Tower House (rendering courtesy Benjamin Waechter, Architect)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Two months ago while visiting the exhibit of AIA/Portland Design Awards submittals at Pioneer Place, there was one design that got me more excited than all the others: the Tower House by Portland architect Ben Waechter.
Initially it was the form of the unbuilt project that caught my attention: a cylindrical building on a steep hillside that seemed to resemble a miniature skyscraper or even a modernist castle more than a Pacific Northwest house. Instead of being nestled into the slope, like most houses one sees in the West Hills (where the project is scheduled to be built this spring), it sat at the bottom, untouched by the topograpy. Although there were no shades or other details that might deviate from the uniformity of the tower facade, a massive opening had been cut into one side, as if Godzilla had taken a bite.
Waechter, who has now been covered numerous times in major design publications like Dwell, has been on the Portland architectural radar ever since his Z-Haus project in 2009, which was soon followed up by the Cape Cod House in Portland, which expanded and transformed an existing home, and the J-Tea tea store in Eugene, which was an Honor Award winner at this year's AIA/Portland Design Awards. Waechter's Z-Haus was also part of the 11 x Design tour of 2009, which introduced a talented group of architects acting as their own developers.
Upon talking with Waechter last week, I came away even more impressed by how the interior relates to the exterior, and how it continues the architect's singular approach to space making.
Waechter has superlative pedigree. Not only did he work previously at Portland's most acclaimed firm of our time, Allied Works, but Waechter also spent seven years for top-level starchitect Renzo Piano. Perhaps these firms' greatest influence on Waechter is in his process: the Portland architect strongly favors using physical models to formulate his buildings rather than the much more common practice of sophisticated computer modeling.
"I prefer to do that over computer modeling because it’s more tactile and you can hold and touch it, and it’s easy to pick up and look at from different directions," Waechter says. "You can understand what’s working well and maybe more importantly what’s not working well quickly, because it’s right there. And I like working models in a sense that they can be taken apart and refashioned. It’s trying to define the issues and collecting all the criteria and being able to address that in as simple a way, or as distilled a way, as possible. Maybe more importantly, it’s about having a concept and sticking to the concept and having a clear idea about it."
Indeed, Waechter's projects are notable and compelling precisely for this reason: they have impeccable clarity, with nothing superflous, and the key idea of the design stands out. In the architect's Z-Haus, for example, the central stairway connects at half-level intervals a succession of six identically sized spaces that can be configured either as bedrooms or living rooms. Waechter often likes to provide a clear distinction between main rooms where people spend extended periods of time versus what he calls support spaces such as storage, kitchen and bathrooms. This distinction also is the organizing principal for the Tower House.
"The Tower House has a strong concept in a sense that it really can be thought of as three rooms and a building skin," he says. "the reason for doing that is to make this hierarchy between the main rooms and these support spaces. On the top there’s a living space. In the middle there’s the dining and kitchen, and below there’s the master bedroom. Those are the special rooms. The in-between space is more cellular in nature. It’s divided up just based on utility and pragmatics. The stairs need to be a certain form, then closets are inserted, then bathrooms."
"If you have a certain budget for your project, it makes sense to not spend the money equally across the project. It’s nice to concentrate your efforts on where you spend the most time," the architect continues. "But even if you have an unlimited budget, it’s nice to have hierarchy, whether it’s in your house or or office or any building. It’s nice to have big volumes of space and to feel compressed, with nice intimate spaces. It’s nice to have bright spaces and dimmer ones. You need one to emphasize the other."
