BY LUKE AREHART
Next in our continuing series features responses from Gary Hartill, president and creative director of ORANGEWALL studios architecture + planning. An Oregon native licensed in California, Gary founded Portland based ORANGEWALL in 2003. Notable projects include the Hamilton residence renovation and, most recently, the Nike Action Sports tenant improvement interior remodel. In working with Gary, I’ve found that his moxie as a plate-spinning expert generalist often produces meaningful design while traveling at 1,000 miles per hour with no brakes.
PORTLAND ARCHITECTURE: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
GARY HARTILL: In high school, I was on an electrical engineering/computer science track. Computers were just coming on the scene, and I started learning BASIC programming in 1984, it was not until the start of my freshman year at University of Portland that I found out that electrical engineering was too abstract a design field and I wanted something more tangible. I took some time off, traveled Europe, lived in Germany and discovered that I should be an architect - that was 1986.
Specifically, I was in England and had been hiking across the Moors, which are rolling hills, with a lot of sheep and a lot of shit. It was windy, rainy and stormy and we got lost and what was supposed to be a half hour hike took five and a half hours because we kept going in circles. By the time we got to where we needed to be, we sat down and had lunch under a grove of trees, and sitting there under the protection of the grove of trees, I had this profound sense of shelter and thought: “This is shelter, and protection…this is architecture.” It was a primordial sense of space. I said that’s what I needed to be, I needed to be an architect. I had no idea what that meant at the moment of epiphany, but that is when I discovered I should be an architect.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
Upon returning from my travels in Europe, I came back to try to understand what architecture meant as a profession, I had very little exposure to architecture as a profession, save Mike Brady. I looked around and started to think about where I would go to school. I was not fond of Eugene, Oregon as a place to live and felt an urban environment would be a better laboratory. At the time in Oregon, there was the U of O program, a small private Architecture school, Oregon School of Design and a fledgling program at Portland State, I was looking for a program that looked at design from a broader perspective than just architecture, so the program at PSU which was at the time in the school of Fine and Performing Arts was a better fit than the U of O. I was also looking into the Oregon School of Design around the same time but unfortunately they closed the same year I was really getting ready to get into design.
I had a great experience at PSU, I loved being able to have access to painting, sculpture, music, creative writing as well as architecture studies and had a professor, Rudy Barton who was a great challenger of our thought. He created an environment that more than taught us to design, asked us to explore the design question from outside the paradigm of architecture, to look at it from multiple points of view. To this day the foundation of my education in architecture comes from the simple question asked of us by Rudy: “Why? Why is it better?” (Especially to gratuitous curves.)
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
In my short career, I have had the great fortune to work for some incredible clients, giants in their professions, and personalities, which has created incredible design challenges, but one of my favorites, primarily as it was the first design project where I felt autonomy (it was while I was at Waterleaf and under the tutelage of Mike McCulloch) was a small little jewel box of a beach house in Neskowin. The owner wanted to experience creativity and understand how the creative process worked, so he was investing not only in a house, but also in an education about how and why people design. He was willing to allow us to have lengthy weekly design meetings for over a year to explore the design. It was through this project that I really came to understand the value of exploration, and really drawing through a project. This was in the day before SketchUp, and AutoCAD 3d was still cumbersome.
As we modeled, we explored form- I must have built over 100 different massing studies looking at roof form, fenestration, and shadow studies. I also learned that as a young designer, you have to draw, draw a lot! Especially to understand and work through a problem, to really understand what a project means spatially. I was drawing through a lot of ideas, looking at massing models, and drawing perspectives to try and convey a story often working nights and weekends to get to a point that I felt was strong enough to present to the principal.
Towards the end of the project, my mentor said to me something to the effect of, “You know, you are broken, most architects spend their entire career and not have an opportunity like you had on this one, and now you could have a warped sense of what the profession is about.” We had an opportunity to explore and dig deep, to talk and ask “Why this material, why this composition, how can we do this different, what about that flashing detail, is there some way we can express how the flashing functions-better? What is the relationship of stone to wood, what is the relationship of wood to window, what is the relationship of window to…air?”
The beach house in Neskowin was my first project where I had some freedom and autonomy and started developing a voice, and had a client and design principal who supported that growth. This experience changed how I wanted to practice, and how I thought design should be- an exploration of possibilities. Since that first project I have been blessed with many such clients who allow for rich exploration and expression.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
While not specifically Colleagues, I would have to say my clients- I have been very fortunate to be able to work with some incredibly creative, talented clients and companies. When working with smart, creative, savvy thinkers I have learned so much and am always challenged to do better work, to exceed their expectations.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
The end when then client tells you what a positive impact I have been able to make in their lives.
