BY LUKE AREHART
For this installment of our continuing series, we sat down with Oregon native and Portland architect Suzanne Blair. Since 2004, Suzanne has been a part of the employee owned firm SERA Architects and has worked on local, landmark buildings including the renovation and modernization of the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building and the Portland Community College renovation of the historic Willamette Building, among others. In 2008 Suzanne was part of the team that provided pro-bono design work though the 1% program from Public Architecture for Portland nonprofit organization p:ear, which provides mentorship to homeless youth.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Suzanne Blair: In elementary school, maybe 6th grade, we did a three week study of Portland architecture where we went on field trips to look at houses; I think that’s what kids relate to at that point. We looked at Victorian houses and craftsman houses and four squares and learned the differences between all of them. At the end of that class, we had to build a model of our dream house out of index cards, so it was a really just a plan diagram without a roof, an arrangement of how the rooms went together. It’s the first time I remember understanding something in plan. Then, in high school, we had a family friend who was an architect and took me under his wing, explaining what architecture really was and letting me help him with some of his projects. By the time I was looking at colleges, architecture was the only career that seemed remotely interesting to me. I couldn’t imagine another option.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I earned my bachelor of arts in architecture from Washington University in St. Louis and went straight through to graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle. I loved architecture school; the two programs that I went to were different but complementary. Washington University is focused on theory and conceptual design and we experienced an old-school architecture education that emphasized beautiful models, beautiful drawings and difficult critiques. The University of Washington architecture program valued conceptual ideas behind projects, but was also interested in the craft of how it would be built, how it would be detailed, and how it would fit in the environment sustainably. I’m sure most architects would agree that architecture school is nothing like the profession, but it taught me the core skills of what I do today: how to analyze complex issues and find a solution that pulls them together. I would go back!
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
I have two favorites that are at complete opposite ends of the scale spectrum, but I like them for similar reasons. I was involved from early concept design through construction for both projects. Both projects have strong client groups, and a there was a sense of shared goals and commitment to those goals throughout the project team.
The first project is the Edith Green-Wendell Wyatt Federal Building, which is the project that I have worked on for the last two and a half years. I started on this project by designing and coordinating the ceiling and mechanical system – a radiant panel heating and cooling system - for the office tower. My role over the course of the project evolved to leading the tenant improvement design effort for the building, working with each of the tenant agencies to design, document and build their spaces. It was such a unique experience to get to work so closely with so many talented people. For eight months, the project team co-located in the existing building so all of the engineers, contractors and client group sat together to generate the design and the drawings; we were going back and forth from our room to places in the building look at the specific issues as they came up. The process contributed to an incredibly strong team dynamic. As part of the Tenant Improvement design effort, I was lucky to work with a great team of interior designers and the design excellence architect, Jim Cutler, to help create what is turning out to be a simple, dramatic, and beautiful space. It was really rewarding to look at things at a small scale compared to the big, giant project level. Throughout, our client, GSA, has been such a strong advocate for the project.
