BY LUKE AREHART
The latest installment of the Architect’s Questionnaire has been compiled with answers from Portland architect Robert Fagliano of MulvannyG2 Architects. After earning his Masters of Architecture degree from Montana State University-Bozeman, Robert went to work for local firm McBride Architects which specializes in exterior restorations among other things. Robert joined Portland firm MulvannyG2 in the summer of 1999 and has been there ever since and worked on the recently completed 16.5 million dollar remodel of the Fred Meyer store at Burlingame. For the last couple months I worked in the same office as Robert and found him to be an architect in the true sense of the word, successfully transcending the gap between the technical and the beautiful, the theory and the practice.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Robert Fagliano: It was probably my freshman or sophomore year in high school; my grandmother had a basement that she wanted to turn into more than just storage, so she had me draw up a kitchen area. She was very encouraging in my life and she looked at my drawing and said: ‘This is great, maybe you should be an architect.’ That planted a seed that grew in me.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
Montana State University. I didn’t know a whole lot about the school beforehand. My dad lived in Montana. He knew I was interested in architecture, and thought it would be a good idea to go there. They have a really well rounded design emphasis with a construction/structural component as well. It was the College of Arts and Architecture, with some well-seasoned guys teaching structures. It was a nice mix. Architecture was always something in the back of my mind; I really enjoy the technical aspects of many things. It seemed to me that architecture was a chance to explore that, and I ended up really enjoying it.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
I would like to say it’s always the current one that I’m on: you can find something interesting in everything you are working on. Astoria Heritage Square is a great project and it’s nice to be part of the process. I did enjoy the design process on the Fred Meyer Burlingame that was an interesting one; we tore it down all the way to the original structure. I really enjoyed the investigation required on that building.
At another firm I worked for, we did exterior restoration and construction on a building called Waldo Hall at Oregon State University. It was built in the early 1900’s and it was nice getting into the parts that you looked at from the outside; looking up at the eaves you would think they were stonework, but it was actually tin, a tin bender’s paradise. There were these intricately detailed tin panels that were covering the eave framing and gutters. Because of the buildings age there was lead abatement, mortar repair, re-roofing, gutter restoration, and the question, ‘What are you going to do?’ You are not going to have the artisans that did that work before available to work on it now, so it was challenging. I loved the investigation to see how the carpenters framed everything out, back then.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Mac McBride (McBride Architects), he used to work for SOM when there was an office in Portland. He was one of the people that taught me a lot about architecture and restoration. Bill Keefer (MulvannyG2) is a wealth of information, and also fun to talk to about technical topics. Richard Shavey formerly of (MulvannyG2) was influential. I learn by observing Brian Fleener (MulvannyG2) interacting with people. Architecture is a mix and match of being a relationship/social person and measuring that with design and technical expertise. It’s a mesh of multiple people that have to get the job done. I learn a lot from all of those folks.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
It changes. As far as architecture goes, I like the investigation of existing buildings; I like the “archaeological dig” so to speak. There is a lot to learn, and throughout the years of built environment, there are a lot of things that we have seemingly forgotten and we find important again. What’s old is now new, with a little repackaging, because we have forgotten about it.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
Even though it gets a bad rap, I like the Portland Building’s color. I like the idea that when everything was either gray or beige, Michael Graves just went ‘Ok, we are going to throw a lot of color on this building.’ In Portland, the sky is already gray, so why not pump a little colorful life into it? I do like the courthouse and the materials used. The Keller Fountain is actually pretty cool, I like the idea that even though it rains here most of the time, it’s a place where people can go and hang out and eat lunch. It makes for an active place. As a whole fabric of Portland, I like the buildings from the 1880’s that are intermixed with some of the more modern buildings, it is a nice fabric. If it were all one or the other, it would be boring.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Mila. Even the vents on the roof look like statues and art. I like discovering a small beautiful detail that is important, when you are looking at something else. You can walk by it ten, fifteen, twenty times and then on the twentieth time you notice something that was intended to tie you into something else on the other side of the building that you never knew about.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
