BY BRIAN LIBBY
It happens in practically every creative person's career: the moment when one must choose between continuing with a successful small operation or joining a bigger one; between a nimble independence and buying in to something larger than yourself.
It could be an indie-rock band signing with a major label, or a filmmaker popular on the festival circuit signing on with a big Hollywood studio. It could be a professional athlete in free agency deciding between re-signing with his scrappy small-market squad or moving to a deep pocketed year-in-year-out winner in a big city like the Yankees or Lakers. It's not a matter of right or wrong so much as a particular fit, or lack thereof, and as specific as a glass slipper.
For Corey Martin, it was one common to the profession: a choice between sticking with the small firm with which your name was made, PATH Architecture, versus joining a larger firm like, in this case, THA Architecture. For THA themselves, it was a matter of reaching out before you were even sure you wanted to reach out - a quick move nearly a decade in the making.
In the past few years, Martin has designed under the PATH banner a succession of beautiful single-family houses such as the Butler Residence, as well as mixed-use condo units. He also co-founded 11xDesign, a consortium of small Portland firms developing their own projects with a popular 2009 homes tour of the same name. As I've written about previously both on this blog and elsewhere, the group seemed to signify a new generation of talented, relatively young architects taking their place, including not only PATH but firms and architects like Ben Waechter, William Kaven Architecture, and Webster Wilson.
Now, however, Martin has accepted an offer from THA Architecture, the firm formerly known as Thomas Hacker Architects and with a portfolio of acclaimed and award-winning public buildings: several libraries throughout the metro area, as well as many museum and college campus projects throughout the west coast. A few years ago Hacker's Woodstock Branch Library, just to name one example, was listed as one of the one of the top 10 library designs in the United States in a publication jointly released by the American Institute of Architects and the American Library Association. Hacker himself is also a hugely significant presence in Oregon architecture over the past quarter-century or more as a connector: he worked under the legendary architect Louis Kahn in Philadelphia before coming to the University of Oregon to teach and later to Portland to practice. Top local architects of today such as Brad Cloepfil, Rick Potestio and Nancy Merryman got their start working under Thomas Hacker, studying under him, or both. And as it happens, Corey Martin previously worked under Potestio and Cloepfil.
That Martin is joining THA as a design principal is somewhat rare; usually they are promoted to that leadership level from within. Perhaps it begs the question: did THA feel it was lacking something? But in an interview recently with a group from Hacker's office, including Martin and Hacker along with principals David Keltner and Jonah Cohen, they say the marriage was more one of mutual appreciation and the opportunity for growth, all within the context of Hacker eventually moving closer over time to retirement.
"For years now we’ve been working on a plan to continue the office beyond me," Hacker says. We have people who have dedicated their lives to this. I’ve always wanted the office to exist to support them for the future."
Until now, Hacker was content with Keltner and the other architects on board, as were they. But in the past year, after and amidst some lean times for the industry, THA got busy. The firm has always prided itself on avoiding the sometimes ultra-long hours architects work, allowing a higher quality of life for its staff not as an alternative to producing quality designs, but as an enabler of it. But the increasing workload was starting to change that.
About this same time, Hacker happened upon Martin and PATH's Butler Residence, and couldn't stop raving. "I literally couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw it. I thought it was unbelievable. I felt stupid. I had no idea this kind of work was being done. The spatial order and the lack of barrier between inside and outside – that feeling that everything is involved with everything else spatially: it was thrilling for me. It was one of those times you realize as a member of a community that there’s freshness and a new breath of fresh life in the system."
As it happened, Keltner and Martin had long been friends after briefly working together for Rick Potestio. When Keltner heard Hacker rave about Martin's work, the idea was floated about bringing him on.
"Corey was doing such beautiful and compelling work. In the back of my mind I sort of dreamed that we’d get to work together," Keltner says. "So for us [at THA] it seemed not like, ‘Let’s start a search for more design leadership,’ but a way to sort of work with one particular individual. It’s not like we would go looking elsewhere. Frankly we thought of Corey first and then realized, ‘This is a role we should actually be thinking about."
What did they like about PATH and Martin's work? "It has a kind of spare simplicity that’s incredibly thoughtful, but without the presence of ego," Keltner adds. "You don’t see someone trying to make a big splash, but it’s elegant and perfect. That’s what our office aspires to: a kind of egoless approach to truth and beauty."
