portland design rather than navel gazing or self promotion - we move now into the second half of the decade.
By this time, the September 11 attacks had faded a bit from memory and the national sense of fear and Patriot Act infiltrations of civil liberties had died down. The economy was booming, and I mean really booming: like a runaway train about to shoot off the rails, as it turned out. But even if the growth was unsustainable, Portland saw a lot of new construction.
In the second half of the decade, two neighborhoods began particularly favoring taller, more contemporary architecture: the northern Pearl District and South Waterfront. Whereas the southern portion of the Pearl closer to Burnside Street had taken its stylistic cue from the existing fabric of industrial buildings, and new structures exhibiting comparable palettes of brick with not much height, the northern Pearl, built on rail yards and field rather than amidst warehouses, became more about glass and steel.
Here is a year by year account of some of my favorite articles from this five year period.
Earlier in the decade, the Peter Walker-designed Tanner Springs Park had become a Pearl District sensation with a water feature for kids to play in and tables for parents to congregate, flanked by a vintage wood boardwalk. And in 2006, I had the opportunity to interview German landscape architect Herbert Dreiseitl about Tanner's companion if very different feeling space, Tanner Springs Park.
"Before the west bank of the Willamette River in Portland, Oregon, was settled in the 1840s, the unfettered natural landscape consisted of several creeks, marshes, and ponds," I wrote in Metropolis magazine. "But in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries these wetlands were filled to become downtown Portland to the south and a busy port and rail yard to the north." Tanner Springs "was conceived as a pulling back of the urban fabric to restore the buried wetlands. The space is returning to its roots both figuratively and literally...A small grove of native oak trees gives way to tall grass and reeds before sloping downward to a marsh. 'It’s a key idea for the park,” Dreiseitl says, “going from dry to wet, from hill to valley or forest to open fields...You find the same systems and patterns on a large scale in the landscape as you do in one little seed.'”
That same year, 2006, brought a collaboration across the generations between Portland's two most acclaimed architects: Pietro Belluschi and Brad Cloepfil. As I wrote about for Metropolitan Home magazine, a Belluschi home in the West Hills owned by Wieden + Kennedy executive creative director John Jay was expanded from a Cloepfil design.
"Brad is spectacular in his ability to articulate the idea, to be able to talk you through it,” Jay told me. “You sit down and you have a conversation about space and concepts of the usage of space: What are we about, what are our values and how does space help to express those values? The joke I always use with him is that he’s great at nothing. He has a tremendous feel for negative space—the site lines and the feeling of spatial relationships.'”
Among his improvements, Cloepfil added floor-to-ceiling glass and horizontal overhangs in an extension of the U-shaped floor plan, deferring to but never aping Belluschi’s original. “It turns the courtyard into a kind of garden pavilion,” Cloepfil said in the article. “Before, it made for a dark, dead spot in the back of the house. We wanted a kind of glass pavilion where the light would go all the way through.”
In an article for Portland Monthly, I had the opportunity to write about one of my favorite residential projects of the past decade: the Lair Condominiums, designed by Rick Potestio and developed and built by master builder Don Tankersley.
Although just across Interstate 405 from downtown, "this steeply inclined residential enclave in Southwest Portland is as quiet and diminutively scaled as a medieval village," I wrote. The Lair Condos "reflects its neighborhood’s appealing duality, gracefully entwining a sophisticated, urban sense of style with a deeply traditional respect for place.
The lot had remained vacant for years because it sloped steeply downhill a few feet from the sidewalk. "The design team embraced the situation, however, by integrating five levels of living space with the hillside in a graceful cascade," I wrote. "With only three of those floors rising above street grade, the building’s low profile respects the scale of the historic Victorian and Craftsman single-family homes just down the street. Inspired by hill towns in Tuscany, where residences are commonly organized around terraced courtyards, Potestio placed a sunken driveway, lined with private garages, atop the lowest level. Open to the sky, it doubles as a community gathering space."
Another all-time favorite project was the Belmont Lofts by Holst Architecture, which I wrote about for Dwell in 2007, saying, "The 27-unit project is credited with ushering in a new wave of boutique multifamily housing projects nestled into Portland’s historic neighborhoods...The contemporary, clean-lined rectangular exterior of the Belmont Street Lofts might at first seem to be at odds with its context, but the façade, an interwoven matrix of permeable wire-mesh balconies, wood cladding, and floor-to-ceiling windows, gives the building the warmth and texture of an established Northwest landmark, blending with existing Craftsman bungalows while recalling the designs of local midcentury architects like Pietro Belluschi."
