BY LUKE AREHART
The next installment in our continuing series features Portland architect Philip Sydnor of Integrate Architecture & Planning. Since moving to Portland in 2001, Sydnor has worked with local firms Richard Brown Architect and Clark Kjos Architects, working on notable local hospitals like Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis, Wallowa Hospital in Enterprise, and Willamette Falls Hospital in Oregon City. Since founding Integrate six years ago, Sydnor's work has included residencessuch as Gracehaus (featured in the AIA 2010 Portland Homes Tour) and a uniquely designed farm house and landscape in Tualatin.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Philip Sydnor: Since I can remember. Other things came up here and there that I considered; the second option was probably a veterinarian and there are some days when I regret not doing that because I have a major love for animals. In kindergarten I was making buildings out of cardboard when we were supposed to be making other things. I remember that somewhere along the way, someone said that I should be an architect and it seemed like a great idea to me. I was always obsessed with things like Legos and blocks.
Reflecting back, where I grew up had a huge influence on me and my appreciation for not just modern architecture, but really everything as far as architecture is concerned. My parents moved us into a really old, bizarre, rural community in Southern Maryland called Lower Marlboro, which is on the Patuxent River. I grew up in a 200-year-old home surrounded by colonial homes. Being around nothing but old homes in the middle of farmland where the only other structures were tobacco barns has had a profound influence on my career and life.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I went to Tulane University School of Architecture and got a five-year master’s degree in 2001. It was an amazing experience. They really emphasized Le Corbusier at Tulane, and I was interested in Frank Lloyd Wright at the time. Since then I have been to Corbu’s buildings, which are now among my favorite. It’s funny and a product of the rebellious side of me that just wanted to be different from the other students. Tulane gave me an incredible foundation as far as looking at a plan and thinking about schematics and how I practice today. I also learned the Venturi approach from my professors, where you sit down, sketch a plan and put it aside, then come up with another completely different plan and put it aside and keep doing that until you can’t think of any more. That is basically how I work: I sit down with every single one of my projects and try to beat the idea before it; if I can’t, then I know I have come up with the best. My clients love it, and this process was completely based on my experience at Tulane. Everyone involved in the process feels as though we looked at the design from as many angles as possible. This method also detaches me emotionally from my work; each project is a study for that client.
For me, growing up in an isolated area in Maryland, we traveled some when I was a kid, but not internationally, so going to an international city and experiencing that culture was really great; I can’t think of a better place for a student to go to architecture school; there is a sense of community there along with a melting pot of cultures and localized ideals that was incredible to tap into and experience. From a student’s standpoint, going out in the city and experiencing sites that the professors would pick out for us was really great. The school itself is much more theoretically and historically based. And in some ways at the time, I was immature and was much more interested in getting a project going, so the theoretical/historical component for me was something I struggled with in school. Since then I have matured and taken in these components on all of my projects.
I started my career in New Orleans: I got a great job with a good firm in town called Peter Trapolin Architects and, because of some of my connections, probably could have moved on to the best firm in town, Eskew+Dumez+Ripple. But I quickly realized that because I wasn’t a local that was always going to be a problem. The professional world in New Orleans is very insular – outsiders aren’t welcomed the way they are here in Portland. I left New Orleans in 2001.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
There are some specific projects that stand out in my mind. The Gracehaus was my first solo project. I was only 26 years old and moonlighting while I was at Clark Kjos Architects when I came up with the design; it’s a real one-of-a-kind home with a lot of original ideas in it, which is hard to do. The attitude for this project was to just go for it! For that first one, when you are moonlighting, you’re not thinking about your fee. This is your first shot; there is something pure about that. It’s hard to find that purity on projects when you are running a business and thinking about the fee and supporting your family and making sure the client is happy. It’s tough to maintain that all of the way through the project. On any given project, you always have glimpses of freedom and opportunity to do something original and carry it all of the way through but it’s a rare thing. We were able to do that on this project. We also had a great builder, Dick Baty, who is a really good guy, and he saw the vision and helped make it happen. The team also plays an important part in a great project.
Another favorite project I worked on is the Robb-Nardi Farm House, which was a big five-acre lot with no trees on it. It was an empty canvas, and I was able to do all of it: the site topography and house design. They wanted a farm house but couldn’t initially explain exactly what that meant to them; they were skeptical about me at first because of my more modern work, but the builder, Marc Even, backed me up. I knew exactly what a farm house was because that is what I grew up around. We nailed it and they are beyond happy with it.
Another project that I have worked on is the Costanzo floating home, which is not built. I was told, ‘The sky is the limit: whatever you can think of.' I started thinking about a nautilus shell and making the building wrap and turn around the central core stair tower. It’s a mostly steel building, and we hit around 99 structural details that I drew and developed with my engineer to work with the architectural.
On all of my projects I draw the structural and work extremely close with my engineers; all of my projects are pretty structurally intense. It’s just something I love. When you get into the roof as an architectural element (I am pretty anti-flat roof), it takes on its challenges especially when you are doing exposed-vaulted systems. I love the structural side and anything that is going to be challenging from the structural standpoint. I’ve wondered if that’s a good thing while thinking maybe I should scale back on the structural for cost and sustainability. With this climate, and this rain, you should have sloped roofs; it’s a part of the architecture that is important up here, especially in residential.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Back in 2008 I worked with William Hawkins III. He is the historic preservationist guru in town and author of Classic Houses of Portland, Oregon: 1850-1950. He and I collaborated on a couple of projects: the Alameda project and a five story, high-end residential-commercial building that did not get developed. He taught me how to be comfortable with the wall, little rooms, and doors, and breaking up a residential plan. He taught me some really cool old-school tricks about roofs and other things. I think a lot of young designers are into the modern and the contemporary, and I know a lot of that is about aesthetics, but also the old stuff can be intimidating. To get in with someone like Bill and do it first-hand and understand what goes into historic design, that is going to be with me the rest of my career.