Even so, Martin explains, "To be honest it was a very hard decision. PATH is doing well. We have a lot of work. Surprisingly we’ve weathered a storm. But it was about survival. I’ve always really tried to hold a high standard with the work I’ve accepted. That’s very hard as a two person or even as 15-person firm. But it’s always been a struggle. It consumes you. My work and my life are not separate. My wife and my kid do not see me. These guys are talking about another way of operating: something sustainable, not just in doing a building, but in sustaining your life. And it was about being part of something bigger than me."
"I’d got the call from other firms. This was different. When David called me, he didn’t talk about what it was that he was offering. He was curious. Would I even consider it? The story he told was interesting. He backed up and talked about the internal process going on: figuring out a way to make sure the firm outlasts Tom’s leadership. It was about a process of unfolding. That was pretty humbling and pretty interesting to me."
Martin was - like most any architect - attracted to the opportunity to design public spaces of the sort that have long been part of Hacker's portfolio, be it the Mercy Corps headquarters and visitors center downtown, a theater in Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, or the College of Education complex in Eugene at the U of O. That the opportunity to do such work means giving up some of the autonomy that co-leading PATH afforded is, he believes, an inevitable series of pros and cons.
"In a way I’ll be stepping away from all the things that I do as a partner in a small firm: bookkeeping, hiring, firing. Now I can focus on doing great work," Martin added. "My dad was a great insight into that. I was nervous, to be honest. I wondered, can I cut it? He said, 'You’ve got to detach from that. It’s all space and light and form.'"
He sees similarity in the intent of efforts like 11xDesign and Hacker's ongoing culture of mentorship and collaboration within the firm. "The idea of 11 by design was we were all designers and developers. We were all risk takers. It was also about meeting together to see how we could create a Portland style, letting go of our egos to try and bring each other up and letting go of the ego. I mean, we know good design has some ego. But the idea that that could be nurtured is really similar to 11xDesign philosophy."
"There’s a judgment thing that has to happen with leadership," Hacker adds. "In the early days of this office, one of the most diff things was to make decisions in an amount of time that allowed you to prosper. It’s very hard in an office, especially when you’re the only design lead. You often have to make decisions before you’re comfortable that you’ve got there. That’s one thing that took me years to learn how to do. Before that the office was financially unstable because you couldn’t take the proper amount of time to make every decision you wanted to. We talk about lack of ego but Corey’s right that you have to be strong enough and see all the possibilities and make the choice to move forward."
And if Martin changes the THA style, that's fine with its founder. Just don't mistake the addition of Martin as a sign of weakness or insecurity - just the opposite. "One of the most important things is to understand this firm will change its direction to some extent because of Corey and his talents and values. It won’t be the same firm in five years, but in a good way. We like to have a design dialogue. We don’t have individual studios but work as a team on different projects. Corey will bring a voice that is really stimulating. And the more that happens, the better. We feel our work is fresher and more alive right now than it’s been for a long time, actually. But I would say that we do need Corey to come. It’s a matter of the life and natural evolution of place. You need people with a new eye to come in sometimes and stimulate it. It’s not a bad thing. It’s a really good thing."
After covering Hacker's work for more than a decade and PATH's for roughly half that time, the news of Martin's transition was a surprise that seemed less surprising the more I thought about it. Yes, it's disappointing to imagine the partnership between Martin and Ben Kaiser breaking up after not only some beautiful houses, but the promise of larger-scale work in the future. However, PATH, Martin says, will continue without him. And it's not at all without value for a young small-firm architect to infuse a larger firm with energy and talent. Besides, THA Architecture is not some corporate behemoth of a firm producing a succession of bland buildings. They are not at all the service-firm stereotype of with a business model built on practical capability more than design talent.
Hacker once told me in a past interview that one of Louis Kahn's most important lessons to him was about how to integrate private architectural practice with teaching, creating a culture of mentorship and academic-style studio critique within a profitable architecture-firm. If Martin can become a part of that, influencing architects working with him just as Hacker and some of his disciples like Potesio and Cloepfil have done, it will more than outweigh the lost potential of the small firm he leaves behind. And while surely PATH would have graduated from single-family homes and small condos to larger-scale work, it's only fitting that a talent like Martin have a chance to design not just for the tiny percentage of people affluent to comission bold, spacious houses but for the public via our communally shared schools, museums, churches, nonprofits and libraries. If I were Martin, I wouldn't have said yes to many firms. Perhaps only three or four out of scores. But when THA came calling, he made the right call.