BY BRIAN LIBBY
The fall term at Portland State University doesn't begin for a few weeks yet, but on a recent visit to Shattuck Hall, the architeture deparment's home, there was already a palpable energy.
As my bicycle pulled up to the renovated circa-1915 Shattuck on SW Broadway, a new plaza presented itself as the department's new front yard cum outdoor laboratory. At the Ecological Learning Plaza, planned and built by PSU Department of Architecture faculty and students over the course of the last year and intended as a green testing ground for designing and researching sustainable building materials and methods, there are currently, the two main experiments taking place. One is a mockup of a sloped green that will inform the design of the much-larger green roof being planned for the Conservation Discovery Zone at the Oregon Zoo. In an experiment funded by Metro, there are also four vertical growing systems (also known as green walls) with several different irrigation types, which will provide data about the quality and quantity of water runoff from the walls.
Moving inside, Shattuck Hall itself is an exceptional space following the red brick former elementary school's $13 million renovation in 2008 (overseen by SRG Partnership). With walls removed and hallways enlivened with a bevy of experimental furniture projects, it's a kind of enlightened hive of naturally-lit studios with a rooftop gallery, digital lab, and facilities for model-making, woodworking, metalworking and digital fabrication.
After touring the building with Department of Architecture chair Clive Knights and professor Jeff Schnabel, we sat down to discuss the department's evolution over the past five years to develop its own accredited graduate architecture program. After beginning the process in 2007, the department is set to receive its third and final inspection from the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB) that will give accreditation in perpetuity.
Now that PSU is a full-fledged graduate architecture program, I asked Knights and Schnabel what kind of identity they wanted it to have.
"First is that we all buy in to the idea of making," Knights explained. "Architecture has a cerebral dimension but predominantly it’s a physical act, a communication through materials: getting in the process of making something for someone else. It’s not solipsistic. It’s about offering it to a community or to an “other”. That’s a really powerful idea to practice, to find new things to say to others through the intermediary of the product. Having stuff in our hand and manipulating it with an idea in mind: if we lose touch with that, we’ve lost touch with our foundation."
A culture of making is one of three emphasis points, Knights said. The second is that the Department of Architecture must always be engaged in topics that matter to the city. Portland itself becomes a laboratory. Third is "being aware that we’re involved in a process of helping communities form and express their identity through the work that we make for them," Knights calls it. "Again, everything is for the sake of others. Students are always making within the context of Portland, and those issues are drawing a community other than ourselves."
Schnabel also emphasized PSU's identity as going deeper. "When two of our students were given internships at Nike, a really nice compliment that was paid by the recruiter: that their work had a narrative quality," he explained. "They had something to say about the work that was rooted in culture. It wasn’t just programmatic requirements. Architecture, we believe, goes beyond just a building. Something rises to the field of architecture because it connects to larger cultural ideas."
"I’ve always maintained we don’t want to be just another school," added Knights. "What do we want to be, then? We want to be media diverse, whereas some schools are becoming technologically obsessed. We want to remain rooted in craft and making things. That by its nature is different from other schools. We have to make sure that work gets out into the public realm. I think the identity of the school is tied to the work produced there. Making our work more publicly available is a big goal."
"To a large extent it’s already happening," Schnabel said. "We’re attracting students internationally that want to work specifically with Sergio Palleroni [who has been acclaimed for numerous projects serving under privileged people in developing nations]. They know his work and the awards he’s won, and the want to be part of that, particularly when it’s doing design for populations typically underserved by designers. We’re also attracting students interested in the intersection of architecture and urban design. They’re seeking out B.D Wortham Galvin here. I think the word is out in certain kind of key areas of our mission, and the individuals we’ve been able to bring on."
"We know who we are and who we want to be," Knights added, "and it’s important that we stay true to that."