I still continue to work with Dick Baty, who built the Gracehaus. He is constantly telling me, ‘You can do better; you need to think harder about this detail.’ He got an architecture degree from the University of Oregon, and he has been great to work with. He pushes me hard to do even better. His attention to detail and what he has taught me about materials has been amazing.
Lewis and Van Vleet: Basically the reason why I am good on the structural side is because of them; they are amazing guys.
Clark Kjos Architects, for completeness of documentation, and client satisfaction. I currently set up my drawings based on Clark Kjos standards. It’s more about the client than about the design and making sure the client is happy.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I was looking through the previous Architect’s Questionnaires, and Jeff Stern mentioned a ‘generalist’ approach. I first learned this term from Thom Mayne of Morphosis and I have believed in that since I was an intern. It has always been my goal to master all of it; from schematic onward, which you have to do if you are practicing on your own. You have to be good at all of it, and I can appreciate any part of the job.
The part of the project that I am probably the most happy on and the part that makes my brain go back and forth is schematics -- sitting down to come up with the initial concepts and developing the core initial idea. It almost makes me feel like a kid, with freedom, forgetting everything around you; it’s powerful stuff for me.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I’ve always admired The US Federal Courthouse building.
Portland International Airport I think is phenomenal; I enjoy leaving from it and arriving to it. Everybody I know that visits me also loves it; I think it is a great initial greeting to Portland and probably the most complex building in town as far as how it is used.
The Water Pollution Control Laboratory building in St. Johns by Miller Hull with SERA Architects is fantastic.
There is a funny little building on the east side of 28th; it’s a green stucco building with vines growing on it, and that building has always caught my eye as an older building with some interesting geometry on it.
Robert Oshatz has some great homes - a cool floating home and one on the lake in Lake Oswego; he has done some cool stuff.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp is at the top of my list. I have been in it by myself for an hour and that was pretty breathtaking.
Diamond Ranch High School by Morphosis is incredible when you think about the budget that they had for this project and everything they put into this building for a high school.
David Salmela homes influence my work more than any other residential architect. He practices out of Minnesota.
E. Fay Jones has had some influence in my work.
The Pantheon in Rome is incredible.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I think anybody who is in this for their own personal reputation should maybe go become an artist. We do buildings, and there are a lot of people involved in them. I also think that the community really does pay attention to its architects; I think you guys do a good job in celebrating the local architects. I don’t think of myself as an artist; I think there is a huge difference between artist and architecture.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I would like to see them continue the emphasis on sustainability. Public transportation is something that is pretty amazing here, and I’d like to see a better mesh between transportation and buildings. I’d love to see a stronger physical connection between the buildings and the transit – a ground level MAX or streetcar stop within a public building, maybe.
I’d like to see more sloped/arched/pitched roofs. The roof of the Hatfield Federal Courthouse building that you can see from all parts of the city is great.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I’ve had a lot of experience; I do the permitting on every single one of my jobs, so I am the point of contact for the city on all my work and not just in Portland, but in all surrounding jurisdictions.
Prior to 2009, I felt like Portland was the best. The economy has gotten bad and they have done huge layoffs there, so I get it: it’s tough times at the city. I think that it’s unfortunate that some of the junior staff was laid off and they kept some of the more tenured people. Some of those junior guys, structural examiners in particular, were really good and they could do a review over the counter on a challenging project and sign off right there and then. Structural now? Good luck with that. There is one structural examiner left at the city that can do that, and he is awesome. I used to just about guarantee clients I could get the permit the same day as submitted and I can’t guarantee that anymore, which has been disappointing. There are still really good people there. You want to be able to give your clients a pretty good, solid confirmation on what they are going to need to do on their property and unfortunately right now (especially with commercial property) there are just too many unknowns resulting from potential worst-case requirements which the city may or may not throw at a project.
PDC and the DOS programs are great; the PDC has great energy and a great grants program. My wife is involved with Venture Portland and the Kenton Business Association and has worked with PDC on grants and other projects. It has been fantastic - I’ve heard and seen people get some funding for projects, and some of our potential projects may also get some funding. I am impressed with their energy and commitment.
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?
Any one of those will work; whichever is going to leave the most money for a piece of property outside of the city for a weekend/summer home. That is the goal for us as a family - to have a weekend retreat away from everything.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Miller Hull is an appropriate fit for the city; they did the Vancouver Library recently, they also did the Water Pollution Control Laboratory with SERA Architects.
Other than that, I think it’s too small of a city for a big name. I think they may be out of place here, unfortunately. I’d love for a big-name architect to design here. Don’t get me wrong, Jean Nouvel or Morphosis would be great. I think some of the smaller high design firms would be a good fit, like Canadian firms Patkau Architects, or Shim – Sutcliffe Architects.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
I think that it is our responsibility as architects to make stuff look good - sustainability and a healthy building are a part of the criteria. Energy hogs are on the way out. Form, function, and aesthetic are all part of the equation and I can’t sacrifice any one of those.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
That is constantly changing. My wife and I are collectors, and there is no one thing – we collect pottery, art, rugs, cool coffee mugs. I think music could also fall into that category. If I get obsessed on anything it would be music - some piece of classical music whether it is Philip Glass or Debussy. Other than that, I would say it could be furniture or something related to manufacturing, it’s across the board and what fascinates me is unending.
What are your all-time favorite movies?
"Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai", "The Big Lebowski", "The Black Stallion", and "Never Cry Wolf"