As a small practitioner, you have to be able to execute a broad range of skills from marketing, landing the job, programming, concept, design, execution, detailing, code analysis, contract negotiations, tax rules, HR rules, lease negotiator, dishwasher, sweeper and on and on. In order to be successful, you have to excel at it all, until you get to the point where you can hire additional people to balance out those skills. So, I would say that I excel at being a Jack of all trades; you have to be in order to survive in this economy, any economy. We have grown our practice over the last eight years, and especially in the last two years we’ve grown our client base and quality as well as scale of the projects. We are quite proud of this feat in any economy, but especially so this one.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
The Mt Angel Library, Alvar Aalto understands the joy of browsing, the framed vista that draw the eye through the stacks, the compression at the entry which allows for a relief of the space as you enter the stacks.
I also love the houses of Saul Zaik and Pietro Belluschi. Particularly, the Zaik residence and Pietro’s Sutor House which is a classic example of NW regionalism using wood and light in the space, drawing from the Scandinavian tradition of making use of the minimal amount of daylight that we have. Continuing the NW tradition is the Packer residence by Bill Tripp, in which one sees the influences of NW regionalism with a hint of Scandinavian modernism through Aalto. The house is impeccably detailed and executed. I especially appreciate the shift of scales with the compression of the courtyard side which transitions to an expansion of the space as one’s view shifts towards the view and horizon. I find this response to the site so optimistic, a feeling of opening one’s self to the world.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
St. Henry's Ecumenical Art Chapel in Turku, Finland by Sanaksenaho Architects is a sublime layering of planes of white with light diffusing down, it is unbelievably beautiful.
Kiasma in Helsinki by Steven Holl from a spatial point of view its fantastic- though the details are a little rough around the edges. It does look great in a broad scale.
Tadao Ando’s Conference Pavilion for Vitra. Tiny little jewel box of recessed concrete and the sequence in the approach up to it is nicely orchestrated, as is the subtle material palette.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Brian White (Architecture W). Since first sitting down to talk to him a few years ago on a short lived talk radio design show I had on Wieden and Kennedy Radio, I have had the pleasure of getting to know Brian better in recent years and since he moved into a studio down the hall from me, have been able to see more of the conceptual work and competitions he is doing. Great work, he has the talent and vision to make a significant impact on Portland’s architectural heritage.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
If you had been to Berlin Germany before the fall of the wall then fast forward to their incredible period of growth post wall, you see a great shift in texture and materiality and an insertion of glass and stainless amidst the fabric of stone and pre-war buildings.
I would love to see a similar development in the diversity of materiality and pattering across the city. Portland is starting to see more of this, for example the B-side 6 building on Burnside by Works Partnership; Holst is also creating richness in the urban landscape.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
PDC could do more to promote and further the small design community and infill projects, we have a great pool of talents for that in Portland. Portland is about a million little infill projects, and that is what makes up our fabric, it would be great to see more support beyond the storefront program.
The development and planning bureaus at the City in my experience have been very collaborative and very participatory when the process is started early and we sit with them and see them as part of the team. Especially when doing retrofits and historic renovations there is always a challenge to create a building that is safe and habitable which also respects the historic character. Partnering with the building departments is really critical from the beginning and the City of Portland does a very good job on the partnering side, and wants to work the problem collaboratively. I find them pro-development, pro-construction and pro-design; I find them as a good partner.
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?
My house is a mid-century in the SW area flanking the West Hills, but I spend considerably more time in my loft like studio on North Broadway, I would say I have the best of both worlds and only 7 minutes apart at my 5 am commute.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Alive, I would love to see Steven Holl design a building in Portland, I like how his projects respond really well to its site, I also love the minimalism and simplicity, maybe something like his Knut Hamsun Center Hamarøy, Norway. Dead: Alvar Aalto, it would be interesting to see what he would do with today’s materials and how he would respond in Portland.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
I wouldn’t be responsible for an ugly energy hog, we have a responsibility to design beautiful smart, sustainable buildings.
You always have an opportunity to design something that is beautiful and is also responsible from a sustainability point of view. I don’t think that you should ever choose that dichotomy. I would rather be responsible for a beautiful modernist, LEED platinum building.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Everything that fills in between the walls. One of the things I love about Portland is the wealth of artisans and craftsmen that we have especially the steel fabricators and fabricators that work in mixed medium such as Matt Bietz at Quartertwenty or Dave Laubenthal. Look around you in Portland, you see a really rich tapestry of raw materials expressed in very interesting ways, whether it’s a building or whether it’s a table top or bar, I love the regional industrial design that has popped up all around as a mix of wood and steel, those pieces that fill the in-between spaces in Portland are great, and you can go to thirty restaurants/bars in Portland and see that aesthetic balance of wood and steel. It’s a newer expression of Portland regionalism, back to the traditions of the 50’s and the modernists and the expression of the wood in houses, now that has evolved to mixing media and you see that in bars, cabinets, furniture, bottle openers. It’s a fun context we live in.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
B, for its retro-futuristic view of technology, Sid and Nancy for reminding me of the power of presence and moxie, but if I only had one movie in my library: Monty Python and The Holy Grail for teaching us the importance of decisiveness by asking, “What’s your favorite color?” To which of course I always say, "ORANGE."