These distinct rooms within the Tower House do not touch the exterior of the building. Instead, there is a buffer space - comprised of stairs and the other supporting storage, kitchen and bathroom spaces. So while you're in one of these main rooms, you're looking through a doorway through another space to the exterior wall, almost like a castle. Yet there are enough exterior windows to still bathe the interiors in natural light. The Tower House's exterior facade of ribbed, corrugted metal, the architect explains, "wraps the corner so it’s one surface. That also gives the appearance of something ribbed, like a sweater. It feels like a garment, almost. "
Both Z-Haus and the Tower House were built on spec and sold (with the help of Waechter's wife, realtor Daria Crymes) rather than for a particular client. "I think for me it’s really just a way to generate work," he says. "It’s fun in some ways because it’s a unique way of approaching a project. You’re your own client in some ways, but it also has to be marketable. Other projects take on a whole other level of interest because the owners have their own requirements. That’s a fun and interesting thing to add to the mix, to add to their needs."
I asked the architect if designing on spec causes him to incorporate market likes and wants or to design with them in mind. The answer? No and yes.
"The main driving force is not what the main market wants to see," Waechter answered. "It’s really what I think is appropriate for the site and the size of the program. But I do think a market driver is program: understanding what a lot of people are looking for as far as bedrooms and square footage. The Z-Haus is really big: 2800 square feet. That was done purposefully. The idea was to provide a lot of square footage on a small footprint and still provide outdoor space: something to accommodate a good sized family or one with a home office., proviing a higher density house with the square footage. I think we found in marketing it that actually a bigger group of people are looking for maybe the 2200 square foot house. So in that way it was too much. This one’s a ltitle smaller: 2200 square feet. This one is three bedrooms, two and ahalf bath. That kidn of model you see around a lot. That’s maybe the only criteria that’s taken from the market."
Model of the Flag House (image courtesy Benjamin Waechter, Architect)
Another Waechter project set to break ground next year, the Flag House, is for a client with a fairly large lot that sought to build a new house next to their old one. The name of the project comes from the fact that it is shaped like a flag - skinny and long on the bottom two-thirds, giving way to a wider rectangular shape at the top. Besides its shape, though, the house has a bold strategy. Although it has plenty of natural light coming deep into its interior, there are pretty much no windows on either of its long sides.
"There’s ambient light, and then there’s views," he explains. "If we put windows on the side, likely you’d be so close to your neighbor you’d feel intruded upon. This is saying, ‘Where are the views?’ Really they’re on the front or the back. It’s being aware of that and embracing that."
It all started with the site. "The existing house sits off-center of the site, enough that we were able to fashion a land division that worked. That was the first thing," Waechter explains. "We also wanted the house to engage the street, which made important to build in the pole part of the flag at the front of the lot. So the house starts out fairly slender, then it opens up to a bigger backyard. The challenge was it’s really close to the neighbors, so there’s the issue of privacy and sense of space. The solution was to not have any openings on the side walls – like, zero windows - but also treat them as exterior defining walls. Using them instead of fences. The existing house uses the new house as the defining edge to their outdoor space, almost like an urban courtyard where the backside of the neighbor’s building defines your courtyard, using the idea that a building has a stronger presence than a fence. But it still opens up to the street and the back."
In the middle, interior-most portion of the house, "There’s this double-high volume that’s top lit like a sawtooth light in a warehouse. That’s flooding the interior with natural light. It’s not dark, even though the windows are at the front and the back. It’s luminous. You end up with threes three points of light. Some houses have lots of natural light but the space is undefined. In this house, even though it’s a free flow of space, it’s directed and controlled. On the street side there’s this rec room or media room up above that looks out on the street. Your sense of space comes along and drops—sort of cascades down. It turns the corner and opens into this great room on the back. The main living space on the back is engaged with the landscape. Then as you move back into the building you move up and out and look out from the second story."
Someday perhaps Ben Waechter ought to be designing public buildings. He's that good of an architect, one you imagine bringing something fresh to art museums, courthouses and schools. Or maybe Waechter has a singular talent for single-family homes. Even if the 42-year-old were to quit at the end of next year, the handful of projects to which Tower House and Flag House would add comprises a stellar portfolio. Which is not to say that Waechter's work is flashy - just the reverse, in fact: a quiet iconoclasm that is well suited for Portland and Oregon.