Robert Leeb (image courtesy Leeb Architects)
BY LUKE AREHART
The third installment of the Architect’s Questionnaire features Portland architect Robert Leeb of Leeb Architects, a full service architectural and planning firm founded in 1977. Notable projects included the eight story, 134-unit, Streetcar Lofts building in the Pearl District and the Garage at Station Place, which encloses 413 parking spaces with custom stainless steel and is complete with a large landscaped atrium.
Two summers ago I drove up from Los Angeles to Portland to drop in on Robert Leeb’s office on Oak Street near the Waterfront to talk about the makings and evolution of the architectural fabric of Portland. Initially drawn to the phenomenal images and the tactile nature of his built projects, it is a delight to share Mr. Leeb’s words within the following questionnaire.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Robert Leeb: As a child I was always building things -- tree houses, forts and playing around new construction sites. I was interested in building models of planes and ships. When I got into high school in Chicago, we had a number of career days with Chicago architects and this got me very interested in being an architect. My father was an engineer and I trended that way.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. The curriculum was developed at the Bauhaus and it was very disciplined with terrific people in the program and great classmates. Most of us worked part time for architects from the time we were sophomores on and it was a really dynamic period then being exposed to Chicago architecture and architects practicing and doing good work. That was a great experience as well as living in an urban environment and going to architecture school at the same time.
Streetcar Lofts, Portland (image courtesy Leeb Architects)
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The Hoyt Square Condominiums on NW 19th and NW Hoyt, was designed for a competition sponsored by the City of Portland and this helped kick-start my office. I was working out of my house and beat out some of Portland’s larger firms for the site. The Street Car Lofts in the Pearl District is another good example of urban architecture we have worked on. Those are the kinds of projects I enjoy the most.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
John Heinrich and George Schipporeit, (Schipporeit and Heinrich) in Chicago. They had gone to IIT and had worked for Mies. Their biggest project at the time was Lake Point Tower, a 70 story apartment building on Lake Michigan. Working with them was my graduate school. When I first moved here I worked for Saul Zaik and Jim Miller (Zaik/Miller Associates). Both were great to work with and they helped my family and me make the transition to Oregon and introduced me to their many significant Northwest Projects.
Lake Point Tower, Chicago (photo by Brian Libby)
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
What’s most exciting to me is taking all of the diverse issues relative to the work we do and coalescing them into a concept and design that has a strong sense of place. Also I enjoy working with good clients and creating lasting projects that are a responsible part of the urban fabric of Portland.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I have a high regard for A.E. Doyle’s work from the Central Library to his houses on the Oregon Coast. I think the early housing stock of Portland is also very wonderful. I just went to a lecture about Emil Schacht at the Bosco-Milligan Architectural Heritage Center. He did many houses in Portland between 1895 and 1915. We lived in one of his 1906 houses in Portland Heights. That period of Portland’s history created the neighborhoods and the great housing stock that has anchored the city and that is exciting to me.
Other Oregon buildings I admire are the Timberline Lodge and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Gordon House at the Oregon Garden. There is a lot of good solid work in Portland. I love the building across the street from my office, the Lawrence Building (306 SW First Avenue). I think it is a really elegant building.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
I just visited the Milwaukee Art Museum addition by Santiago Calatrava and that really energized me and was very exciting. I was there for a Frank Lloyd Wright exhibit, and found the building created a lot of energy for the people visiting the museum.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
One thing that is special about Portland is that it does recognize and reward a lot of the young firms. I felt that way when I started out, the feeling being -- “If you have a good idea, come on down and let’s try it.” That is one of the great things about Portland, it’s a town open to new ideas and I think new ideas come with young architects and I think a lot of them have done very well and I’m pleased about that.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
The idea of denser housing and services along light rail and creating more walkable/bikeable areas is very positive. I know it’s a European model, but given the need as a society to sustain ourselves, the more we can do to move in that direction I think the better off we will be. Preserving as much open space as possible and creating denser nodes along different transportation arterials, I think is going to happen and be a good trend.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
We have had really good luck with these departments. The people who work at PDC and the Planning Department are very dedicated and very bright and want the city to be a better place. I have never had a significant problem with them and have always enjoyed the interaction. Even when they try to push the architecture, I’ve never felt it to be unreasonable.
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?
Neither. Right now I’m living in a more rural area. I would say probably the bungalow or the loft. My children both live in the Northeast and they love it, I enjoy going over there, the neighborhoods are great. I love the energy that happens in SE and NE. My wife and I enjoy raising our goats too much to move.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I would like to see Calatrava do something in Portland. We have bridges that have always been a big part of the city and what he’s done for some of the transportation centers and pedestrian bridges are very exciting and visionary.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
Probably neither…I would like to do a beautiful modern energy efficient building, I don’t think anybody shoots for any one of those two.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Things that impress me within the built environment -- I have an affinity for landscape and landscape architecture. I have an interest in parks, and some of the new public spaces. I love to work with plant materials and work collaboratively with landscape architects. I’m also a big fan of fine art; painting, drawing, sculpture and printmaking.
What are your all-time favorite movies?
"Local Hero", "Midnight Run", "Happy ,Texas", "My Cousin Vinny", "Trial and Error", "Stripes"