The Belmont Lofts were co-developed by Randy Rapaport, who over the decade became a special kind of presence on the local design scene. He lacked the resources of major development companies like Gerding Edlen, Opus or Hoyt Street, but also was more personally committed to first-rate architecture by the city's top architects. “Derivative architecture doesn’t hold its spirit very well, but I think true quality and design stand out in the market,” Rapaport said about the Belmont. “It can be scary to take on risks as a developer, but the way to get great architecture is to support creativity.”
For the A&E section of The Oregonian two years ago I got the chance to name the top 10 players on the local architecture + design scene. (Note: If you click on the link, it erroneously lists Doug Perry as the author.) The ten I chose were (in no particular order): William Neburka and Carrie Schilling of Works Partnership Architecture; Eugene Sandoval of ZGF Architects; John Holmes of Holst Architecture; Sohrab Vossoughi of Ziba Design; Heinz Rudolf of BOORA; Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works; Thomas Hacker of THA Architecture; Tiffany Sweitzer of Hoyt Street Properties; Jeff Kovel of Skylab Architecture; and Robert Thompson of TVA Architects.
The list is a mixture of architects (Neburka/Schilling, Sandoval, Holmes, Rudolf, Cloepfil, Hacker, Kovel) with one developer (Sweitzer) and one industrial designer (Vossoughi). In retrospect (and even at the time, honestly), it feels rather absurd to not have Mark Edlen of Gerding Edlen on the list. Surely I could have selected other talented architects as well. But there were also practical considerations like not having an all-male list or a list of all young talents. Regardless, lists such as these are not meant to be definitive rulings but conversation starters.
If I missed the chance to profile Edlen in the Oregonian list, I did speak with him for a Metropolis magazine Q&A that same year called "Follow the LEEDer", about Gerding Edlen's pioneering work as a green developer (in collaboration with GBD Architects, ZGF, SERA Architects and other firms):
Me: How did your development company become focused on sustainability early on, in the days before LEED ratings?
Edlen: "We both grew up here, my partner Bob [Gerding] and I. We both have a big love of the outdoors. I’m a big fan of Yvonne Chounard, the founder of Patagonia. The first thing we give any of our employees to read is his book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. So we kind of morphed from doing a lot of energy-saving things in the early 1990s to, when the USGBC came around, going toward a broader, more full fledged sustainability with The Natural Step and all that."
Me: But you’ve also got to make a profit.
Edlen: "Our priorities as a developer are the same as everybody’s. But a viable product comes from place making. How do you create great places that people want to come to live, work, and play in? Then you also have to look ahead. I personally believe we’ve got a broken national energy policy. I think it’s a national security issue. It’s about speed and scale, and we don’t have a lot of time. As a company, we have an objective over the next five years to figure out how to build buildings that produce more energy than they consume."
Me: How has the building industry changed over time about green products and practices?
Edlen: "In the ’90s, you kind of had to drag the contractors along, the engineers a little bit, and the architects less so. Today they’re just all coming. Here in Portland, we also happened to have a pretty progressive governing body—not that we haven’t run into some challenges, such as trying to change the code to re-use rainwater for our toilets. They embraced it here earlier than other cities we’re working in."
"Five years ago, most of our commercial tenants didn’t care much about green. Now I’m hearing anecdotes of other firms calling our tenants and saying, “Is it really working as well as it appears to be? Because we’re losing too many new hires to you.” I think we’ve seen the commercial tenants gravitate more toward it over the last couple of years."
Also in 2008 came the opportunity to write about two more wonderful houses for Metropolitan Home, one a '60s home remodeled by its owner, restaurateur Bruce Carey, and the other a small cottage expanded by its architect owners, Claudine and Giorgio Lostao.
"The late '60s were such a great time for design," Carey told me. "The house reminded me of where I grew up in Salem, which was a little more Brady Bunch but about the same vintage of ranch, with the reaching eaves and the muscularity of that vaulted ceiling."
As I wrote in the Carey Metropolitan Home article, "The owners happily retained the original hemlock paneling, but gave it a darker stain for an elegant appearance that's more old-school men's club than knotty cabin. An open floor plan with expansive glass admits ample but atmospheric natural light, enlivening a variety of natural textures and materials, from mohair-velvet chairs to a tree stump used as a coffee table."
The Lostao home was very different but equally inspired. "He's from Peru; she's from Jamaica," the article (now listed under the Elle Decor banner following Met Home's demise) began. "They met in Miami while working for Arquitectonica, the boundary-pushing, color-loving modern architecture firm. Working together led Claudine and Giorgio Lostao to love and then to marriage, children (Luca, now 5, and Mila, 3), six renovated homes, a cross-country move and now their own firm, Ridiculous Design -- as in something that is so cool-looking it's ridiculous!"
