BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last autumn, top honors at the annual AIA/Portland Design Awards went to a small, new Portland firm with some big credentials.
Lever Architecture, which won an Honor Award for a digital animation studio in Glendale, California, has only been in operation since 2009. But the work of its founding principal, Thomas Robinson, has long stood out. Robinson spent most of the past decade as a principal at the internationally acclaimed Portland firm Allied Works, collaborating with Brad Cloepfil on projects like the University of Michigan Museum of Art and the Seattle Art Museum.
As if the pedigree of designing for Portland's most renowned firm weren't enough, Robinson also previously worked for what is arguably the world's top firm, Herzog & de Meuron of Switzerland, which has crafted internationally praised architectural landmarks like the National Olympic Stadium (aka "The Bird's Nest") in Beijing and the Tate Modern museum in London. Robinson worked for Herzog & DeMeuron on the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco.
Robinson and Lever Architecture's latest design is a seven-story, 55,000 square foot mixed-use dormitory called ArtHouse with ground-floor retail space, on the site of the former Powell's Technical Bookstore on the North Park Blocks. The existing building there, a two-story former automobile dealership, dates to 1916 but does not have any historic-architectual protection. Powell's is a co-developer of the project, along with Project^.
"It’s at this pivotal point between the pearl, downtown and Old Town/Chinatown," Robinson says. "We thought of it as a hinge, a gateway. It’s also part of Powell’s. It’s also part of the future of PNCA, expanding into the park blocks. We thought from an urban and from a cultural point of view, that was an exciting point of connection."
Robinson says he can appreciate the handsomeness of the old building and the need for responsible historic preservation in the city. "I think Emily Powell put it best in the response to the neighborhood association," Robinson explains. "She said, 'I have a very strong connection to the building. But is it working? It’s been sitting empty for two years.' To make the project work, it needed to be a new building."
If tearing down the old Powell's Technical Bookstore building gives pause, Robinson says the future of the Park Blocks and PNCA's presence there gets people excited. "There’s always been this idea with the PNCA master plan to keep students in the Pearl. Because the Pearl needs that. It really does. I think that’s why we presented to the Pearl Neighborhood Association. They were really excited, by both the concept and the building itself."
Lever's proposed design, which was received favorably in last week's Design Advice Request meeting with the city's Design Commission, features a design noteworthy in how it plays with light, both as it relates to the interior and exterior.
On the inside, deep cuts into the facade bring light far into the corridors."One of the key things was to think about bringing daylight into the corridors at level and in every direction. That in a way came first," Robinson explains. "It seems very simple, but it doesn’t even exist in many of the most luxurious condos in the Pearl. When you look at a typical quarter block plan it’s always an ‘L’. We tried to break those pieces apart to allow daylight to come in from every direction. It's basically like four buildings. If you take a quarter block…we thought, could we come up with a different way of breaking the ‘L’ up? We’ve actually been able to expand one way, and then expand another way. We could actually use the overlap space to bring more light and air in."
On the facade itself, the Lever design seeks to create depth and play of light and shadow like the neighborhood's older brick buildings, only using metal panels.
"You have these great existing buildings on the park blocks, these old brick warehouses. We asked, 'Why do people like these buildings?' One answer is the play of light on the bricks and on the fenestrations, and also just the level of detail. While we know we can’t build low-bearing brick buildings with that authenticity, but we can use some of the characteristics: the depth of the window openings, the play of light on the ridged façade."
The PNCA project, slated to achieve a Gold LEED rating, is comprised of chevron-shaped panels that Robinson says allow the building to have a more variegated surface; the light bounces and changes color as it hits the surface. "One thing the Pearl Neighborhood Association talked about is a lack of depth and fenestration on the newer generation of buildings there," Robinson adds. "That’s one thing they really liked about this project. That was a big part of it, to think about how you could use light as a material to give another level of depth…it’s taking one element, repeating that, and using it to create a sense…a type of architecture people understand."
The building is also set back from the sidewalk, in order to have room for tables and congregation of people at the street level. "The building is not all about maximizing space," the architect adds. "It’s about being smart about creating spaces for contributing to the life of the Park Blocks at the street level. Part of that is creating setbacks so you can have outdoor seating. A condo developer would be more inclined to maximize every inch of space. We’re saying by adding this space for tables, it makes a much more attractive retail and public space. If you can have the space to sit outside, people are going to want to be there. If you put everything to the edge and there’s no space, it’s more challenging."
The new PNCA building will also have an interior rain garden that processes all of the rainwater used on site, but on the ground floor rather than a rooftop. "If you look at the plan, the idea that this garden is visibly connected to the park outside was an important concept. It treats all the water that comes from the building. We thought of the garden as a still life that’s framed. We’re working with Lango Hansen to think of ways we could innovate with a rain garden, with the planting. It can become a focal point: the idea of a rain garden as something you see. We’re really excited about that. A lot of the buildings in the pearl have green roofs on them, but you don’t know it."
Meanwhile, Lever's animation studio in Glendale, California - designed for a major Hollywood movie and entertainment company which so far wishes to remain anonymous - continues to accrue accolades, not only on the design awards front but from the building's occupants and visitors. Not unlike Allied Works' Wieden + Kennedy headquarters, it's a renovation that soars above its original by cutting into the building to create connections, and then embracing natural reclaimed materials (especially wood) inside.
"It’s changed their thinking about what a workspace can be," Robinson says. "It was a windowless warehouse with parking around it. Now people are using this space on weekends for events. They’re having to coordinate who uses it. It started with a really simple premise: a space where the whole company could gather. How do you create that space but make it still seem alive when no one’s in it? We worked carefully on how the café relates to that space, to the exterior, and to the landscape. We were always making sure that spaces like the conference rooms and theaters and where people gather were entered through that space.
Having followed architecture and architects in Portland for the past 13 years or so, I'm excited about the growing presence of Lever Architecture. Though Allied Works remains arguably the city's most talented firm, not since the arrival of small shops like Works Partnership and Atelier Waechter in the 2000s has a firm broken into the handful of top designers in town to rival stalwarts like Holst, Skylab and THA Architecture.
Robinson says he chose the firm name Lever because it represents a simple tool that can have a transformative effect: a kind of hinge or fulcrum that allows motion and the easy shifting of energy. As the North Park Blocks, the Pearl and the broader city transform, it's nice to know Lever will be there to enable and to re-imagine.