BY LUKE AREHART
In this installment of our continuing interview series featuring the architects of Portland, we come to Sid Scott of Scott|Edwards Architecture. The firm, led by principals Scott and Kelly Edwards, has been responsible for a variety of projects from private residences to public buildings to offices, with a focus on sustainability. Recently, for example, Scott|Edwards has seen the grand opening of its Sunnyside Library, provided pro-bono designs for an expansion of the Oregon Children's Museum, begun work on the first commercial building in the United States designed to Passive House standards, and seen its Driftwood Library in Lincoln City receive Gold LEED certification. The firm also designed the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, which continues to expand with an IMAX theater and a water park.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Sid Scott: I grew up in a small rural town in central Montana working in my family’s lumberyard and construction business. From an early age I was interested in building materials and how they were used to create space. I was intrigued by the basic off-the-shelf construction materials like plywood, dimensional lumber, raw steel, construction connectors, corrugated panels, etc. As part of the construction business, we built houses. My favorite part was when the framing was completed. I thought the wood framed houses were beautiful works of art. Then we would cover them with siding and sheetrock and they looked like every other house. I wanted to create buildings that expressed how and what they were built with. That led me to architecture.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied architecture at Montana State University located in Bozeman, Montana. In addition to architecture, I was a few credits short of a degree in construction engineering technology (CET). Double majoring provided an excellent educational experience for me. The architectural program nicely balanced intuitive and process design, and the CET program emphasized the technical skills involved in building. The relatively rural location of the school gave me a great appreciation for designing in response to the site and environment. The skiing and fly-fishing were pretty good as well.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
Every project starts with a lot of hope/enthusiasm/possibility. It is fantastic to see how that translates into creating a project. This was the case in designing my own house. The process was a great challenge and education and ultimately a very satisfying experience. Every architect should do it once. It was an opportunity to see the project from all sides as my family was the client and I was the architect and contractor. It gave me insight into the opportunities/challenges of each. As the client you dream about what could be, manage expectations, budget, and compromise. As the architect you design a project that is a reflection of the client and the way they live. The contractor maintains a high level of quality on a limited budget. It was a chance to explore the things that got me interested in architecture in the first place; expression of construction and using off-the-shelf materials to create an interesting place to live. The great part is living with your design and continuing to evolve the idea and learn from it. A side benefit has been the opportunity to use the house to educate clients in this architectural idea, which has resulted in being able to do more projects in this style.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
My dad was a great mentor to me as an entrepreneur. I learned how to run a business and take the chances that led me to establishing an architectural practice. You are not taught in school how to make architecture a business, so this mentoring was invaluable.
Now I look at my clients as important mentors. I started my practice based on the idea of diversity of project-types, and not wanting to become a “specialist” in any particular area. Half of my work is in the private sector and half is in the public sector. As a result, I do a wide range of work with a diverse client base. I approach every project as a partnership with the client and as a team we share our expertise, skills and talents. I learn something new from every client that gives me new strategies to help the next client. They have been a very important part of my education and growth as an architect.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I like making projects happen and I think this is one of my strong suits. Fresh out of school, I remember how easy it was to be critical of projects. But as I started doing my own projects, I realized how hard it was to actually get a project done…any kind of project. It was surprising the number of projects that started and never finished. I began to admire any completed project. As an architect, I learned that I could take a bigger role in helping a client get something done. In addition to design, my interest has gone beyond the typical architect role as I routinely help clients find money and sites, develop proformas and deal with political issues. I’ve realized that even if you have the greatest design, if you can’t help a client make it happen it just sits on the shelf. I enjoy the process of making projects happen.
Memorial Coliseum (photo by Brian Libby)
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I particularly admire the 1960’s Memorial Coliseum. It is such a simple elegant concept of a glass box with an arena inside. The concept is expressed equally well both inside and out. I really enjoy the striking night views of the building when the curtains at the top of the seating area are open and you can clearly see the saddle-shaped arena inside the glass box. I appreciate clear ideas in architecture.
If I was going to send someone a postcard of quintessential Oregon architecture, it would be the Salishan Lodge.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
My favorite building outside of Portland that I’ve visited is Le Corbusier’s Chapel at Ronchamp (Notre Dame du Haut) in France. My wife and I backpacked around Europe for a summer, and I had a checklist of architecture to visit. The Chapel absolutely blew me away. We got off at a tiny rural train stop and started ascending the hill. The narrow winding road and the Chapel siting on the hillside created glimpses through the trees and a wonderful sequence of arrival. As we got closer, we could hear a growing beautiful sound coming from the Chapel. The massive walls and roof form create a heroic scale for a relatively small building. Every view of the building is unique (both inside and out). When we arrived at the chapel, we found a choir practicing inside the tiny space. The acoustics were fantastic as was the interior lighting. It’s not something that I would personally design, but after experiencing the building, it was a perfect solution for its site and use. I’ve always admired it and have by far the most pictures and sketches of it compared to other buildings we visited in Europe.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
There are many really good small firms in Portland that don’t get the chance to do bigger, more visible projects. I went through this struggle in the early years of my firm as we interviewed for larger projects that we were qualified to do. I knew the kinds of innovative ideas and design we could bring to the table. In the end they went with the safe choice: the bigger firm that had done twenty-two of the same type of project. It’s hard to get the chance to do projects as a small firm. I believe that a good design firm can creatively solve any kind of project type - no matter the size. I would like to see that opportunity extended to good smaller design firms.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I would like to see the stretch of I-5 that runs through downtown moved east. That would be one of the single most effective things Portland could do to connect the east and west sides and create a vibrant waterfront. Imagine the opportunity to start with a clean slate on the east side of the river!
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
Decent. I have done enough work in other cities throughout the West and around the country to get a sense of how difficult it is to find the balance between preserving good planning and letting somebody build projects. There is a fine line between those two and I think there are points when our local jurisdiction’s formula gets in the way of high quality design projects. Formula processes that dictate what can be built can make bad projects better, but can also make great projects just good. It tends to bring everything to the middle.
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 would take the warehouse loft. I like open and relatively raw space that can be used in many different ways. Both my house and office have a loft feel.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I would love to see the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava design a bridge for Portland. We are Bridgetown, and a Calatrava project combining art, design, engineering, and natural influences would become a beautiful centerpiece to our city. If Redding, California can have one, why not Portland?
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
Beauty is subjective, and everyone will have a different opinion about the look of a building. I would want a project that is environmentally sustainable and that I consider beautiful (definitely modern). I think that we are headed down a good track with the awareness around sustainability. It is interesting that in the 70’s, as a result of the oil crisis, we went through a phase of passive design in an effort to save energy. When the crisis passed, it seemed that the industry went back to the way things were. Now it has come back in a big way with LEED, Passivhaus, the Living Building Challenge, etc. These are just more ways of promoting things that we should have been doing all along.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
The Porsche 911. It's an iconic design that has stood the test of time. As other car styles changed with the fads, Porsche stuck with the original concept and continued to improve upon it. The design is both aesthetic and functional. Each part, inside and out are designed to support the simple idea of speed.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is my favorite with a compelling story, great acting, Oregon connections and is my favorite book as well. I also really like Fargo, the best of the best Coen brothers, and Memento, a fantastic twister with two trails leading forward and backward and ending up at the same point.