BY LUKE AREHART
The latest installment in our continuing series of profiles on local architects, their careers and their favorites continues with a pillar of one of Portland's most prominent firms over the past decade. As GBD Architects expanded its profile greatly in the 2000s and beyond with the five-building Brewery Blocks development as well as projects like the OHSU Center for Health & Healing and the Gerding Theater, Bruce Brown has played a pivotal role. Here Bruce opens up about everything from Case Study houses to Calatrava to Hitchcock.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Bruce Brown: Third grade; I was going to be a wheat farmer before that, but only because I saw pictures of combines on TV and thought that they looked really cool.
My grandfather had given me house plan magazines and he had done some amateur house designing and drafting in his life.
I remember thinking architecture is what I want to do, and I never wavered, ever. It is difficult for me to understand people who get into college and don’t know what they want to do or haven’t found their passion because it is so foreign to how my life worked out.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I went to Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo which was a great experience. I loved going there. I transferred there after I studied for my first couple years at Fullerton College down in LA. When I first started at Cal Poly, I remember I had to take all of my second year of architecture education right away in one summer, which was a whole calendar year of design all condensed into one summer. This was to get third-year status by that fall because they were phasing out the five-year degree and going to a six-year degree. There was a group of us that were madly trying to get to third-year status by that fall so we could qualify for the bachelor of architecture degree. I arrived in ’73 then graduated in ’76 and just loved my experience there, both San Luis Obispo and the school. It is still some of the favorite years of my life and I highly recommend the program and the school to anybody and everybody who wants to study architecture or any major for that matter.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The Brewery Blocks is probably the biggest and most signature project I’ve worked on; it consumed five years of my life. I still spend a lot of time talking about the buildings, and I give tours about every two weeks or so. I [recently] had groups from from New Zealand and then Japan. I was recently invited to give a talk on The Brewery Blocks at a real estate conference in Montreal where I will have a chance to talk about what we did here and the lessons we learned.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Most certainly the three original partners here at GBD: Ken Grimes, Chuck Gordon and Alan Beard were all here for much of my career. I learned different things from each, but they all taught me about the responsibility of being a professional. It’s more than just designing buildings. You have a position in the community, a responsibility for behaving ethically, and a responsibility to your fellow employees. They simply taught me how to be an architect.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
The part of the job I like best is being in the mix of what is going on in the city. I think architects are there at the front end of things in any given city. You deal with the people who make decisions and make things happen, which is the nature of the business. I always find this aspect very exciting because then by connection, as an architect, you are at the front end of things making things happen and helping steer the direction of your community as well.
For the things I do best, it is interesting because I have found that over the three decades that I have been here, I have evolved into the very technical things. I deal with contracts, and litigation if it ever arises, specifications, and codes. I still do project management, but am probably doing less and less of that now. I was never a great designer; I’ve always thought good designers are born; they are not made. There is a handful out of every architecture class that are truly gifted designers. If you go in any office, and out of a hundred people, there may be 4 or 5 great designers. Everybody else still has to have a great sense of design, even to work at the technical level. The production level still takes an eye and knowledge for what looks good. However, being able to come up with that initial concept of great design and beauty is something you either have or you don’t.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
There are buildings that I always comment on and point out to people. I love the Bank of California building on Washington and Broadway with the green slate and the white pre-cast; I think this building is elegant and meets the ground beautifully. It’s beautifully proportioned high rise on a small block downtown, but is still very friendly at the pedestrian level. It’s very elegantly and simply detailed.
Bank of California building (photo by Brian Libby)
There's also the Commonwealth Building by Pietro Belluschi; I love the mid-century modern movement.
On the historic side, and oddly enough, there is a little tiny building right near us that is probably insignificant compared to other Portland buildings. It was probably built in the early part of the century located at 10th and Everett. It’s the Otis Elevator Building; I assume it used to be their office building in Portland. It is a wonderfully elegant; one story renaissance revival façade that I think is impeccable.
It’s tough to pick favorites out of Portland, because there is so much good stuff here.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Things that really float my boat are all of the case study houses down in Los Angeles. My favorite of those is the Stahl house by Pierre Koenig, Case Study #22. It is the one that has the most famous photographs of the house cantilevering out from the hillside and it is all glass. The house was the subject of one of those Julius Shulman photographs with the women inside in cocktail dresses. I love the whole aesthetic; to me it’s what architecture is all about. Certainly Richard Neutra’s houses are right there as well.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I’m sure there are. I love the work that Holst does, we work with them and I think they do very elegant projects. I wouldn’t call them unheralded, but they may not be out there at the media forefront being a smaller firm. I really like their work a lot, everything is so well thought out, rational and really quite lovely.
