BY LUKE AREHART
Continuing our series of conversations with local architects about their careers and inspirations, we come to one of the most acclaimed designers in the city, Skylab Architecture founder Jeff Kovel. Since the firm's founding in 1999 (after Kovel had worked on musician Lenny Kravitz's home for Architropolis), Skylab has been responsible for a host of eye-catching projects in Portland and beyond, including the Departure Restaurant & Lounge atop the renovated Meier & Frank building downtown, Doug Fir restaurant on East Burnside at the Jupiter Hotel, and a residence in the West Hills famously used in the "Twilight" movie series, not to mention the Flavor Paper headquarters in Brooklyn and a temporary (but dazzling) space for Nike at the recent track & field Olympic Trials at Hayward Field in Eugene.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Jeff Kovel: When I was seven my parents built a house in New York with a talented young architect. I was young enough that I was able to spend time on the construction site with the architect and get to know the contractors. It was an incredible process that opened up a whole new world for me. I was playing with Legos at home and then seeing construction built in reality; that connectivity was apparent and got me interested in architecture. Growing up in a modern house was amazing, the house was on a beautiful site, and it was architecture in the sense that it was a tool to mediate between you and the landscape. I could see and feel the impact of living in a building that was custom-designed for its site and for the elements; I was able to see the initial design and construction process and grow up in this amazing house.
Fortunately, the high school I went to had drafting classes and I was able to take those. My earliest memory of that drafting class was a watching a film on the Portland Building being constructed; which was my first awareness of Portland in the 8th grade in New York through a film about a Michael Graves building.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I went to Cornell Architecture School. I first discovered the school through a summer program when I was in high school; at that point I had known that I wanted to be an architect, so I was looking for a fast track. I had a great time in the program. We did three projects and I was making models and designing buildings for the first time. I was fortunate enough to be accepted as a bachelor of architecture student to Cornell; I earned my five-year undergraduate degree there. Cornell is a school that is idea-focused and less technically focused; it is also rooted in craft and the traditional architectural skills of hand drawing, ink drawing and model making. The computer didn’t really show up until my fourth year of study, and even at that point it was pretty minimal. When I think about architecture school, I think about an education that you can’t get any other way; in a technical capacity you can learn on the job or through experience, or studying on your own.
Cornell was an idea driven focus for five years with a traditional craft basis. I think this is the best type of education and has really helped me in my ability to craft ideas and then be able to sell them and lead them through to execution.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant (CBWTP Support Facility). It is the largest scale and most civic project that we’ve done to date. It has been a process working with the city to develop a progressive concept and bring it through the stages of design. We have landed on something that will be symbolic for the city in terms of built structures and sustainability. The plant staff and leadership were looking to build a hundred year building; this allowed us to explore concrete in a new way. We spent a lot of time with CBWTP finessing its structural system, it is a pretty sophisticated tessellated roof system, it has a series of tapered, cambered concreted beams that are forty feet long and land on 24 inch diameter concrete round forms; it will be exciting to see it realized.
Some of the other projects that I have enjoyed have been projects where we have been able to design on a civil engineering scale, some of the residences that we have worked on for example have 36-inch deep wide flange structural beams that double cantilever thirty or forty feet in each direction. I enjoy getting to that level of structural expression where we are employing the art of engineering to creating conceptual forms.
Who has been most influential to your career?
Frank Lloyd Wright is an influential person to me. I would have to say the architect in New York, Steve Haas. Also a number of fabricators have been really influential, relationships built over time where we’ve innovated around anything from project delivery to details and material process.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I like being on the construction site: being able to see what is happening and anticipate issues or discrepancies and find a path towards resolution. My other main strength is my role as creative director in all of our projects; translating research into concepts and editing them through to realization.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I love some of the early modern buildings here: The Union Bank of California tower, the Standard Insurance tower. I take inspiration not necessarily from urban structures here as much as rural structures, like Timberline Lodge and Salishan, even things like the highway rest stop buildings that have more native regional forms are inspiring to me for their materiality.
Another thing that I find influential is the industrial buildings of the western landscape; things like grain silos and warehouses and the working quality of the West have been really interesting to me for a long time. The opportunity to rehabilitate some of these buildings and bring them into their modern form has really been exciting to us; there is a patina, texture, materiality and ethic to them that is very powerful today.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
My two favorite buildings in the last 10 years are the Seattle Central Library by OMA and the Mercedes Museum by UNStudio in Stuttgart, Germany. Both of those buildings, in different ways, have pushed the field of architecture.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I’m excited about Aaron Whelton of Whelton Architecture. He is a professor at PSU and he won the competition to do The David Campbell Memorial on the waterfront; he is a really promising designer who has both the drive and disposition to become successful.
Allied Works is making incredible work.
There are a lot of designers: industrial, product and digital that I could point to as well.
There is a company called NEW run by Jason Martin and Carl Jonsson; they are doing some incredible industrial design and pushing the field forward.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
We generally have a conservative approach to making buildings here in Portland. We have a very risk-adverse development community; the counter to that is that we have an incredibly talented group of architects here, and I would like to see that gap get bridged more tightly, provided the city is a very blank canvas right now and transitioning into a new era; it’s a great time to add the layer of inspiration that more progressive architecture will bring and carry us further in terms of the global perception.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
We’ve had excellent experiences collaborating with the Portland Development Commission, and we’ve also found a lot of support in the Bureau of Development Services in the city government, people like Portland Mayor Sam Adams. A great example of this positive collaboration is the Bureau of Environmental Services’ project that we are working on now. The project started as a fairly narrow program and building size without much site work or master planning; we looked at the site holistically and then created a design solution that in an integrated way resolves a number of issues and creates a powerful platform for a piece of architecture that wouldn’t have existed otherwise. In many governments, the approach is much more narrowly defined and prescriptive.
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?
It would be a toss-up between Mississippi and the West Hills. I live in something that is similar to a loft in the North Mississippi district now, in the West end, where I’m raising children and it’s pretty tight quarters. I definitely have an inclination to move toward more of a ranch in the West Hills; probably because it’s the easy answer to the challenges of living downtown.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
There are so many excellent architects that it’s hard to say, probably a European firm, having an OMA, UNStudio, Herzog & De Meuron, or MVRDV project here would raise the bar. There is so much happening in global architecture that has not made it here yet.
Everybody is pretty trigger shy here, probably in some part based on the Portland Building experience; there just hasn’t been an appetite for that type of project.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I like when design crops up in unexpected places, as much as I’m interested in more of the mainstream channels of design like furniture and apparel and footwear design and accessories. Often it is the unexpected solution to a problem that most people are overlooking is what gets me most excited.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
"Lost in America", "The Shining", and "2001: A Space Odyssey".