BY BRIAN LIBBY
In Wednesday's Oregonian, real estate reporter Jeff Manning profiles Robert Thompson, head of TVA Architects and designer of landmarks like the Nike World Campus, the Fox Tower, and now Eugene's Matthew Knight Arena.
Manning received some very flattering testimonials about Thompson.
"Bob is among a very small group of architects I've worked with that I'd put in the genius category," Bart Eberwein of Hoffman Construction told Manning. Hoffman built Knight Arena, the Fox (in which the contractor is headquartered), and numerous other TVA designs. "He sees the building in his mind. Things come to him like a poem would to William Blake."
Alan Beard, a retired founding principal from GBD Architects, called Thompson "an architect's architect. Were I going to design a home and my wife would go for a real modernistic look, it would be Bob that I pick. The attention to detail, the crispness of the design, is just outstanding."
Kurt Schultz of SERA Architects, a former partner of Thompson's, told Manning of how the architect "...could go home over a weekend and come back to work and have a building all figured out. He's the most naturally talented designer I've ever known."
Thompson is quoted telling Manning that the Nike Campus remains his proudest achievement, "due to the staggering complexity of literally designing a city from the ground up. We designed everything from the buildings to the furniture, the light fixtures right down to the napkins used in the restaurants."
I was also quoted in the story regarding the Nike campus, saying it "has this pristine white modernism with a tiny touch of Disneyland to it." When you're there, the comparison to great 1980s, Richard Meier-esque modern architecture is easy to make. At the same time, because the campus is so isolated from the rest of Beaverton, it feels a little synthetic. Still, that's a reflection of the urban planning, not the architecture. Thompson's designs for these Campus buildings would have looked even better if they were sprinkled amidst an urban fabric.
Yesterday, in an email exchange with Jeff Manning, he mentioned that there were a few narrative threads and historical details that didn't make it into the story because of space. So I invited Jeff to comment on a few topics regarding TVA and Thompson.
On the split between Thompson and the firm's co-founding partner, Ned Vaivoda, Manning wrote, that it "stunned many of their contemporaries. The two had worked together for more than 25 years. After quizzing them both about the breakup, it really does seem like it was more of slow, gradual realization that it was time to part ways rather than one specific incident. Both said they remain good friends.
Fox Tower (photo by Brian Libby)
Thompson told Manning, "First and foremost, I have the highest level of respect for Ned. Like anything, over the years we developed different ideas about where we might want to carry the firm. It was nothing personal. It was a mutual understanding."
Said Vaivoda: "Bob Thompson is a good guy. he’s a masterful modernist architect. We collectively did a lot of good work together over the years. People change. Values change. I’d say that’s as far as I would care to go."
Manning added, "I quoted Vaivoda in my story about Nike being a really demanding customer. He went back to that topic when pressed for more explanation on why he split with Thompson. 'Nike was the ultimate client that anyone could ask for,' Vaivoda said. 'With that comes a sacrifice, a personal sacrifice.'
There is also a quietly evolving competition between TVA Architects and ZGF Architects for Nike and the UO athletic department's future business. "As the tuition-paying parent of a University of Oregon freshman, I find the idea of a new campus building mostly off limits to the bulk of students to be completely objectionable. I don't care who paid for it. But I have to admit, it's a very cool building. And it's not a Bob Thompson building. ZGF (the Jaqua designer) also designed the Athletic Medicine Center in the university's Casanova Center, completed in 2007 and it may have gotten the work for additional expansion of the Casanova Center, though I wasn't able to confirm that." (Note: I can confirm that.)
"Some have speculated that ZGF has successfully broken Thompson's lock on Knight/UO design work," Manning continues. "The fact is, Thompson never had a lock on that work. Thompson says he was too busy working on the arena to get involved in the Jaqua Center. It's an interesting topic, not the least of which because of Thompson's close personal relationship with Bob Frasca. Thompson considers Frasca a mentor. It was Frasca who nominated Thompson to become a Architecture Institute of America Fellow when Thompson was 39."
Regarding the issue of professional jealousy given Thompson's golden-goose client in Knight, Manning said by email, "I fully expected to run into some resentment from local architects regarding Thompson. Let's face, he's enjoyed multiple commissions over the years any one of which would be the project of a lifetime for many of his peers. But either Portland architects are a really gracious bunch or I wasn't very thorough in my reporting. Every person I talked to considers Thompson the real deal who's earned all the business and accolades.
"Having gotten to know Knight early on, he was in the right place at the right time," John Holmes of Holst Architecture told manning. "He was really quite fortunate. But you can't resent that. Everyone's got the cards they were dealt. All in all, you have to give the work high marks."
I asked Manning, "Who are some of the other key decision makers or contributors from Nike that you came across as it related to Knight Arena? Anything to tell there?"
"Thompson didn't say much on this front. Officially, he was hired by the university. He reported to Jim Bartko, of the UO athletic department. But clearly, Knight and others also played a big role. It was Knight's $100 million pledge that jumpstarted construction in the first place (though the bulk of the funding came from $200 million in state bond sale proceeds.) As I pointed out in the story, Todd Van Horne, a Nike designer, was in charge of the design of the arena's hardwood floor. Thompson said he likes the floor, saying "it's iconic and intimidating."
As I said in a previous post, however, only Nike would paint fake trees onto real wood. And only people very thankful to Knight would write the name "Matt" at center court in a bigger font than it used to say "Oregon" in the same place at MacArthur Court.
Finally, Manning had this to say about the way Thompson views the industry and the profession in light of the economy: "The toll of the economic crash is clearly something that Thompson has thought a lot about. The panic of 2008, the bank failures and sudden cutoff of credit all combined to slam the developers, which had a devastating impact on architects. He had to cut TVA's staff by 8, a 20 percent reduction. 'This recession was unlike any I've ever seen,' he said. 'I think it's fair to say that it was unlike anything any architect has ever seen. There's probably a whole generation of young architects who are not practicing right now. There's a huge amount of talent out there sitting on the sidelines.' But he's convinced that the economy is healing. He sees more confidence amongst developers. He expects TVA to enjoy a "fantastic" 2011. Drawings of TMT Development's Park Avenue West tower were all over Thompson's office. I asked him if the recovering economy meant that TMT would resume work on the stalled downtown Portland building. He would say only that he hopes the Park Avenue West will come to "symbolize" the recovery.