Coming from the Bay Area, I like what Portland has done controlling urban growth. In the Bay Area, not as much as in LA, it’s just a lot of urban sprawl and you don’t know where you are unless you see that sign that says: ‘You are leaving Walnut Creek population 60,000’ or ‘Welcome to Concord population 120,000’ you don’t really know that you are actually in another area. I think Portland has the risk of doing that if we are not careful, I would hope that this thought continues. The other side of me says that if someone is coming here and wants to buy a house and raise a family, it can make it tough with higher housing costs closer in to the city. There is a delicate balance with the whole urban growth boundary, there are pros and cons to it because you also want people to be able to have a good chance to make a better life for themselves, and not have to mortgage their grandkid for it.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
We are dealing with people, and I think they are doing the best they can with what they have. Over the last few years they have maybe been short staffed. Its difficult going through all the red tape, and this might be the case when jurisdictions have multiple departments. I’ve dealt with a lot of jurisdictions, and it can seem like the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing. I don’t believe they are maliciously intending to do that, but communication breakdown happens. If you go through a jurisdiction to get your permits, you’d hope that everybody that needed to actually see the drawings has seen them and made their comments. You come out with the building permit, and you’ve dealt with things. The goal is to limit the surprises in the field.
Sometimes an inspector will say: ‘Hey you’ve got to fix this now, even though the department had a chance to give comments but they didn’t.’ Now we are raising a concern, and unfortunately now we are under construction. That puts everyone in a bad position, the architect, the owner, and the contractor. As the architect you really try and resolve any issues ahead of time. There is always going to be something, and when it does come up the best thing to do is immediately work on the resolution.
Would you rather live in a South Waterfront condo, a craftsman bungalow in Laurelhurst, a warehouse loft in the North Mississippi district or a mid-century ranch in the West Hills?
For me, where I am in my life right now I have four kids, we’re in a ranch style home out in Beaverton, and I like the schools my kids attend. Another reason for me, why we have stayed there, is when I was a little kid, I moved around a lot, so I don’t want to move around a lot for my kids. But I’ve always thought it would be fun to live in a loft, but there is not a chance I would do that right now.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Well, he can’t anymore, but I would love to have Antonio Gaudi do something here.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
With the LEED movement, there are a lot of good aspects to it; there also seems to be some fanaticism with it that is unwarranted. When an agenda is pushed and everyone pushing thinks they are exactly right and moving down that path, there are probably some things that we are not accurate on, probably some things we don’t have exactly right, and the “path” can become the agenda as we push reason aside. To answer the question I would rather be responsible for an “ugly” LEED platinum building. Those “ugly” LEED platinum buildings once they are out there, gain acceptance from people. Some begin to look at them and say ‘Hey, that is actually not that ugly.’ People get used to what they see over and over. That doesn’t mean that we should push something that is ugly just to get acceptance from people. No architect is planning on doing an “ugly” LEED building, they’re planning on designing a form that tries to mesh with and utilize creation; to benefit from the environment that we are given, and mold it into the built environment we are creating. In an attempt to take advantage of any sustainable practice that we can; the process is done by an architectural-engineering back and forth. But once you figure out that it works and the components work, then you start being able to mold it into something that is art.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Snowflakes. I’ve seen pictures of snowflakes under a microscope, and every single one of them is different, awe inspiring. If you think about a snow storm, whether or not you are going to find one snowflake exactly like another, you have to go through a whole lot of snowflakes to actually determine that, and then you still haven’t gone through the snowflakes in…Detroit. The beauty is they are all different geometric masterpieces, that’s amazing to me. Buckminster Fuller explored the natural world resulting in the geodesic dome; the inventors of the helicopter mimicked the dragonfly, that kind of stuff really interests me. Design in nature that you can see and zoom into; the more you zoom in, the more interesting it gets.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
“Braveheart”, “Facing the Giants”, and “Elf”