BY LUKE AREHART
Next in the Architect’s Questionnaire series is David Grigsby, an associate partner at Portland-based ZGF Architects. A California licensed architect, David moved to Portland in 1995 to work for KPFF Consulting Engineers, leading to his current position at ZGF, where he will celebrate 15 years with the firm this winter.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
David Grigsby: I was exposed to Architecture early in my sophomore year at South Tahoe High School and at that time seemed pretty confident with the idea. We had a building on campus that housed auto shop, mechanical drawing and a large art studio with ceramics, photography and print making. I was excited to be able to take an architectural drawing class which opened the door to the building that housed the cool stuff. Generally I stayed in the drawing and art studios; I was officially in the architectural drafting class but tended worked through the assignments quickly and was free to float over into the art studio when I was done - this allowed me to support the other activities that the art teacher had to perform. Acting as an unofficial teaching assistant I would bounce back and forth between the classes; if I was done with my drawing assignment I would go over and help the art teacher with all of the printed documents for the school such as transmittal forms and letterhead, all done with a huge offset press, vats of ink and metal plates. Weaving these activities together with the oversight and mentoring of my teachers I developed architecture drawing through art. Mr. Williams, my drawing instructor insisted that if I wanted to go to school for architecture that I really should go to Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. He seemed to know what I should do and in an odd way so did I, so that's what did it.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I was determined that Cal Poly was where I wanted to go. For some reason there seemed to be no need to look at other schools or do an exhaustive search for what might be the best university. My decision making process is much looser than that, trusting my intuition and those around me, being comfortable that the best option will somehow expose itself, not based on some exhaustive research. I was simply told by several people that Cal Poly was the place to go to study architecture. Rarely, if at all, were other universities suggested so it seemed clear to me. Unfortunately I didn't have the best grades in High School where I tended to be interested in art, math and science and perhaps not enough in the other courses. My grades were okay, but certainly not good enough to get me into Cal Poly, the admissions requirements for architecture made it extremely hard to get into. I ended up moving down to southern California to go to Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa for a year which was a great opportunity to complete some of my general education requirements and it gave me a chance to focus more generally on school, and take some great photography and art courses too. During this time I also continued my investigation into Cal Poly and became even more convinced and did eventually get in, though my acceptance into the College of Architecture and Environmental Design at Cal Poly was a bit through a side door by first entering via aeronautical engineering. CAED only accepted applications for the fall term, I missed the window for getting into Architecture because I was applying for winter term but, after their suggestion to reapply under other majors, I was accepted into Aero. Little did I know how hard the Aero classes would be. Not to give up, but Aero was not my love anyway, I took more and more architecture courses to the point where Aero threatened to kick me out. My grades in Architecture were very good so I did finally get officially accepted into Architecture.
Cal Poly was, as it turns out, a great school: perfect for the way I tend to learn and explore design. I enjoy design theory but am very interested in how it is applied to the built environment as in actually develops into architecture. Exploring how ideas work or don't work and how the materials and science comes into play. I was always trying to apply theory and Cal Poly's motto of "Learn By Doing" created a lot of hands on instruction, a lot of structures and materials classes, which I found to be a huge asset for my own design sensitivities.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
A project that I did here locally, Providence Portland Medical Center Central Utility Plant, which wasn’t aesthetically driven at all, it was hugely mechanically driven, and it had a large number of requirements to coordinate to make it work efficiently. Coordination with other consultants and jurisdictions and the general contractor, and the list goes on and on. From a process and product stand point, I loved working on that project, it came together very well. It did win a couple of awards. One was the ASHE Vista Award; the award was based on teamwork of the owner, design team and the contractor, from the beginning to the end of the project. That project has a high standing in my mind, it was a great team and a project where I had the opportunity and responsibility to learn a lot about complex mechanical systems, coordinate the efforts of diverse teams within a very small project box.
