BY LUKE AREHART
The latest installment in our continuing look at Portland architects and their inspirations features one of the many talented designers at Holst Architecture. Dave Otte has been instrumental in a number of projects by the award-winning firm, including the AIA/Portland Center For Architecture and the Bud Clark Commons - both LEED Platinum rated and both beautiful.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Dave Otte: The first time it occurred to me was when I was building a tree house with my dad back in El Paso; I was only in the fourth grade, but I got a kick out of trying to form a solution around an existing tree. It ended up with a rope ladder and a dumb waiter and other features. It became my haven. This had a big impact on me. I was always interested in drawing and building with Legos; it always seemed like a foregone conclusion to become an architect. Through drafting classes in high school, it was something I wanted to focus on. I was okay at math but didn’t like it; I could do enough math to get through architecture school. It’s always felt like it has been in me, and the tree house was just one formative experience that I remember well.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
University of Texas at Austin, I got a five-year bachelor’s degree. I grew up in Texas, and loved my time in Austin. It was an awesome school and a great opportunity to be in a small college within a very big university; it was the best of both worlds. It was a very limited group of people that were selected for the school of architecture and then an even more limited group that actually makes it through the program because they have a serious weeding-out process. I knew everybody I graduated with like they were part of my family; but it was also a big university experience in a great town. Charles Moore passed away while I was in school, but his influence was felt so there was this contextual postmodernism that was still influencing the curriculum; at the same time modernists were coming back in as professors, so there was a postmodern/modern balance and tension that was interesting. Computers were just starting to come on in my last couple years, and so I started using the computer more; I was also bridging the gap between hand drawing and computers. They had an amazing shop and I tried to spend as much time as I could in the shop building full-scale details; the hands-on experience was great. They had a group of professors that had been at the school a long time so there was a sense of continuity and that everyone was on the same page; the experience wasn’t made up of a bunch of visiting professors, which contributed to the family-like feel.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
It’s a tie between two buildings with missions I believed in deeply. The first is my last project to be completed, the Bud Clark Commons, which was probably the hardest thing that I have ever done professionally. It is a comprehensive mixed-use building for the homeless and covers everything from a drop-in day center to permanent housing for our most vulnerable citizens. Programmatically it was extremely difficult because it was a large ownership group, and the first public project that we have ever done at Holst Architecture. We were working for the city and working for large groups which are a different animal than working for private developers or private businesspeople, or even single non-profits. There was a lot of client contact making sure everybody is on the same page. The program is complicated: there are three components to the building, all stacked on one another and having that fit within a tight height limit and zoning envelope required a lot of gymnastics, structurally and programmatically. The complexity makes the project so rich; this project will always be a part of me.
My other favorite project is a house that I designed with my wife for my parents and my brother in Arizona where they now live; we did that back in 2003. Being able to do this for my family meant a lot since my brother has cerebral palsy and special accessibility needs. They still live there and I’m able to go back and see it all the time, it was a cool experience.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
I learned a lot at ZGF Architects, about how to put a drawing set together, how to put buildings together, and how to work in a team.
If I had to list individual people, I would say my client for the Bud Clark Commons, Julie Livingston, who is an architect as well who worked on the owners’ side for Home Forward. She was also the owner’s representative on the AIA Center for Architecture. Julie taught me how to approach a project in a very optimistic way with high expectations, and that optimism and leadership led to better projects in the end because of the way Julie handles herself and manages the process. This has had a big impact on how I have been approaching my work lately.
My wife Jessica (COLAB Architecture + Urban Design) keeps me honest; she is an amazing designer with a great eye and has always been a helpful counterbalance to everything I am doing. Having two architects married to each other isn’t always the easiest thing, but it has made me a better architect, and I hope it has had the same effect for her.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I enjoy the process of getting to know a client and developing that relationship and seeing the results when the project is complete. Being able to look back on it and have a new friend and a success story and see how we were able to make their dreams become a physical reality as a meaningful place of form and beauty is everything that we try to do in architecture.
I probably excel the most at distilling complexity into singular solutions. I get creativity from constraints. The Bud Clark Commons, for example, was such a complex problem, that I felt I was able to bring my skills to distilling that problem into a cohesive whole. This has led to the other projects I am working on now that are complex problems with multiple interests and multiple client groups. My role involves navigating the program, budget, aesthetic desires of our office, and the level of craft from the program document down to the flashing details. I enjoy being able to funnel all of that into one solution. I used to work a lot individually, on big teams working on big projects, and I would just draw details and details and details and that is how I learned. Since then I have learned that while I can do it, it’s not what makes me the most happy. What does make me happy, and what I am best at, is working with people and turning relationships into results.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
The building that first comes to mind is the Belmont Lofts which was designed before I came to Holst and is why I came to Holst. I watched that building go up, and every time a new detail went up I became more and more interested. By the time it was finished, I was starting to think about going to a smaller firm from ZGF, and I thought, “I’d like to meet who did that and find out how they did that.” This had a big impact on me and I have been extremely lucky to work with the same people (Kim Wilson, John Holmes, and Jeff Stuhr) to learn from them. It has been an invaluable experience.
