BY BRIAN LIBBY
Good architecture is often about taking a few key ideas about space, volume and light and carrying them through to the end of a project: making strong, clear, functional moves that stop short of being showy.
I was reminded this recently while standing in a sixth-floor dorm room an the Pacific Northwest College of Art's new ArtHouse. Through a window easily twice as tall and wide as any in my own home, I stared straight down to the sidewalk on NW Park, noticing how the building was gently cantilevered over the walkway. Afterward, I came into a hallway bookened on either side by floor-to-ceiling glass, something I've not experienced in even the most luxurious of Portland condominiums. Along with the lobby, which looks out through floor-to-ceiling glass in front towards Park Blocks greenery and in back at a combination rainwater-treatment garden and patio, every space seemed to be about framing views of nature, even though this was a decidedly urban location.
Designed by Thomas Robinson and his firm, Lever Architecture, ArtHouse occupies the former Powell's Technical Bookstore building on the North Park Blocks. Although it was disappointing to see the old storefront building demolished, especially when there is a surface parking lot directly cross the Park Blocks, this is an urban success story as well as an architetural one that will breathe life into this long under-utilized but lovely stretch of tree-filled greenspace situated between downtown, the Pearl District and Old Town. ArtHouse is a thoughtfully designed residence hall that gives students a far nicer living experience than most of us had in college, not becuase there are video game consoles or air conditioning in its rooms or fancy furniture, but because it's teeming with natural light and offers an ideal location.
"I think the best projects are always sticking to that one simple, strong idea, that idea being light here," Robinson explained on a recent tour. "When you talk about art students, what do they do? That’s sort of where we started. We wanted to look at very closely at access to daylight and connection to the community. That’s something that drove the design at every level, and at every step of the process."
Indeed, whether it's how the facade includes deep cuts into the building to fill cooridors with light, or how the ground-floor lobby's back garden is visible from the sidewalk and park outside, or the effect of those massive windows in the rooms, what better gift could you give an aspiring art student than ideally balanced, diffused light?
"We believe environment influences behavior," said Tom Cody of Project PDX, who helped create the deal involving the Powell family (owners of the original building) and PNCA. "Students will be more successful, we believe, in a place that affects them positively. Arthouse is an expression of that idea."
The exterior facade itself also plays with illumination. Its aluminum panels, broken down into a ridged pattern not unlike silver Ruffles chips, give off an entirely different look depending on the time of day the light hits them. "You want something that’s expressive of the light in the building, but that isn’t going to be just one thing," Robinson adds. "Right now [while touring the building in late afternoon], it’s flat. In the morning it’s very lively." The cuts in the facade that allow light to penetrate the interior also break up the mass of the facade.
Art House isn't just a dorm. It consolidates PNCA's move to the North Park Blocks, which began with the Museum of Contemporary Craft moving there and coming under the school's wing, and will continue with the Brad Cloepfil-designed renovation of the historic 511 Broadway building, set for completion in 2015. The dorm also gives PNCA its first residence hall, which is crucial to establishing a true community within and beyond the college.
"This is exactly the facility we have needed for a very long time to actually say, 'We have a campus.' We’re talking not just about opening up a residence hall. We’re talking about really the first tangible piece of an urban campus in the north park blocks, which will change this neighborhood and this city," PNCA president Tom Manley said as the tour began.
The building's ground floor is is built with a dark gray-toned flashed brick, which in front steps back from the street to allow outdoor tables at a planned restaurant occupying the space. The bulding then cantilevers over the ground floor to create a covered area over the widened sidewalk. "We wanted the building to float a little bit," Robinson explains.
And it does. The building has a sharp, industrial aesthetic because of the aluminum panels, which the almost charcoal-toned brick only adds to. Growing up in Willamette Valley farm country, seeing that material remined me of the old grain elevators in towns like Carlton, Newberg and McMinnville. Yet the effect standing outside is, at least for me, about kinetics: how light bounces off its accordion-like ridged facades, and how it penetrates deep into the interior. Though it has a strong sculptural presence in photographs, the design seems focused on creating a sense of place.
Tearing down a lovely old building meant the pressure was on these people to create architecture worthy of replacing and surpassing what's been lost to the ever-eroding fabric of old buildings. It's too early to tell just how successful ArtHouse is; none of us have had a chance yet to get used to the building, to live with it. And we can't judge the architecture without getting to see it full of students, with a cafe on the ground floor and tables filled outside (not to mention the boutique, Table of Contents, also set to open there.) But the urban gesture is undeniable, for the North Park Blocks are becoming to PNCA what the South Park Blocks are to Portland State University, bookending the central public artery of the downtown-Pearl District core with youthful energy. And both the intent and the execution of the design and construction leave not only a strong impression, but a clear and concise one. Lots of buildings talk about their relationship to light, but this one absorbs and reflects more than most, and it does so with an uncommon functional elegance: an artful placemaking.