BY BRIAN LIBBY
James Cutler has long been considered an architect's architect. Operating from a small office on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, he has become internationally acclaimed particularly in the use of wood, and mostly on residential and small commercial and public buildings. Cutler's most prominent and highly praised work includes designed Bill Gates's residence in Seattle, the Pine Forest Cabin in northeastern Washington, the Salem Witch Trials Tercentenary Memorial in Massachusetts, and the Capitol Hill Library in Seattle.
Although his office and principal residence remain in Washington, Cutler spends part of each year in Portland, teaching at the University of Oregon in the summer. "I think it’s a wonderfully civilized city," the architect said in a recent phone interview. "I ascribe that partially to how it didn’t burn down like Seattle did. It kept the 200-by-200-foot block structure. The streets aren’t wide. It’s a place where pedestrians rule."
Cutler's Grace Episcopal Church in Bainbridge Island (image courtesy Cutler Anderson)
And now, Cutler has a much more prominent connection to the Rose City: he co-designed with Portland's SERA Architects the transformation of the circa-1974 Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal building downtown into a leading-edge sustainable project with an arresting signature look that is mising from most green design projects. That comes thanks largely to a west facade with clusters of long, thin sun, reed-like sun shades. Cutler had originally designed the shades to be made of plant material, but after the project was resurrected and its design tweak following a two-year budgetary delay, metal sunshades (onto which plants will grow) were placed there instead. That the facade looks even better in its less ambitious second version is a testament to Cutler's sense of visual poetry.
"I felt Portland is maybe the greenest city in North America. If there was anyplace I could convince people to do a building that was both technically and emotionally green, that would be in Portland. If there is going to be a strong movement to save the planet, the federal government should be in the lead. If there was a place to pull that off and convince everybody to do it, that would be Portland."
Asked to elaborate on his phrase emotionally green, the architect said that besides the necessity of havinga firm technical grasp of state-of-the-art sustainable systems, "I also believe there’s an intangible aspect, the emotional aspect of sustainable technology. If you can’t do a building that grabs someone that is emotionally powerful and tells the story of itself powerfully, then you’re failing. If it doesn’t capture hearts and minds of those who view it, not architects but laymen, at some level you’re failing to connect."
Normally a firm of Cutler Anderson's size doesn't get to compete for projects of this scale; SERA's expertise helped win the job nearly as much as Cutler's, for their experience with LEED-rated projects, government projects and renovations is all stronger. That said, Cutler argues, design is design.
"You often can be pigeonholed because you’re successful in one realm, in my case being in a rural setting. But let me tell you a story. I had dinner last Saturday night in Pennsylvania with one of my colleagues, Peter Bohlin. I’ve known him since I was 21—maybe 40 years. We do show-and-tell to one another. I don’t have as much in my small office to show as he does in his large office. But at dinner I showed him the Edith Green. His first response was, ‘Jimmy this is a shocker.’ He said, ‘First of all everybody just thinks you’re nuts and berries. You’re a wood guy. And then how did you get the government to do this?’ He said, ‘It’s very impressive.’ And he never compliments me. I’m assuming it’s a pretty good building because Peter’s sparse in compliments. But the point is you get pigeonholed. In my mind, design is design. Once you get a reasonably good sense of the technologies—and in this case SERA was unbelievably helpful, getting me the best data and letting me push it—it’s just design."
Even so, the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt design was an evolution. When we started the building, it was just supposed to be a mechanical upgrade with a secure pavilion in front. SERA brought the old contract documents and we saw there was this opportunity to remove the old concrete skin and create a new one, and bring the building up to modern standards in terms of sustainability. I was extremely enamored with this idea of a sculpture that would be a living thing in the city. It would be a symbol of our government’s concern about our overall environment. But I did see it as this kinetic sculpture. On the west side we’d have this living wall and take advantage of the very bio-systems that have taken millions of years to develop. Trees have evolved over billions of years to drop their leaves and shed them. Why not use a living system to keep the building cool and on an emotional level to do not just a technical but a living green building that would be this great living thing in the heart of the city?"
