BY LUKE AREHART
The latest installment in our ongoing series on local architects, their careers and favorites brings us to the founding principal of Portland's Architecture Building Culture, Brian Cavanaugh. Born in 1969, Cavanaugh is Oregon-raised and educated but who has also had the chance to see the world while studying at some of the world's top schools such as the Harvard Graduate School of Design.
Prior to establishing his own practice with Mark Ritchie, the architect worked in New York and Los Angeles on a number of art museums and institutions as well as housing. While he was a senior associate with Michael Maltzan Architecture in NYC, Cavanaugh served as project director for the Rainbow Apartments, which was nominated for a prestigious Cooper-Hewitt People's Design Award. His work has been featured in publications like Architectural Record, Lotus, The Seattle Times and LA Architect. Architecture Building Culture's awards include a Citation Award at last year's AIA/Portland Design Awards.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Brian Cavanaugh: I always wanted to be an architect as far back as I could remember. In fact, in fourth grade, my elementary school, here in Portland, started an after-school program where they offered a variety of activities. Usually it had something to do with what the teachers might be able to offer or were interested in. My fourth grade teacher’s husband was an architect, and she had an interest in architecture as well, so she offered an architecture appreciation class. One of the things we did was take field trips downtown. We sketched buildings, visited architecture firms; it was a very memorable experience.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I earned my bachelor of architecture degree from the University of Oregon and my master of architecture degree from Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Both experiences were very influential, and very different. I graduated from Oregon in 1995, which was a great time to be at the school. There was a really talented group of students and faculty, which elevated the quality of the work. I feel very fortunate to have been there at that time as it gave me a strong foundation from which to build upon as a young architect.
While at Oregon I spent my fourth year at the Mackintosh School of Architecture in Glasgow, which had a lot to do with my overall experience as an undergrad. Every architecture student should go abroad for a year no matter where they are going to school. In every architecture program there is a dialogue established and there is a way the school operates; students can get too comfortable in that environment. You need to get outside of that comfort zone. The work I did after my year abroad was the best I did at Oregon. The experience changed everything.
I graduated from Harvard in 2000. It was a completely different experience from the U of O, and a real turning point for me. As a student there, you are exposed to amazing faculty, both full-time and visiting, academic and technical resources and your fellow students are incredibly talented. In many ways, my time at Harvard has been one of the biggest influences on my career.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
Generally speaking, any project that we are currently working on is the one that I am most interesting in. The work is an ongoing exploration. Each project building on the overall trajectory of the office. But I would say that the Stubbs Residence in Seattle, WA and the Lubavitch Center of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC will always be important to me. They were some of the first projects of the office and allowed us to set the tone for our subsequent work.
Looking back in terms of projects that were influential to my career, MoMA QNS when I was at Michael Maltzan’s office was a very important project for me. The stakes were very high for the project and the office. Being able to oversee that process from beginning to end, at that time in New York, with that client and with Michael, was an incredibly unique and rewarding experience. Actually much of the work, especially the cultural institution projects, I was involved in at MMA have been very important in terms of informing how I want to approach design and practice.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Michael Maltzan. I feel fortunate that I was able to work with a number of renowned people over the years, but Michael has had the biggest influence on my career and continues to be someone I look to for advice when I can. My time with Machado & Silvetti Associates in Boston, which was not as long as with Michael, was also very influential. Both Jorge and Rodolfo were incredibly generous and amazing to work for. Their office is a great model for how to build a practice.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I love all aspects of being an architect. True, some things can be tedious and frustrating at times; some things I am better at than others. But I love it all. Not a day goes by that I don't feel incredibly fortunate to being doing what I love to do.
That said, I have found that I really enjoy the early stages of the project. I have had a great deal of experience working on complex projects from early visioning all the way through construction and I find the initial visioning/concept stage to be quite exciting, especially in terms of working with the clients to build a context for collaboration throughout the project. That initial collaboration and relationship building is essential, and is central to our firm's design process.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
Memorial Coliseum is a building that I always point to - for a couple of reasons. One, because I have a lot of memories of it from my childhood. I went to countless Winterhawks games, and I went to my first concert there...KISS, 1976. But more importantly, it’s an incredible work of modern architecture, one that probably in any other city would have been torn down by now. Hopefully it will continue to have a place in our city because it’s a remarkable building.
