BY LUKE AREHART
Next in our continuing series on local architects is Jeff Stern of IN SITU Architecture. A licensed architect in Oregon since 1996, Jeff earned his Master of Architecture from the University of Oregon, and has served as both an adjunct assistant professor and a graduate teaching fellow at the University of Oregon, and currently serves as a guest critic at Portland State and the University of Oregon.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Jeff Stern: I have been interested in architecture about as far back as I can remember, certainly in high school. I had the usual mechanical drafting class but had a great teacher who had studied architecture and had just finished designing and building his own home. He toured us through it and talked a lot about the process. He would show us movies in class – I remember seeing some Frank Lloyd Wright interviews, and Powers of Ten by Charles and Ray Eames. It was pretty enlightening stuff in high school, and particularly for a mechanical drafting class. It was lucky for me that this mundane mechanical drafting class became an introduction to architectural design, and motivated me to continue along this path.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I received some advice after high school, that it would be useful as an architect to have an engineering degree. I started out at the University of Vermont as an engineering student, and very quickly realized that I did not want to do that for four years. I transferred to the University of Colorado and got a degree in Environmental Design. I then went to Seattle and worked for two years getting my first real office experience before I went to the University of Oregon for my Master of Architecture degree. I had a great experience there; some talented students and excellent professors. I found the U of O to be a great fit, since there was a really broad range of interests amongst the faculty.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The next one; I’m always looking forward. One of the great and challenging things about architecture is that it is a long slow complicated process. When a project is finally finished, there are always so many lessons to take away from it. I love the opportunity of the next project. I enjoy staring at the blank page and wondering what it’s going to be while feeling a little anxious about the unknown.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Early on, my dad had a very close friend that had worked for Richard Neutra when he was young; he let me work in his office and hang around his job sites. It was my first insight into what an architect does.
As I went out on my own as a sole proprietor; Liz Williams (Pencil Work Studio), Brett Crawford (Brett Crawford Architecture and Planning), and Nancy Merryman (Merryman Barnes Architects Inc.) in particular have really been supportive of me having my own office. For a few years a group of us shared office space on N. Williams. It was a great situation because it was a collective of individual offices, and we were able to talk about our work, share ideas, and feel a bit like a bigger office. I collaborated with Liz, Brett, and Nancy on a couple of projects.
More recently I’ve been working with Don Tankersley (Don Tankersley Construction), and I’ve gained some insight into the making of high quality buildings, houses primarily, from the side of the contractor. He works with patience and tremendous attention to detail and craft that has been very inspiring.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I consider myself a generalist and think that it is important as a sole proprietor because you are doing everything: design work, detailing, marketing, presentations, contracts, construction administration, bookkeeping, website design. You have to wear all of those hats and I have always enjoyed the variety. I’m passionate about design, but I also really enjoy the technical aspects. I have become very interested in Passive House and building science in the last couple of years. I’m always looking to merge all of these different issues and interests, and not become pigeonholed as having just one area of expertise. I try to maintain the generalist approach.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
One of the things I love about Portland is the diversity and the mix; there are lots of great moments out there if you look hard enough. I’m really interested in the modest everyday buildings. They often have a great corner or a detail if you squint, and I think you can find beauty and inspiration in a lot of unusual and ordinary places.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
When I was in architecture school I spent a summer in Finland, and saw a lot of Aalto’s work. Notably, I spent a day camped out at Villa Mairea. We spent the whole day wandering around, hanging out on the roof and on the grounds. The beauty of this house had a huge impact on me.
More recently, I spent some time at Alvaro Siza’s Boa Nova Tea House; my wife and I had a really nice dinner there. It’s a quirky building, but amazing. When you arrive, the view is completely concealed. Then you enter and go down the stairs into the main room, and this incredible view to the ocean is revealed. Plus we were there right at sunset; it was pretty fantastic.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I’d like to see more honest and intelligent design. I wish there was more willingness to embrace modernism not so much as a style, but the idea of building with modern means, with modern materials and expressing the materials in a way that makes sense, and trying to solve modern problems. As opposed to giving something the illusion of what it’s not, I’d like to see more authentic buildings.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
Although well intentioned, they don’t necessarily support making great buildings. You really have to do great architecture in spite of them, which isn’t a reflection of the people there, but it’s really complicated to make your way through all the codes, reviews, and process.
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?
We used to live in a craftsman house in Southeast. For the last 7 years we’ve been living in the West Hills in a mid-century modern house. We are actually about to make a move back to the east side, and plan to start construction in a few weeks on a new house in Northeast. It will be a very small and simple modern house that will meet Passive House requirements.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I would rather see the fabric buildings of Portland elevated as opposed to one “great” building, even though I want to see that one great building. I think there is a lot of talent in Portland if given the right opportunity.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
Neither. They are definitely not exclusive, they shouldn’t be exclusive, and we shouldn’t think about it as an either/or situation. I would love to see beautiful modern buildings that are incredibly energy efficient. In many ways LEED misses the point. We need to think about energy conservation and energy efficiency as the most critical element; that’s why I’m drawn to Passive House. It’s easy to get caught up in the less significant parts of meeting LEED, then miss the picture when it comes to making truly high-performance buildings.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I think like most architects I like to surround myself with well-designed things. My wife is very much into fashion and clothes. She recently got me a pair of Cydwoq boots. In many ways they are a perfect example of good design – not only are they comfortable and durable, but every aspect of their design is well considered and executed with care. Like a good building, I think they’ll only look better as they age.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
Jazz on a Summer’s Day, a documentary about the 1958 Newport Jazz festival, filmed by a photographer (Bert Stern) with amazing visuals that really capture the day, and of course great music. I loved City of God and in a nod to my wife’s love of old movies and because the final scenes take place in a cool Wright inspired house, I’d say North by Northwest.