The original vegetative fins Cutler compared to trees. "I was pretty romantically involved with that idea," he says. Then we had our…like every project we had budget issues. We had technical issues. At a certain point, John McCain put the building on the list of his biggest boondoggles in the American Recovery Act. And then everybody got all nervous. Besides that, there were some genuine technical problems. Everyone was afraid it would fail. That’s something I could totally get. It was going to work, but until the plants grew, it wasn’t going to work. Who in the government is going to build a $125 million building and not have it work for three years? It would be a political football, and the GSA will already be one of the footballs of this coming election season. Everybody was a little afraid. I wasn’t, because I’m a crazy person. But at a certain point they were right: that you can’t do a building and tell somebody, ‘Come back in three years and it will really work.’ The only way it would have worked is if we oversized the mechanical system for those three years. Where’s the savings? The capital cost would be as if we didn’t have any screening."
In reality, the architect says looking back, "I had chosen too large a building to attempt what I really wanted to do. We should have been looking at a smaller scale to try what was a great living experiment. I was pretty upset: not screaming or throwing tantrums, but I felt bad because I had spent several years of my life on it."
But Cutler received some sage advice from his mentor. "I had dinner with Peter Bohlin and he said, ‘You know, it could probably be better. I think you should not drop it. Really go for it and make it work.’ I decided to do it. I sat down that night after dinner and started really working away on the system. I did one design and [curtain wall manufacturer] Benson Industries was eager to get going, but there was very little time before the potential start of construction. I must have gone through three or four meetings with Jeremy Mucha. They’d come up with something they used before: meshed, perforated screens. I wanted to do mesh because you could grow things on it. We went through three or four design sessions, Jeremy and I with three or four people hovering around us. I said, 'What if we develop something random on the skin, like pickup sticks.' He said, ‘Like reeds? We could do that.’ I said, 'This is great.' We drew up the great western screens, first very randomly, but then I thought, 'They’re never going to systemize this.' We just kept working and working and working until we got to a point where we understood a pattern. Stuart Colby at SERA’s office didn’t think we had the entrance worked out. Then I realized we should really enter on the corner. Then everything fell together. I realized I could increase the irregularity of this western face by developing an axis on the diagonal to the park where the screens would be almost like a scoop. And at that point we knew we’d nailed it. The randomness is not arbitrary. It’s driven by the function on the ground. And in the end they’ll let me grow as high as it will take me. I tell people I’m looking for beans from Jack."
As with local architect Thomas Hacker, it's impossible for any lover of architecture to speak to Cutler without asking about his days as a student under the great Louis Kahn. "The very first project that I did with Kahn, I discovered that we don't do buildings. We do clothing that houses institutions, and we have to tailor the garment to each particular institution's anatomy," Cutler says.
"I was in Kahn’s last class, the master studio. He died over our spring break. But Lou morphed me forever. He did. We’re all pretty hard-wired to be who we are through our genetics that drive our hormonal systems. We find our genetic wiring to be either appropriate or inappropriate in the situation we find ourselves in. Well, I was wired to be in Lou’s presence. I worked more that year than all my previous six years in college and grad school. I’m not making that up or trying to wax lyrical about Lou. It’s just true that I learned so damn much and it was at the core of my being. I feel like the luckiest guy in the world. Besides having a great family and all that stuff, in my profession I had the best teacher of the last century. I’m sure of it. So I had him as my teacher and Peter Bohlin as my mentor. If I had failed, it would be a total screw-up on my part. I had all the tools given to me as a gift."
Meanwhile, the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt building is still in its final stages of completion. But it's already commanding a presence in downtown Portland. Sitting accross the park from City Hall and just two blocks down Third Avenue from the circa-1997 Mark Hatfield US Courthouse, each an ambitius work of architecture in its day, the Green-Wyatt feels like a special building: a union of form and function into something greater than the sum of its parts.
"I’m pretty convinced people are going to feel we’ve done a great building," Cutler says. "It has this liquid quality to it. And the scale: you can’t quite put you head around it. It’s almost like a giant sculpture. It still baffles my brain a little bit when I go up to it. I knew we were doing it, but you have to feel it viscerally when you’re up against it. I’m pleased, but it really was a team effort, including the client, which is rare to say about the federal government."