The Commonwealth building, although it has seen better days, and The Union Bank of California tower, also come to mind. The Portland Art Museum has a great scale for the city. Similar to the Coliseum, I have fond memories of Union Station and I love its place in the city. And, finally Allied Works' Wieden + Kennedy building is a masterwork.
The other thing that Portland does really well, better than most US cities, is its public spaces. Everything from the Ira Keller Fountain to Jamison Square, there is an amazing constellation of public spaces in the city that are a testament to the quality of the urban environment here.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
That is a long list, and it would probably change from day to day based on what I'm working on or thinking about, but Casa Malaparte (on the Italian island of Capri) is probably my all-time favorite building. It has been described by some as the most beautiful house in the world and I would probably agree with that.
The Seattle Public Library continues to be a building that resonates with me. I think it is one of the most important buildings of the last 50 years in this country.
A building I have not visited but I have admired from afar is the Ibere Camargo Foundation in Brazil by Alvaro Siza. It is an amazing building. If I could only see one more building before I die, that would be the one. Actually, Siza's entire body of work is uniquely inspiring to me.
The Yale Center for British Art by Louis Kahn is another building that has been incredibly influential to me. We studied a lot of Kahn at the University of Oregon, as you should. The Yale Center was one of his buildings that I did not quite get from an academic standpoint. However, visiting it in person is something I will always remember. It was a revelation to me. In fact, every Kahn building I've visited has been remarkable.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Portland has a group of young emerging practices that do incredible work. Ben Waechter is doing great work. And while they are not necessarily unheralded, Works Partnership is doing great work. It would be in Portland’s best interest, especially in terms of the public sector, to really see that there is some remarkable 'young' talent that could produce great work.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
The central city's relationship to the river needs serious attention. There has to be a strong position taken to try to increase the ability to engage the river in a variety of ways. Related to that is the future of the Central Eastside - how it is going to develop, what direction that is going to take, etc.? These go hand-in-hand. How can the Central Eastside help reconnect the city back to the river? There is obviously a large barrier there to contend with in I-5, but there has to be some progressive thinking on that front.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
Portland is a much different place than it was when I was growing up, a better place. It is consistently evolving and improving, and has become one of the benchmark cities in this country and gets recognized as such. There are challenges that we still need to deal with, but the city has to be doing something right, and our city and regional agencies such as the PDC, Metro, etc. have obviously played a major part in that success.
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?
One of the great things about Portland is the diversity of neighborhoods/urban environments in such a close proximity. They all have good points and bad points, South Waterfront maybe having more bad than good, but they all add to the richness of the city. We just moved downtown, so right now that's where I want to live.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
There are a number of people that would be interesting. I would like to see Michael Maltzan do a project here. It would be great to have a Herzog & de Meuron, Peter Zumthor, and the like. Portland is a great city that deserves to have that level of criticality and expression. I would also like to see Allied Works be able to do a significant public building here.
Which would you rather be responsible for: an ugly LEED platinum building or a beautiful modernist energy hog?
I think that's an outmoded question, a false choice really. I want to be responsible for great architecture, which as a given would be sustainable and beautiful.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I have an affinity for well-designed books, which tend toward architecture, art, and design in general. My library is one of my prized possessions and a key resource in the office. Two books in particular are particularly cherished - first editions of "Delirious New York" and "Learning From Las Vegas". The original "Learning From Las Vegas" in particular is a beautifully designed book.
I also love the design of everyday objects. Objects whose design is exactly what it needs to be. And in that clarity, there is beauty. Reminds me of that Buckminster Fuller quote, "When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I am finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
It would be impossible to narrow down my favorites to three. I'd start with everything Terrence Malick has ever done and probably will do.
Three movies that come to mind in the context of this interview: Woody Allen’s Manhattan, Godard’s Contempt, and Hitchcock’s Rear Window. All three feature architecture and the city in compelling and beautiful ways.
Much of Contempt takes place at Casa Malaparte. Brigitte Bardot, Casa Malaparte: it doesn't get much better. Rear Window is a great film in terms of representing the private life and space of the city. In Manhattan, there is this one moment in the film where there is this beautiful interior shot of a Manhattan apartment that is just exquisite. It is just a beautifully shot scene.