Another favorite project of mine that had a design focus and was much less complicated was a new airport terminal in North Bend/Coos Bay, Oregon. The airport district had the opportunity to expand on its property and they asked ZGF to envision some ideas to create a new airport terminal, a landmark for the area and the region. Sounds like an ideal request: a landmark and a big piece of land to put it on. Unlike the central plant this project had a strong aesthetic requirement, which was great. It was though equally as challenging but in different ways because it faced huge budget issues, politics in the area and complex FAA requirements and approval processes. Ultimately it was a great project and one that has been well received. It was a really fun project to work on, again a small but engaging project team with good contractors and a responsive and eager client, all helping to drive toward a good solution.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
When I first moved to Portland right out of school, Rob Kistler now of The Façade Group was leading the façade consulting department at KPFF Consulting Engineers. Rob was a great mentor for me at this point in my career; he had the ability to clearly communicate the design and technical issues within an exterior envelope. Certainly the basic issues of the system functions but also the intent behind why KPFF was hired to do this review, engineering and development. We did a few projects for Kohn Pedersen Fox, both domestic and in Asia, BOORA on the Nike Town's in Portland and New York, the Nike campus with TVA and projects with ZGF. Under Rob I learned how to detail some complex exterior walls, document them and coordinate their engineering and testing. Rob continues to be a mentor and friend.
After being able to sample the work of several architectural firms in town as a consultant with KPFF I was fortunate enough have created some good connections and was offered a position at ZGF. It was not long before I was working with Jan Willemse on the expansion of the Portland International Airport. Jan provided some similar technical mentorship and guidance but introduced me to the role of Architect. Jan was very good with the technical issues related to complex projects and could easily combine that with solid design sills to create good works of architecture, well designed and well executed. But perhaps what Jan also exposed me to is the concept that it takes the whole team to get these projects done right and the team needs to be well organized and motivated. A fundamental part of our skill as architects is to be able to lead a team of individuals to produce their best work.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
Maybe these are the same parts. I really enjoy the team dynamic and how that team is activated to create architecture, because a great design doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it has to have the commitment of everybody on the team from the beginning to the end. I do really enjoy when a concept begins to form and everyone starts to recognize its value with excitement and motivation. When the ideas refine themselves around particular components like the site, the program or the client's motivations, or goals of performance and economics. When all of the factors are dumped out onto the design table to figure out how to make a building out of them and to determine as a group how to optimistically meet all of the desires of the project team. The best project teams that I have been on are composed of individuals, from the clients to the contractors, that have had enough experience to recognize the complexities of the issues, recognize the opportunities within those and perhaps most importantly trust the skill and talent of the others in the process. At ZGF I have both project team responsibilities where I get to play the role of project architect but I also get the pleasure of making staff assignments and helping define project teams; helping to stock the creative stewpot with the right magical ingredients.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
When I think about architecture I think about the buildings that are memorable to me. Those seem to be the ones I know the most about. I have a hard time looking at a project from afar or looking at it without going and being part of it. So for me one of the projects that I find memorable is one that was just being built when I came to Portland, the Mark Hatfield US Courthouse Building by Kohn Pedersen Fox with BOORA as the local firm. I was working at KPFF and oddly enough they were doing the façade for the building, so I had the opportunity to see the details evolve and to witness it through the documents and the construction. That project was interesting to me because there were several stories swirling around its design with its location near the Michael Graves building across the park, so whenever I see the courthouse, I understand it, appreciate its details and find it successful; and successful for Portland. It has what I see as a big city approach to the use of materials, it’s the type of high design project that we could use more of and it attempts to make a statement as well. I appreciate that.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
When I was at Cal Poly, I went abroad and studied in Italy for a year and had the chance to see both historic and modern examples of architecture. I found myself drawn to train stations and civic architecture; I remember the train station in Florence as a very modernist piece of architecture. The local social commentary was that “the architect delivered a box to the job site with the model inside, and the crew built the box and not the model". This always struck me as interesting, and something to compare as I traveled to other major cities in Europe via train. As most of the other railway stations around were so monumental, from a different time. Those are the kind of spaces that I’ve always been drawn to, the very large civic spaces. On a trip to Paris I went to the Musee d’Orsay, a wonderful museum housed in a building that is a renovated or repurposed train station, what I found interesting was that it was a space converted from a monumental industrial space into a museum which suggests more intimate and focused use. A dramatic shift but quite well executed, preserving a lot of the initial construction type and intent, materials and volumes. That building is solid in my memory as it taps into the monumental scale of architecture that I like but at the same time houses some pieces of my favorite art; works that up to that time I had only seen in books. So the experience of that space was very exciting to me, seeing the collision of a wonderful piece of large civic architecture with some small scale sculpture and art, a very memorable combination.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
If we could figure out how to combine a piece of monumental architecture that could help define the city physically and aesthetically, perhaps with the attributes that already puts Portland on the map, like sustainability and high performance design, even how we are striving to address eco districts and issues bigger than single buildings. I don’t know how that comes about, seems very complex to me and maybe that is not a shared perspective. The complexity comes from funding. Certainly if there were a willing investor there would be a lot of ideas. Maybe it could be a new piece of civic or governmental architecture. But Portlanders are maybe too frugal or practical to push civic architecture to be monumental anymore, because it might seem too aesthetically driven or not well placed value. We’ve had the opportunity for this with local bridge efforts and major redevelopment areas but even these have been hesitant to make any kind of powerful expression. It’s unclear whether that is a conservative design review filter or just that it has to look fiscally responsible. I would like to see it be more reaching, more flamboyant and still responsible, but bigger and more expressive.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I appreciated the fact that there is the interest in revitalization and using a government agency to help guide that process in terms of redevelopment and historic preservation and making sure that we are doing things right for the long term. The city’s design review may be hampering that process in that it may be too thorough, or maybe not inclusive enough or too politically driven, and maybe too slow and bogged down. From my perspective as we go through that process, it can inform the design, but it can also create an environment where you can’t do anything without justification or anything new and interesting because it has to fit a mold. I’m not sure that’s healthy.
