BY BRIAN LIBBY
Certainly there must be only a few cases wherein a building by a legendary architect was actually improved a generation later by his or her generational successors. But The Reserve, a renovation of Pietro Belluschi's circa-1950 Federal Reserve Bank building, arguably does just that.
The building's new renovation, including a reconfigured entry, added windows and even a penthouse floor, help make Belluschi's original much more approachable through transparency.
Granted transparency was not one of the original program goals. This was, after all, a bank dealing with currency more than customers, and one that needed both symbolic architectural solidity and bona fide protection. To add transparency was an obvious programmatic approach in transforming it to a mixed-use office building. So it's not to say the renovation architect, Hennebery Eddy, was somehow smarter than Belluschi.
Even so, the renovation by Hennebery Eddy Architects helped address a larger issue with later-period Belluschi. In the earlier part of his career, dating back to the 1930s but even as recently as the Equitable Building four years earlier, his was a language of steel, wood and glass. In the late 1940s and heading into the 1950s and '60s, though, his designs, like those of many modernists of the time, became more about masonry and heavy materials like wood and marble. Belluschi's Federal Reserve, like other architecture he designed in this period for Portland such as the Oregonian building, is, while impressive and enduring with its granite base and white marble facade, felt monolithic compared to his earlier work like the Equitable or the Portland Art Museum.
Not only did Hennebery Eddy add transparency on the ground floor, but they opened up the blank west-facing facade with a new bank of windows. Even more significantly, the addition of a penthouse top floor helps increase the sense of openness. It was an easy economic move to add square footage to the building, but somewhat of a risky architectural move. For the glassy top floor, despite being set back from the facade, truly transforms our visual perception of the building.
Recently I spoke with Tim Eddy and David Wark of Hennebery Eddy Architects about their work on The Reserve. They confirmed the intent was about openness. "Our charge was to make it transparent and more commercially viable. It had blank walls on the north and the west, and we wanted to open those up," Eddy explains.
Wark says the design team studied Belluschi's body of work before embarking on The Reserve, and found a number of consistencies. "We noticed the rigor and rational of his newer buildings, whereas I think there was more emotional content in his houses and churches," Wark says. "These buildings are much more rational. But He had this rigor combined with this artful component that would come out it things like the big federal eagle on the door, kind of like the mural he had inside the Equitable building."
Adding the top floor, Wark says, felt like a continuation of Belluschi and the clients' original intent. "The structure was designed to accommodate two more floors. We never found out if there was a design for those. But once we were tossing around ideas about what the building needed, we were thinking it always looked kind of unfinished to us: like this marble extrusion that got cut off after four floors," he explains.
"We saw the building like a white tuxedo—this white formality and very two-dimensional granite in the base, the white marble, and the relief of the windows. There’s a minimum number of materials and we didn’t want to add to that. We also felt there needed to be a differentiation between what was old and what was new, in breaking that plane fro the white marble back. So we set it back and created a terrace on two sides. It kind of follows a horizontal rhythm. It has kind of a Raymond Loewy quality. There’s some movement because of it. It’s like a ship with a big deck. Together the roof and the façade create this sense of something continuous, something interrupted, and something continuous again."
Wall of currency (top) and entryway at The Reserve (image courtesy Hennebery Eddy)
The ground floor windows also became the opportunity for some subtle but ingenious artwork: the patterning of a dollar bill was used as the impetus for a wall display, making abstract and tantalizing a set of lines and curves we take for granted in our billfolds - all as a lighthearted nod to the building's past.
Tim Eddy has been a member of the Portland Design Commission for several years, advising other architects and building teams how their designs can meet city regulations for proper pedestrian friendliness, transparency at the street level, and compatibility with the surrounding fabric. In the case of The Reserve, he said it was easy to meet Design Commission or even Historic Landmarks Commission srictures or concerns. "The design commission is all about stuff from 20 feet down," Eddy explains. "Unless the materials are horrible and the building is doing something awful, the design commission doesn’t have as much sway above 20 feet. The code actually helps you out. I think the things this building had to overcome were at street levels. "
The new west facade, previously nothing but blank white marble wall, now offers a multi-story bank of windows on its upper left corner. Yet much of the facade was left blank. That's because a new building (designed by Hennebery Eddy) was originally planned for the vacant corner lot next door on SW 10th Avenue, courtesy of developer Jordan Schnitzer. However, the new building was put on indefinite hold during the Great Recession.
But the window pattern might have stayed even without anticipating a next-door neighbor because this west facade is where many of the mechanical systems and stairways are hidden. The odd appearance on the west facade, therefore, is a practical decision but one that actually gives the new Reserve a distinct look.
Blank walls are usually oppressive and monolithic, and such is the case here. Yet there is something compelling about negative space in visual art. It makes an eye-catching juxtaposition to have one portion of the facade very glassy yet set against the building's most blank, windowless wall. Although it was all planned out, the visual appeal may be a kind of happy accident. Whereas the penthouse seems to fit in logically with the rest of the building, acting as its new top, the band of windows on the otherwise blank west facade communicates that The Reserve is truly a hybrid building that was begun in 1950 and transformed in 2010.
Pietro Belluschi was talented enough that he never really needed an architectural dancing partner, yet I truly believe he would have greeted Hennebery Eddy's work making a more inviting mixed-use building out of a closed off Federal Reserve with enthusiasm.