I’m sure there are tons of really small firms out there that are doing cool stuff. I like the Skylab residence and think it is a gem in Portland.
If you look at Portland there is not a lot of avant garde stuff that goes on in the architecture realm, things tend to be pretty rational here, nothing is really ‘out there.’ But I think that fits the Portland psyche. We all feel we are contributed to a larger canvas and we still see modesty as a virtue.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
One of the simple answers is that I would love to eventually see all of the surface parking go away and get replaced with ‘hidden’ parking. The car isn’t going to go away, but I think we will be transitioning into electric cars more quickly than we think.
The other thing that I would love to see is the cool urbanism that makes up the core of Portland, start expanding out into suburbia. Portland has a reputation as a cool design city, but as soon as you get away from the City Center, you see the same type of suburban dreck you can get anyplace with big boxes, huge parking lots and oversized streets. This forces people into their car just to buy milk. I’d love to see the whole urbanized, mixed-use movement start expanding out into Lake Oswego, Beaverton, Gresham, Tigard, Tualatin and beyond. It’s starting to get there, you can see a little bit of this idea starting to emerge but it has a long way to go. Portland had this fabric to begin with since people have always lived downtown and Portland has always had this intimate European-scale fabric downtown. When you have to go back and re-make the suburbs in that image, it takes a long time. The right people have to have the vision, the money has to be there and the political will to come together to replace bad planning. That is something I’d like to see change in Portland; that the whole metropolitan area becomes the Portland dream and not just a small, highly visible part of it.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
Generally it is very good. Portland wouldn’t be what it is today if it wasn’t for PDC. They have had to ebb and flow with the politics of the time as well as funding, but I think their vision is still there and they continue to be an integral part in the re-development of targeted parcels in the city. You cannot do a lot of what needs to be done today without some sort of public/private partnership in development; thinking you are going to do something 100% with private money I think is kind of a pipe dream at this point.
I think the building department and planning department here in Portland is excellent. As a firm, we deal with other municipalities all over the country and Portland has an excellent reputation nationwide as being very progressive. These departments have taken a hit during the recession, and they may need to bounce back from that as they reexamine how they funded themselves. All building departments have gone through this I’m sure, but because most building departments tend to be fee funded they lag behind the economy. Bottom line: I think our building department does a great job.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I’d love to see [Santiago] Calatrava work in Portland. I think it would have to be the right place, I don’t think he could do something downtown necessarily. It would have been wonderful if he could have designed the new Sellwood Bridge. I imagine a piece of his architecture on the river or near the water.
Last year I visited the Milwaukee Art Museum Calatrava designed and thought it was such an awe inspiring building. I also passed through the station that he designed in Lyon, France, which you don’t really notice at first but all of a sudden you look out the window of your train and WOW. His buildings make you proud to be a human being.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I’ve certainly always loved mid-century modern furniture, like the pieces by Eames and Saarinen, which in a way goes with the territory of being an architect.
My wife and I collect early to mid-century refrigerator ware. It used to be that in the '30s, '40s and '50s, when you would buy a refrigerator, you also got really cool pieces, usually ceramic, to complement the refrigerator, like a water jug or leftover keepers. They were usually very streamlined and modern. Over the years we have found ourselves to be collectors.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
My number one favorite of all time is Rear Window. I love the fact that the movie takes place on a very contained set. You get the feeling of intimacy as you are looking into a little picture frame with the characters. Everything is right there in the movie and you can look around and feel like you are Jimmy Stewart, sitting there trying to solve the murder.
A close second is Chinatown with Jack Nicholson. It is a very well told story and there is a little bit of a mystery to it and some pseudo history too. I spent a lot of time living in LA and I can appreciate the true story that the movie is loosely based on, bringing water to LA. It makes me think that LA in the '20s and '30s must have been a fascinating place to live, before it was smoggy and there were only a couple million people and you could still smell the orange blossoms in the air. A bit of heaven on earth in those days.
The third one is probably more obscure, but it’s called Brief Encounter with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard. It’s an English movie and takes place during the war or right after, and it’s about these two strangers that meet at a train station and they keep bumping into each other and eventually have an affair. The movie in a way is like Rear Window because the story is very compact and personal and so realistic, it was a cutting edge movie, because people didn’t talk about adultery and having an affair back in the '40s. The movie was very sensitively and truthfully told.