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?
I live in Sellwood now so I guess I would be comfortable in North Mississippi, the part that intrigues me is what’s happening there with the evolution of the area from light industrial to a healthy mix of residential and retail uses. It seems to have been able to maintain a level of affordability and still has some of the industrial look and feel and what certainly seems like a big sense of community. It’s possible to walk to all sorts of stuff and that stuff is always changing. It has a great life to it and that might be why those other neighborhoods don’t inspire me as much. It has a lot to do with the energy around where I live and the space itself in terms of opportunity to have something different; a sense of place that’s not just one of several; it’s one of one. That's intriguing to me.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
We need something fresh. But staying a bit true to my firm and our potential, I think ZGF should do one that’s flamboyant. But in trying to think about who is doing work out there in the world, if it’s Bjarke Ingels or somebody along those lines that can be an outsider and present something new. Perhaps it has to be somebody outside of Portland. I could see Ingels coming in and doing something interesting; I would love to see an open door for that, or at least somebody being willing to follow through on an opportunity of engaging a designer that could pull it off. Perhaps we are all still feeling a little burned by the Portland Building.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
I’m sure this has been a great conversation topic, because it doesn’t have to be one or the other, it can be both! I see a new challenge from a design perspective in creating architecture around metrics, how do we measure our success? Performance and sustainability are now driving projects; everything has to be responsive to that as a requirement. I think you can have both, a highly performing building can be innovative and certainly aesthetically pleasing while meeting these criteria, not an either/or. If someone were to plop down a ball of clay in front of me and tell me to create something, I’m not sure that I would be considering performance as the driver but it would be inherent in the exercise, but if I had to make a statement of choice - I would go for a performance driven building.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I’ve always loved cars and think the design of cars is very interesting. The design of cars has lead me to learn some things about architecture; I’ve had little sports cars for a long time and have always appreciated their design, function and sound; these sensations were always mixed together which applies to architecture. Because you can’t just watch it sit there, stagnant, you have to witness it and drive it and use it for what it was intended to be used for. There are lots of things that are woven into auto design, and one of the things that I’ve learned is unlike architecture, the auto industry is able to plant seeds of design over time, creating its own evolution of a particular design intent. Which lets people become comfortable with a particular pushing of the envelope and that allows them to be more interested in a little incremental change in what they perceive to be the extremes - too tall, too big, too red, too noisy. If we can push that same envelope in architecture which is happening with parametric modeling and the fact that buildings no longer need to be boxes. We are starting to see that the general public and clients that want a fun project, one that is more interesting, grow more adventurous each time - they become more interested in the things that they see. Like cars, people get more familiar and more comfortable with doing things differently and seeing for example, headlights no longer being round. The design of the automobile is a great parallel and I’ve always enjoyed cars, design and art you can drive.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
Lost in Translation for being thought provoking and unpredictable and a film that causes you to think about the movie itself long after it's over. Dune and Blade Runner - these are terrific. The scenery and mood in those movies are powerful; I enjoy movies that don’t expose themselves all at once you have to see them more than once and chew on them mentally before realizing different meanings and things that are woven-in and get realized much, much later.