"Besides the bright-yellow accent walls and through line of industrial materials, the Lostaos' home is defined by transparency. In the master bath, the couple created a series of glass-walled partitions demarking their clothes closet, shower and commode (there are curtains, too, for privacy). 'It's ridiculous,' says Claudine (invoking the name of her firm), 'to expose something people keep behind closed doors. But we thought it would be fun.'"
"The house also is full of quotes from favorite films painted on the walls and glass partitions. They're not the cozy adages you might expect but are of a generally edgier, appropriately off-kilter variety, like the bathroom's selection from Zoolander, which asks, 'Have you ever wondered if there was more to life, other than being really, really ridiculously good-looking?'"
The year began with profiles of two firms heading in different directions. First for The Oregonian I was tasked with deconstructing the demise of Sienna Architecture Company. The firm, first founded in 1951, had been a forerunner of mixed-use, high-density development in the late '90s and early '00s, but the economy and mismanagement both took their toll.
That same month in The Oregonian I was able to profile Holst Architecture on the eve of a step up in scale for the firm. Holst had already spent most of the 2000s designing mixed-use residential projects like the Belmont Lofts and Clinton Condominiums, but as the decade reached its end the firm headed by John Holmes and Jeff Stuhr saw projects like 937 and the Ziba Design headquarters in the Pearl and downtown's Hotel Modera completed, and with it hopes of branching out to work in other cities like that other most acclaimed local firm, Allied Works.
"I love coming over the Fremont Bridge into the Pearl," said Stuhr, who is also a member of the city's design commission. "Not just because of our buildings. But the expansion there has finally made our downtown feel like a downtown and not just a collection of a few tall buildings. We just went through a phenomenally historic period of growth in this city like you haven't seen since the Lewis and Clark Exposition."
"The firm is 16 years old now," he addeds, "and I think we've kind of matured to the point of being able to say, 'This is what we want to do. This is our voice.'"
Three other stories I wrote in 2008 offered the opportunity to examine the top residential architects at either end of the age and career spectrum.
For Dwell, I wrote about the 11xDesign tour, a bellwether of young talent and DIY culture: "As the city has become infused with new talent, a small group of promising and accomplished designer-developers have banded together in a hybrid of traditional architectural or development practice. Small firms and sole practitioners here like Path Architecture, Atelier Waechter, SUM Design Studio, Webster Wilson, William Kaven Architecture, Brett Crawford (designer of the 1310 Condos pictured above), Design Department, and Building Arts Workshop still operate as individual businesses, and even compete for buyers. But they share research, marketing and design ideas; they’ve become a community. The 11xDesign tour is just one of several shared efforts. Of course they still want to succeed badly, and they’re not without ego. That’s why these tiny firms are going forward with houses, condos and row homes during the worst economic slump since the Great Depression, when the city’s larger developers have long since ended their building boom."
Also for Dwell, I wrote about a former ranch house in the Alberta district of Northeast Portland that was transformed by Architecture W. It's kind of funny: in this decade there were so many thousands of new homes added to the metropolitan area at its suburban fringe, but the overwhelming majority were cookie-cutter McMansions. At the same time, a trend of creative renovations and expansions also took hold, a hybrid architecture that Architecture W's Stump House (a collaboration with builder Daryll Erlandson) symbolized.
"Though the clouds and rain can often make days a little dreary in Portland, the Boglis’ house stays bright most of the time," I wrote. "Erlandson removed two fireplaces in the original house, so to create a similar sense of a hearth he replaced them with a light well extending from a rooftop skylight through the second floor down to the ground. The well is clad in handmade ceramic tiles that make it resemble a chimney. “It really is kind of like our fireplace,” Jess says, laughing. “I asked Jered, ‘Where do we hang the stockings?’”
In a Portland Modern profile, I also had the good fortune to meet and get to know Saul Zaik, the dean of local residential architects and a contemporary of legendary local designers like Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon who forged the style of Northwest Modernism.
When I asked Zaik if Northwest was a distinct, valid style, he replied, "Asked if he thinks northwest regional is a valid style, Zaik’s response comes without hesitation. "It is absolutely valid. It is site-oriented in terms of sun and weather. It respects the vegetation of the site. Our attitude was that the best thing you can do is something nobody can see as they drive down the street. Well, I shouldn't say that. Maybe it is better to say that it is something discreet. I think it has to do with a northwest lifestyle. Our clients were outdoor people, who appreciated the landscape and wanted to be connected to it and to preserve it."
