BY BRIAN LIBBY
Perhaps it's fitting that Timberline Lodge is on top given its location, just below the snowy peak of Mt. Hood. The lodge, completed by the Works Progress Administration in 1937 from a design by Gilbert Stanley Underwood (an architect with the US Treasury Department), was the biggest vote-getter in AIA Oregon's survey of architects' 100 favorite buildings for the organization's centennial.
That Timberline would be honored now is interesting timing. Today, with the economy faltering like no time since the Great Depression, many have expressed frustration that the United States has not invested more in public works projects as FDR's administration did. Yet with projects like the Oregon Sustainability Center or restorations of local landmarks like Memorial Coliseum or Centennial Mills, Portland if not the federal government has sought to continue that tradition.
"Here, to Mount Hood, will come thousands and thousands of visitors in the coming years," President Franklin Roosevelt said in his dedication speech at Timberline. "Looking east toward eastern Oregon with its great livestock raising areas, these visitors are going to visualize the relationship between the cattle ranches and the summer ranges in the forests. Looking westward and northward toward Portland and the Columbia River, with their great lumber and other wood using industries, they will understand the part which National Forest timber will play in the support of this important element of northwestern prosperity. So, I take very great pleasure in dedicating this Lodge, not only as a new adjunct of our National Forests, but also as a place to play for generations of Americans in the days to come."
"One of the reasons people go to the building," architect Joachim Grube told Oregon Architect magazine this month, "is that it was conceived in very difficult economic times for the US, and it was kind of a symbol of survival for coming out of a dark time. That adds to the magic of the place."
Timberline also represents old-world craftsmanchip in a way that no other structure in Oregon can match. It is the only 20th century public building of its size that was constructed and furnished entirely by hand, including original craftwork in wood, wrought iron, weaving, applique painting, mosaic and stained glass.
Mt. Angel Abbey Library (photo by Brian Libby)
Coming in at #2 on AIA Oregon's list was the Mount Angel Abbey Library, designed by the legendary Finnish architect Alvar Aalto and completed in 1970. This is one of only two buildings in the United States designed by Aalto, along with Baker House at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which coincidentally was completed in 1948, just three years before Portland architect Pietro Belluschi became dean of the architecture school at MIT. One of the world's most prestigious architecture prizes, the Alvar Aalto Medal, is named after him, as is a university in Helsinki. If Aalto is not in the top tier of 20th century modern architects alongside Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, and Le Corbusier, he's not far off.
The AIA chose Belluschi's Equitable Building at #3, honoring what has often been called the world's first modern office building; the circa-1947 Equitable was the first major structure in the world to be built with an aluminum and glass curtain wall (narrowly beating out the United Nations headquarters for that distinction). Yet history and innovation are not the only relevant factors, for the Equitable is also quite beautiful even today.
Another Belluschi design checks in at #4, with the Portland Art Museum. Built in 1932, this is among the earliest of Belluschi-designed landmarks and arguably put him on the map. And, as the oft-told legend goes, the architect convinced a skeptical museum to go ahead with his modern design rather than a faux-historic Georgian style they sought thanks to the help of Frank Lloyd Wrigt, who wrote museum trustees a letter of support for Bellusci's design.
US Bancorp Tower (photo by Bradley Maule)
When Belluschi left for MIT in 1951, the renowed Chicago/New York firm Skidmore, Owings Merrill took over his Portland office, creating a host of local landmarks still relevant today. Among these is the #5 selection, the US Bancorp Tower, better known as "Big Pink," which SOM designed in collaboration with Belluschi.
Big Pink and Pioneer Courthouse Square, the #6 entry, are the lone entries from the 1980s. This was a time when postmodern architecture briely flourished. Although the Michael Graves-designed Portland Building is an icon of that time, with its colorful facade of faux garlands, Courthouse Square takes on a more quiet, enduring style. Rather than an in-your-face irreverence to the architecture, turning historical forms into cartoons, the square's design by the late Portland architect Will Martin evokes classical history with its Greco-Roman-like columns, but never crosses the line into outright caricature. That's particularly appropriate given how Pioneer Courthouse Square has a sincere role to play as Portland's principal gathering place for political rallies, concerts, Christmas tree lightings and much more.
I would have thought Central Library, the #7 choice, might take top honors in the poll. Portlanders love their libraries (the city has at times had the most library card holders per capita of any large American city) , and this Georgian-styled beauty by A.E. Doyle was lovingly restored in 1997. The American Library Association also ranked Central as one of its top 10 libraries in the nation for architecture. Perhaps the fact that architects are voting made a difference, given how most favor modernism more than the general public. Yet if that's the case, choosing Timberline #1 wouldn't make much sense.
Frank Lloyd Wright's sole Oregon building, the Gordon House, makes the list of top Oregon architecture at #8. It isn't nearly as ambitious as Wright's most celebrated homes, such as Fallingwater. Yet it typifies his Usonian series of houses and the notion that quality modern architecture can be applicable to the lives of people living not only in cities, but on the prairies and in small towns. It's just too bad that the Gordon House, completed in 1964, had to be moved from its original location in Charbonneau along the Willamette River. The new location at the Oregon Garden near Silverton and the act that it's now open to the public give the Gordon House more opportunity to be seen now, but Wright's design was adapted specifically to its location, with one side framing views of the river and another oriented towards views of Mt. Hood. The couple that bought the Gordon House in 2000 had never heard of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Apparently they moved to Charbonneau from The Moon.) They bought the Gordon only in hopes of tearing it down. Yeah, and I buy Picasso paintings so I can fingerpaint over the canvas.
Luckily the #9 entry on the list, Memorial Coliseum, is still standing. Faced with demolition in 2009, the building is now set to be restored in 2012. During the fight to save the Coliseum, those with vested interests in building a baseball stadium on the site (thereby allowing PGE Park to be converted to soccer) tried to pigeonhole the building as simply a decaying eyesore - typified by the "ugly Costco" comment made by Commissioner Randy Leonard. Now, the decision by Mayor Sam Adams and others to save Memorial Coliseum is being validated by its placement on this list. Can you imagine the uproar if someone tried to tear down Timberline Lodge, or Central Library? Each era has its icons, and the Coliseum represents the very best of modernist architecture of the mid-20th century. Then again, though, I'm biased: the Coliseum is my favorite building in the city, and was a cause worth fighting for.
Rounding out the list at #10, the John Yeon-designed Watzek House has had a good year in 2011 after earlier this year topping Portland Monthly's list of the top local houses, and also opening to public tours for the first time. Yeon was too much of a wanderer to pursue architectural fame like the better known Pietro Belluschi. But there's no denying that his talent was just as great. The Watzek is part Bauhaus, part farmhouse, with hints of Japanese and Scandinavian design. It doesn't grab you by the lapels with its greatness like Wright's Fallingwater, the sole other house to be added early to the National Register and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. But it charted a new way forward and veritably gave birth to Northwest Modern architecture of the midcentury, a style still celebrated today for its simple elegance.
The AIA Oregon website has not only the top 10 buildings list, but a full top 100. I was curious to see what else made the list, especially because there are no projects from the list built before 1984. If one project from more recent times was going to be included, I'd have voted for Allied Works' Wieden + Kennedy headquarters. In terms of other ommissions, I of course being an Oregon Ducks fanatic (and historian) would have also voted for Autzen Stadium. Actually, though, the highest ranking building from recent times is 12 West, designed by ZGF. Somewhat appropriately, it #12.
But enough about my selections, or the AIA's. What would you add to the list? These rankings are only fun if they prompt a conversation.