BY LUKE AREHART
Leading off the Architect’s Questionnaire series for 2013 is Portland architect and retail design/experience expert Darin Dougherty. After honing his skills at a host of prestigious architecture firms including TVA Architects, Architropolis and Gensler, Darin founded Seed Architecture Studio, where he designed notable residences like the Twigg House, which was included in the Portland Architecture and Design Festival homes tour last year. Currently, Darin has crossed over his innovative skill set and way of thinking to become a designer of environments, fixtures and identity, among other things for many high profile brands including Nike, Coca-Cola and Starbucks. Darin is currently serving as the Senior Environment Designer for Ziba.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Darin Dougherty: I’ve always been into art and design. As a kid, I would re-arrange my bedroom every few months. At one point, my parents let me paint walls and hang wallpaper. I was lucky in that my parents were supportive of this. I would re-arrange the living room furniture as well. They might not have liked what I did with it, but they let it stay until I re-arranged things again. I’m not saying I did anything amazing, nor was I very intense about it, but every couple weeks I would think how the room would feel if we moved a chair or couch. It was about trial and error and space making. I was very interested in how my environment framed my emotions. In junior high, my school offered things like wood shop and architectural drafting. Our high school was the only one in the city that had hand drafting [classes] and a computer lab with AutoCAD. Back then, the computer was much more trouble than it was worth. I’ve been connected to architecture ever since.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I went to the University of Idaho, where I earned my bachelor of architecture and master of architecture degrees; the focus of my master’s degree was in urban planning. The College of Art and Architecture has a great urban theory and design program; it was very interesting. The experience was great.
The architecture program is part of the art department and by default, is rooted in a hands-on conceptual approach to solving problems. We made a lot of models and spent a lot of time in the wood and metal shop. The focus of the projects was generally on concept and how you were standing behind your concept and explaining it. The solutions that people came up with for their projects varied greatly from a literal conversation about the structure of a house to the other end of the spectrum using sculpture or an art installation to make solutions. There was a very wide range of solutions to any given project and the professors were supportive of that diversity; they really pushed us to talk about our projects and the focus behind what we were doing. It was less about technical building and more about the conceptual solution and how you go about selling that idea. It was very enriching.
The school is located near the Palouse region, and in my opinion, the region is a very captivating and rich landscape. It’s very different than spending time in a more urban environment. Moscow, Idaho is a small city and during the school year the population is mainly students which shrink down considerably during the summer. The city is completely surrounded by the Palouse, which is a region of majestic, rolling hills. When they are covered with wheat, they turn golden, which changes to brown when they are plowed. The color of the ground and the shape of the landscape contrasted with the sky is amazing and hard to capture in something like a photograph. The beauty of it seemed to be an extension of whom you are and where you are.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
My first job out of school I had the opportunity to work on several of the buildings on the Nike campus. While most of my peers were inputting repetitive information into drawing sets, I had the opportunity to get into detailing things like custom tables and light fixtures, casework, even exterior envelope components. I was fascinated at what goes into making a building.
The most emotionally rewarding projects, though, have always been houses. No client is more emotionally invested in a project. This intimate connection to the project and the client is really rewarding. When my firm, Seed Architecture Studio, was open, we completed a handful of major remodels as well as two ground-up houses. One was the SIPs house that was featured on Portland Architecture in 2009. At the time the structural planning department at the city didn’t recognize SIPs panels as being a viable structural material. When we started the project, it was the first SIPs house in Portland, which wasn’t monumental holistically, but important for Portland. The house is located in the Cully neighborhood, which is an interesting neighborhood that seems to be going through gentrification. You can find one-acre urban farm-type lots right next to the typical 50 x 100-foot lots. There’s a very rural stylistic feel in that part of Portland. The materials that we used for the house, barn wood and weathered steel, are very common rural materials but we applied them in a clean and theoretically justified way.