p:ear project (photo by Jamie Forsythe)
The other project that has been a favorite since I started working on it is p:ear, a pro-bono project I designed with two of my former colleagues, Christina Tello and Jessamyn Griffin. We did that project as part of the one percent solution, which is an initiative started by Public Architecture in San Francisco that encourages design professionals to donate their time to those who couldn’t otherwise afford it. SERA supported our efforts by donating architectural services, and the three of us worked with p:ear, an amazing non-profit who serves 800-1,000 youth every year by providing space and programs for education, art and recreation. We designed their new space on Sixth and Flanders, just a block away from SERA’s office. The three of us led the project, taking on the design, management, and documentation roles. I think it was early enough in my career that I was getting to do things that I would have never been able to do on the project while I was working at my “day job.” With a lot of help from local partners, we were able to help p:ear create a permanent home that they have grown into over the last several years. It was incredibly fulfilling to work with p:ear leaders and to support their mission.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
I’ve worked at SERA Architects since graduate school, eight years now. A lot of people have helped me and given me opportunities in that time. One of the most important is a good friend of mine who works here, Eric Philps. He’s a project architect and designer, and I have worked with him on several projects since the start of my time at SERA. He’s the best kind of architect: he appreciates the science of architecture just as much as the art, and is involved in his community and trying to make an impact with what he is doing. Working with him on our first project together, he took me under his wing, answered my questions, pushed me to take on more responsibility, and advocated for me to management while making suggestions for what I should be trying to learn, and what I should be looking for on the next project. He definitely taught me how to be a better architect, and has helped me become a better mentor to the colleagues I work with now.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
What I like best is one of the reasons I picked architecture: it changes every day, every building is a new design problem and there are hundreds of design problems within each of those buildings. Working on a project from start to finish is such a huge undertaking. Breaking that challenge into pieces and figuring things out by gathering information and distilling it into a cohesive solution is definitely what I like to do. It’s one of my strengths.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I love Holst’s Ziba Building, and the Olympic Mills Commer Center [by Works Partnership] of course. I was in architecture school when the Wieden & Kennedy building [by Allied Works] was being built, so that was the introduction to my love of adaptive reuse projects. That project will always be at the top of my list. I love those giant doors at the entry and the atrium. What a great way to give new life to a building.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
If I had to pick one, it would be The Pantheon; I studied in Rome when I was in graduate school and I would get lost in the city all of the time. I’d come around the corner and discover a new backside view of The Pantheon. It was a place that I tried to visit every day that I was there.
A more recent favorite building is the American Folk Art Museum in New York.
It’s not a building, but the High Line in New York is so incredibly detailed, the design team did such a good job making the furniture and the plantings a part of the overall vision; all of the boardwalk edge conditions are so well coordinated, it’s beautiful.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Holst and Works Partnership get a lot of credit and they deserve all of it. There are so many sole practitioners and small design/build buildings popping up everywhere, and so many of those projects are great. They are dealing with a different set of requirements and issues, so they are able to take more aesthetic risks that are really good for Portland’s architecture.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
Portland’s blocks are tiny, which is great for our urban planning, but we end up with many new projects that are full block buildings, or quarter block tall buildings. I’m sure it’s an economic limitation. I’d love to see smaller portions of blocks start getting developed so we get smaller scale buildings and more of them on our blocks, changing that texture as you walk along a block. You can take more risks when you are building smaller too, it could be really good for Portland, but may be economically difficult.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
It’s been at least three years since I have dealt with the BDS, because we have been working with federal requirements on the federal building. Prior to that, I worked on PCC’s Downtown Center renovation, and we worked with the facilities permit program at BDS. Basically, after you register the project, you are assigned an inspector/plans examiner, who is the same person throughout the whole design and construction process, which makes it very efficient. Our inspector/plans examiner met with me at SERA and met with me on-site with the contractor, we worked through issues, and she suggested potential solutions-to-code issues and worked through the details before we ever submitted for permit. This process was very effective for the client, and the contractor had the relationship with the inspector before he even started working. It was fantastic; I hope that I get to do that again.
PDD Downtown Center (photo by Michael Mathers)
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 currently live in a 500-square-foot historic condo, and I have for the last five years, so I am torn. Architecturally I’d like to live in a warehouse loft in Mississippi, but I have a dog, so I have to say the craftsman in Laurelhurst. I’m ready for the garden and the dog play area.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
One of my favorites is Herzog & de Meuron; I think they are enough flash and challenge for the city of Portland, but they’re still contextual.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
Of course I am going to say neither. I think the great thing about architecture is that it has to respond to all issues, and sustainability and aesthetic design go hand in hand. You can’t have a beautiful building that doesn’t respond to its environment and you shouldn’t be building something that is not beautiful.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I like little household things, especially kitchen things. This summer I bought a salt and pepper shaker that’s for backpacking. It’s sealed perfectly, there is a separate container for each, and it’s light and transparent. It’s just perfect, it fits into my cook set for our backpacking trips, and our dinners are much tastier now.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
"Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", "Best in Show", "Say Anything".