BY BRIAN LIBBY
For much of the Great Recession in Portland, particularly in the bottomed-out days of late 2008 and early 2009, one unbuilt project seemed to represent hope for a future in which we were not only building again, but building beautifully and smartly. Now that the economy has rebounded, the building has morphed into a more modest adaptive-reuse project. It's tempting to find symbolism in the more modest project moving forward, but it's arguable what that symbolism might be: of DIY adaptability and perseverance, of local creative-class hives taking root throughout the city, or of an architectural dream deferred indefinitely. Luckily, we're trading one likable project for another.
The Weave building, designed and co-developed by Skylab Architecture, was first announced in 2008 as a LEED-rated, 27-story mixed-use tower with residences and office space. Later, the concept was downsized to a ten-story office tower with ground-floor retail. But by June of last year, the project became stalled as developers and the Portland Development Commission were unsuccessful in finding tenants as the local economy continued to drag.
Now, the firm has more modest but practical plans for the site, at West Burnside Street and SW 13th Avenue: the Blackbox building, an adaptive re-use of the existing 10,000-square-foot building. It will include five retail spaces along with second-floor office space.
The Blackbox renovation isn't nearly as ambitious as the Weave, nor could it match the visual sexiness of the Weave's renderings. Even so, Skylab principal Jeff Kovel insists that going from Weave to Blackbox isn't a step backward, but a practical sidestep. Besides, he adds, the Weave isn't truly dead.
"The Blackbox is the Weave conceptually, just in a smaller package," he explained by email. "The current market just isn't fit for financing a Weave scale building. We have built the Blackbox project in a way as to leave the maximum flexibility in place , so that we will be able to redevelop down the road , should the stars align."
"We have shifted our approach to align with a changing market. We have put together a project that is going to have a very positive effect on our urban fabric in a short time frame."
The Blackbox, Kovel explains, is more of a descendent of the successful 12th & Alder building that previously won Skylab an AIA/Portland design award and has been economically successful with tenants like Gruner restaurant.
"The vibe at the 12th Alder building is creative and collaborative, in part due to the fact that we're constantly surrounded by a few small, like-minded businesses like ourselves," Kovel said in a press release. "We wanted to extend this concept deeper into the West End."
Here is a video Skylab produced to show the Blackbox design:
Co-developed with a company called Project^, the Blackbox's tenants will include Swedish urban work wear company Dunderdon, local leatherwear company Tanner Goods, Seattle-based menswear boutique Blackbird and women's boutique Phlox. Skylab and Project Ecological Development will occupy the second-floor offices.
The Weave, particularly in its initial 27-story version, would have made a substantial addition to Portland's skyline and helped extend the migration of Pearl District-energy and investment across Burnside. The site is across from both the Brewery Blocks as well as the cluster of renovated retail storefronts near the venerable Jake's Crawfish on the West End and the new 12 West tower. And the building's facade would have provided a bolder architectural look than the Brewery Blocks, which were more successful and focused on street-level placemaking and energy efficiency.
That said, the Blackbox project indeed reflects Skylab's DNA, perhaps better than the Weave. Rather than a daydream, it's an achievable reality that recalls past Skylab renovation projects like the Doug Fir Lounge at the Jupiter Hotel, and the Departure Lounge atop the Nines Hotel. Skylab has a uniquely futuristic, sexy design style that feels part disco and part Stanley Kubrick. It applies particularly well, if counter-intuitively, to giving old buildings new life.
It would be a shame if Skylab never realizes a from-the-ground-up building project like the Weave. The firm has long been part of a small unofficial fraternity of Portland's most admired and talked about designers' designers, along with names like Holst, Allied Works, Works Partnership and a few others.
Admittedly, the Weave always seemed like an unlikely building to come to fruition. A 27-story tower conceived amidst the worst economic times since the Great Depression? Yet one wanted to believe. Or more specifically, I wanted to believe. I wrote about the Weave on this blog, and last year in an optimistically-toned Oregonian story with the headline, "Economy doesn't deter architect."
"This is a really defining time, and how you respond is important in terms of defining yourself," Kovel said in that story. "We think the building is going to be a landmark along the Burnside corridor.""
Even then, it was a surprise to hear that the Weave was going forward. Yet it was worth it at the time, perhaps, to cast off skepticism about it coming to fruition because its design, both in its excellence and in its timing, seemed to offer architectural and development hope when the local building professions were taking a beating.
Every city has a history of unbuilt projects that might have changed history. I think of a Frank Lloyd Wright skyscraper in New York's Bowery that never came to fruition. Or, closer to home, an apartment tower in Portland conceived in the 1970s by local architect Robert Oshatz. It too would have been gorgeous. Each of these comes with the allure of what might have been, and, like The Weave, the promise of a beautiful rendering.
Yet it would be unfair to judge the Blackbox project on what it isn't. Instead, think of the upside, such as the fact that a lovely brick turn-of-the-20th Century building has been rescued from demolition. Portland's design genius has never been in its tallest towers anyway, but in the fabric of modest buildings that add up, with our emphasis on pedestrians and mass transit, to something greater than the some of its parts.
If the Weave represented the promise of the 2000s' economic boom and the crash to reality of the Great Recession, the Blackbox can perhaps become an emblem of the less ambitious but more successful constellation of rehab projects all over the city now housing clusters of creative companies, such as the Ford Building on Southeast 12th and Division, or the Leftbank on Northeast Broadway. It's a reminder that design is about imagination and dreams, as the Weave provided, but also about creating everyday spaces where we can live, work and play, full of light and creative energy. If it doesn't occupy a magazine cover like its predecessor might have, the Blackbox will be quintessentially Portland.
And hopefully, what Kovel told me about the Weave in that Oregonian story will still hold true with the Blackbox: "My hope is it really becomes an example of somebody who went out on a limb and seized an opportunity to do something special," he said. "I think that type of approach is going to become more and more critical across the board. It's going to be harder to succeed with mediocre product or ideas. The competitive environment will hopefully draw more out of people."