We have a third ground-up house that was holding during the recession that should be completed very soon. It was recently shown in-progress during the Portland Architecture and Design Festival. It’s on a steep lot in the West Hills; it has a great view, but not a view of the city so it feels like a tree house. The idea for this house was driven by the clients to do something very sustainable in terms of air quality, for example, in addition to the holistic performance of the house and its systems over time. To solve the problems of the challenging site, the aesthetics of the house take a more progressive hard-edged approach. The roof in some areas provides large overhangs acting like a protective cloak, protecting the windows from our harsh winters and focusing your view out to the forest. I think the connection that we have from the interior to the exterior space is an important component to our mood and how we feel about things.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
This is a tough question. I’ve had an opportunity to spend time with so many types of people. In one way or another, they’ve all had influence on everything, from how I respond to an email to how I approach a design problem. I continue to learn a tremendous amount from the craftsmen that I tap for executing work. I’ve also been fortunate enough to connect with some tremendous clients who continue to teach me a great deal.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I love the discovery moments early on in the conceptual phase of a project, when you get the feeling that you’re on to a great solution. I also really enjoy being on the job site. I worked on a construction job site in high school and have remodeled a couple of houses myself. I guess it’s a visceral and honest connection to progress that I find really enjoyable. I think I excel most at being the director of the projects I lead. Seeing a project through to completion takes a tremendous amount of skill in different areas. The creative piece is sometimes the easiest part of a project. You also have to be political in terms of being an advocate for the client, as well as the design. There are always budgets and schedules to work within and usually there are multiple people with different personalities and different skills. Taking a project from a conceptual idea thought to a built project is extremely difficult.
The research into the client and project is also exciting. Brands typically have an important story to leverage into a retail experience and on the other end there are residential clients that you really want to tailor their house to their life style.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
The Union Bank of California Tower by Anshen + Allen is an obvious choice. John Yeon’s houses are always very special. The Portland Heights residence by Allied Works is one of those special buildings that can only happen on the site it’s on. This house is on a bluff by itself and no matter where you are in the house; the orientation is towards a specific view. All of the interior materials are well crafted and done extremely well thought out. Every single detail and moment in that house is gorgeous.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Not sure I would consider it a building, but the Cloud Gate in Chicago is fascinating to me. When you are there you can feel the surrounding impact through the weight of it and sheer size that’s reflective while experiencing everything else around you at once. The level of craft as well is amazing in the fact that they were able to build it.
Herzog & De Meuron does some breathtaking work. I spent 2011 in San Francisco working for Gensler, and the De Young Museum seemed to always take on a new life each time I saw it. The way that it is placed on its site, if you walk around it while you are in the tree forested area of the park you can see it peek up like a tree house. The way the metal is rusted gives the building a great quality of movement and it never seemed to feel like a permanent building that was rooted heavily on its site. It felt very light and respectful of where it was.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Corey Martin from THA; he’s a fiercely talented designer and a great person. I can’t say enough about THA recognizing his value and making his move possible. He’ll be an exciting person to watch.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
Portland is actually a very accessible and affordable city. I’d like to see it continue along this path. There are so many amazing pockets around the city that have popped up, but they’re all successful because the downtown core continues to thrive. I’d hope this focus on the downtown heart continues to be a priority.
For my master’s thesis project in college, I capped Highway 405. I did all of the research on the history of the city, and why the highway happened; it was interesting to go back in time. This highway was essentially dug out, creating a huge scar through the city, displacing residences and dividing neighborhoods. Capping the highway adds 39 standard sized blocks. There’s a lot of financial potential (both private and public) by adding 39 blocks to the city. I’m not saying it’s the right move, but it’s an interesting conversation to have.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I think they have a very difficult task. We have big shoes to fill in terms of our reputation in urban planning on a national platform. We’re a great biking community, have easy access to locally produced food, and it’s still fairly inexpensive to live here but really we’re a very small market. I think the PDC and the planning bureaus are doing the best they can with the given circumstances.
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?
Currently I live in a West Hills mid-century. We love it because of its proximity and access to downtown, farmers' markets, etc. We have three kids under six, so the schools were the initial draw, but the hills have grown on us. Also, I’m an avid runner. I appreciate the fact that I can’t run in a single direction from my house without requiring a 500-1,000 foot climb to get back home.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I’d have to go with Bjarke Ingles. BIG architects are one of the few stars in my opinion who approach a project with a completely open mind to solving problems. In other words, they don’t have a signature style that dictates their architecture. Their projects evolve through filters of analysis. They don’t take themselves too seriously and as a result their work is both compelling and witty. They just completed a bridge design concept (Skuru Bridge) for the Swedish Transport Administration that is absolutely brilliant and would fit extremely well in our city given our climate and our need for our bridges to handle so many types of traffic. If you’ve ever watched Bjarke speak, he’s captivating. He could sell milk to a cow.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I’m a big fan of product and furniture design. In another life I think I would work in a shop and build furniture with materials like wood, leather and steel. The ergonomics of how things are built is interesting to me as well as the tiny details that can make all of the difference. There’s something really special when a product is very clean and understated, yet warm and authentic. Maybe this will be the next chapter in my career.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
Given the age of my boys, we’re highly invested currently in the Star Wars franchise; I would categorize this as one movie. Jiro Dreams of Sushi is great – I’m a huge fan of documentaries. Lately though I’ve been more into great TV series than movies. I can’t get enough of The Walking Dead.