One of the truly spectacular building projects in Portland during the 2000s decade was Holst's Ziba Design headquarters, which I wrote about for Metropolis"
"Ziba’s Spartan allotment of individual workstations—including the president and creative director’s desks—is arranged into long, communal tables. The workstations are situated amid an interlocking sequence of podlike meeting rooms connected by sliding doors. It’s in these rooms that teams spend most of the workday, pinning their inspirations and ideas to the walls. 'At first they were looking at one big room for everything,” says Jeff Stuhr, one of Holst’s two founders. 'But we suggested a sequence of intimate spaces that you could journey through.'”
"Playing counterpoint to and helping organize these labyrinthine work areas is the 'street,' an open corridor stretching the length of the two-story glass curtain wall on the north facade. Left free of furniture, it bathes the entire space in natural light. 'Ziba’s old office was full of chaos,' says Stuhr’s partner, John Holmes. 'By having these larger scaled elements, it creates a strong spatial rhythm—it orders everything. You can still have all that chaos, but it’s grounded.'"
The most important writing I did in 2009, however, was devoted to Memorial Coliseum, the landmark midcentury-modern masterpiece that was almost lost to cataclysmic folly: demolition to make way for a minor-league baseball park. Thankfully Mayor Sam Adams listened to the chorus of people who called for the Coliseum's preservation, including veterans groups (for whom the building is a memorial), the National Trust for Historic Preservation (which recognized the value of the world's only major arena with a 360-degree glass view), and the US Green Building Council.
Today, all indications point to Memorial Coliseum being saved. But along the way, I tried to help with a flurry of writing, not only on this blog but in articles such as this one for The Architect's Newspaper:
"Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill and dedicated on January 8, 1961, the Memorial Coliseum was shaped in part by Gordon Bunshaft, the firm’s best-known architect, famous for landmarks such as Lever House in New York. It is one of the more unique arenas in the United States, if not the world, because of its high level of transparency. The 12,000-seat seating bowl is structurally independent from the surrounding glass box, which, in spite of its massive four-block expanse, stands on only four columns. When the bowl’s encompassing curtains are drawn open (something that hasn’t happened in many years), the arena can be flooded with natural light."
Or this article about the Coliseum for Architecture Week:
"'We were thinking, you've got this oval bowl that is going to sit in a glass box,' explained Bill Rouzie, an architect who worked on the building for SOM. 'When you're in the bowl looking at something happening, you can either have light or not with the control of the curtain. To get out of there, instead of being in some blind corridor, you come out and you've got glass and you can see the city. You know where you are, and whether it's day or night. That was the whole point of the design, to keep it clear or open.'"
For whatever reason, in the last year of the decade I wound up writing more about projects outside of Portland: the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, for The Architect's Newspaper a LEED-rated house in Eugene for Sierra, a vintage rotating house in Connecticut for AOL Housing Watch. But I did look at issues like the green performance gap in LEED rated buildings, some located in Portland, for Sustainable Industries magazine. And I wrote an essay called "The Portland Way" for the photography book Above Portland, a portion of which I'll close with here"
"Since it was founded in 1845 from a small clearing along the Willamette River, Portland has grown into one of the world’s most admired urban locales: a model for America’s more sustainable urban future as well a destination for ever-more visitors and new residents."
"Although its larger Pacific Northwest neighbor, Seattle, may have more buildings by famous designers, Portland is hailed for its urban fabric and livability. Architecture is thoughtfully interwoven with parks, transit, sidewalks and riverbanks. Unlike in most other large metropolises of the western United States, Portland’s pioneering urban growth boundary curbs sprawl and preserves surrounding farmland while utilizing density to forge a lively setting of bookstores, community gardens, espresso bars and bike shops. The city’s design DNA may be best exemplified not by a building but the MAX light rail line, begun in the 1980s using federal funds intended for a freeway. Or from Pioneer Courthouse Square, the city’s 'living room', claimed that same decade from a parking lot. Portland’s currency is connection."
"Although firms working today such as Allied Works and Zimmer Gunsul Frasca have garnered international reputations, Portland collectively distinguishes itself with green architecture. There are more buildings per capita here certified by the US Green Building Council’s LEED rating system than any American city. Many of these projects arrived during the 2000s, when the city skyline also changed significantly with a boom of highrise condominium construction, particularly in former industrial zones turned neighborhoods such as the Pearl District and South Waterfront."
"No matter whether one prefers the local government’s official slogan, “The city that works,” or a local bumper sticker urging, “Keep Portland weird,” this Pacific Northwest metropolis is closer than most at finding that coveted alchemy between built and natural environments. Today Portland’s not just a clearing, but a way of life."