The Multnomah County Library by A.E. Doyle is another one, I have always loved that building and think we have a better library than Seattle; The Library makes me want to read more than I do. Now that I have a daughter, I love taking her there to have fun. Mostly, when you think about buildings in Portland, so many of them are background and contextual and bleed together to create a fabric; I always think of Portland as the space between the buildings, the open space, the parks, streets and intersections, that to me is what makes Portland remarkable. We have some of the most amazing parks in the country or even the world. The urban scale and the small blocks are what give Portland its character. Part of the reason why our buildings are so much more mundane is because we don’t have a lot of money in Portland; but the in-between spaces are truly exceptional.
One that influenced me early on in my career back when I was in school in Texas was the The Menil Collection in Houston by Renzo Piano. It’s a simple museum in the historic district of Houston that I think was ahead of its time and sublime in its execution. To take a large museum and have it fit into an old neighborhood, both modern and contextual at the same time, perfect details, clear diagram; it made me want to do something like that. The Menil blew me away because of the way it fit into its context with such amazing scale and detailing, it was beautiful.
The Kimbell Art Museum is another one in Texas by Louis Kahn that had a big impact on me as well.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I think architects are heralded enough. One thing I did notice when I was looking back at this series is that we haven’t interviewed any women architects; that might be one category in general that needs more credit, something to consider.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
Our public schools are an atrocity right now and making them a priority is a necessity for the city. I’m sure having a kid has colored my thought on that; with all the talk going on about a new bond measure and taxes, I think that is an investment that we have to make.
There are a lot of unfortunate circumstances downtown where good buildings get taken down to build new buildings because of economics and who owns the properties. It kills me to see so many surface parking lots that remain; there are a couple families and entities that own those lots and don’t have much incentive to develop them right now, but I think it would be very good for the city center to be able to get away from those surface lots, it can make a big difference.
So far there has been a strong commitment to affordable housing by the city, but I think it could be stronger; without families and without a middle class in the city center, we’re not going to be able to attract the growth and the development that everybody wants to have. We have to have everybody living here in order to also be thriving and we can’t do that just with people with the most being the only ones who can afford to live close in.How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
The city and the bureaus are doing the best they can with what they have. It’s a hard job enticing and controlling development at the same time while making sure everybody is happy; it’s just a hard thing to do.
We have had good luck with the Housing Bureau and Nick Fish’s office, they have been very supportive of progressive design, of quality design, buildings that last, investments in good architecture, and it has been a good experience.
We have a lot of experience with design review. Jeff Stuhr was on the design commission for eight years, so we have insight into how that works and how best to navigate that process. We have a great track record with design review, almost all of projects are in town so we are good at getting permits and working with the bureaus, we have a strong working relationship with the city in general.
The PDC has seen a big change in the last four or five years. They used to have housing under their belt and have since split, and now PDC is more strictly economic development and the Housing Bureau is controlling all of the affordable housing. That shift has caused some inefficiencies but I think in the long run, it will be ok. The PDC is in charge of urban renewal areas and these areas are currently required to set aside 30 percent of their available funds for affordable housing; there has been discussion about whether that should continue; I think that since the PDC has changed to not control housing there may be less incentive to keep that going but I think it is essential that the city keep that as a priority.
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 a warehouse and I work in a warehouse, so I would have to say warehouse. I don’t really enjoy yard work and I don’t like driving; I drive more than I want to.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Kengo Kuma is going to at the Japanese Garden. As long as we let him do something amazing, we are going to get that. We look at Kengo’s work all the time and greatly admire him; it’s an awesome opportunity for the city and I hope it is a success. Each project of Kengo’s has some amazing idea he came up with that you have never seen before. Sometimes they are odd, but most times they’re ethereal and amazing. I think he is one of the best architects working right now.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
My last two projects were LEED Platinum and my next two projects are aiming for it, and I hope that none of them are ugly; hopefully they are both beautiful and efficient.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I’ve always been a sucker for chairs; my family originally comes from Zeeland, Michigan where the Herman Miller headquarters is located. When I would go back and visit, there would always be Eames furniture everywhere in Zeeland, this little Dutch town. It’s funny because Eames was seen as very utilitarian there, and not special. I even rescued two plywood Eames chairs from my grandmother’s basement a long time ago. I’m always on the lookout and I keep thinking eventually someone is going to get one right and design the perfect chair.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
"Chinatown", "The Princess Bride" and "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters".