BY LUKE AREHART
The latest installment in our ongoing series of conversations with local architects brings us to Stefanie Becker, an associate partner at ZGF Architects. Becker has spent most of the past 14 years at the firm, and has also served as president of the Portland chapter of the American Insitute of Architects. A San Diego native, Becker combines her expertise in both architecture and urban planning. She has been active in a number of local organizations including the Architecture Foundation of Oregon, the AIA Urban Design Panel, and the Willamette Neighborhood Associaton.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Stefanie Becker: I grew up in San Diego, and as a child I was really interested in art. I would draw and build things all of the time. Reflecting back, I realized that I did a lot of fort building in my grandmother’s backyard when I was a kid. There was a corner of the yard that I would use and there was a fence and some trees, palm fronds and some mud. I had my own little world. That was probably my initial space making adventure: making connections to nature and my environment.
When I was in high school I was interested in art and math, and I was trying to figure out what I would do for a profession. I grew up in a single-parent household, so even though exploring these ideas in college was very important to me, it seemed to me as a huge luxury that didn’t feel within my grasp.
I had taken some aptitude tests, and the test told me I should either be a physicist or a naval architect. The word architect planted a seed in my brain. I went on to take art classes and a drafting class because I knew very little about architecture and had no mentors in the way kids do now. My art teachers - Margaret Maple, Dennis Dolby, and Wendell Montague - really encouraged architecture as a career path.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I thought about UC Berkeley and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but the reality was that I would be lucky to go to college at all, so I ended up applying to Cal Poly Pomona because it was close to where I lived. I was accepted and realized during my second week that I was there that it was the perfect choice for me; I loved architecture school. I felt so grateful to be at Cal Poly Pomona. It was a really interesting time when I started there in 1983 as SCI-Arc had broken off a few years before that. SCI-Arc was kind of born out of Cal Poly; it was very new and housed in a warehouse in Santa Monica. A lot of the professors had some crossover between the two schools.
Our AIA student group would go around and do tours on the weekends. We’d get the guidebook for Los Angeles and just drive around to different buildings. We went to the Eames house and met Ray Eames, and the school was working with Mrs. Neutra, who let us host several events at the Silverlake house. These events were a lot of fun along with the interaction with the SCI-Arc movement, all while postmodern ideas were fading away and people were very critical about it. It was an exciting time and I had great professors and friends who were interested in that dialogue. Other interesting experiences were that Raphael Soriano taught during my fifth year and I drove him to school regularly. I lived near and admired a Craig Ellwood industrial building every day on the way to school.
Amidst all of these things going on, Frank Gehry had just completed work on his personal residence. There was not much other Gehry work complete, and at this time he was a character. Cal Poly invited him in for a lecture and we drove him into the building in a Volkswagen - he was standing with his head out of the sunroof. A crazy character - it was eye opening to see somebody like that then. In retrospect we realized he was changing what would happen to building design in the future. He was very confident in what he was doing and very interested in the artistry of architecture, which was wonderful. He’s got a nice personality, where sometimes there are big egos with architects– trying to sound so intellectual - but not holding a candle to what Frank ended up doing.
Cal Poly also offered a great technical education. We had landscape architects and planners in the same college, and there was a big focus on sustainability, even though we called it ‘environmental design’. Sustainability was engrained in my education.
I graduated and spent a few years working and then went to Harvard for graduate school, which was also an incredible experience. I was at Harvard with Shaun Donovan, who now is the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under President Obama; I was also there with Jeanne Gang, the Chicago based architect who just received a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," and designed the 82-story Aqua Tower in Chicago. My urban design class was from all over the world. It’s humbling to think of the amazing people I was studying with, and the caliber of the professors – Moneo, Kreiger, Machado, Silvetti - who made this an unparalleled experience.
I decided to go to graduate school because I felt like my undergraduate education had been so focused on architecture that I wanted to broaden my experiences. I chose to go to an urban design program, and that exposed me to urban design and city planning - it is such a valuable perspective.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The first project that I worked on from the beginning to end, after I finished my undergraduate degree, was a residential project: a house on Martha’s Vineyard. I worked at Appleton & Associates when I was in school and then after. Marc Appleton was fabulous in engaging me in the process. I was working with him doing everything from the initial planning and watercolor renderings for this house as well as going back east and doing site analysis and locating the road to get to the house. I was invited to go to all of the client meetings. It was a level of exposure that I couldn’t have hoped for. In retrospect, I realize now what a gift this was. The house ended up being published in a magazine and was a great thing for me at the beginning of my career. The work that Marc does is very traditional and very academic, but most of all very thoughtful. This was a very typical East Coast house with design elements like shingles and white trim, but so very carefully done. I learned things all those years ago that I try to build on today.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Marc Appleton. When I was in undergraduate school, we had to work a certain number of hours with a professional architecture firm to earn our degree. I was invited to their office to help on a charette and I ended up working there all through school and for many years after. Marc encouraged me to go to graduate school, which was wonderful. I did a lot of design work there, which I don’t do so much of now because I work on bigger projects. I very much blossomed as a designer working with Marc; we had a great shorthand with each other that was really nice. At ZGF Architects (I’ve been here 14 years if you don’t count a short hiatus with HDR), there are so many people that have the same kind of ‘always reaching for a higher bar’ mentality. Each of the partners individually have areas that I identify with and most of them have mentored me in some way.
Joe Collins and I worked together on the Li Ka Shing Center for Biomedical and Health Sciences building at the University of California Berkeley and he helped me so much to become a strong project manager. A big part of that was his trust in me – he sort of handed it over and then worked with me whenever I needed. We had a nice dialogue and I really grew a lot on that project.
Karl Sonnenberg is another one here at ZGF who is a true mentor - it’s just so natural to him. He cares about people and you can just tell people, especially the clients, love that. I admire his willingness to talk openly about professional growth.
As far as design mentors, there's Braulio Baptista, who is a partner in ZGF’s Los Angeles office. He was here for many years, and I actually hired him, which I am very proud of. He is incredibly good at working with people – he’s so charismatic, and naturally talented as a designer. Most of all, he is open to have a conversation about design – that can be very inspiring. When you are a project manager in a large firm, it’s easy to be a few steps removed from design – you don’t wish to be there, but it happens. Somehow that life and communication is all one with Braulio.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I love the design phase of any project, even if it’s the beginning of a marketing opportunity: that excitement and the hope and the potential of what something could be, along with the interaction with my colleagues. The initial spark, where everybody share openly and we can build on ideas, is really fabulous. Going through this process with a client, especially because clients are often not used to having those experiences, is always wonderful because it is just so exciting and new to them.
The construction phase of the project is probably my very favorite because I love the ‘roll your sleeves up’ attitude and figuring it out - how to get it done. I’m definitely a ‘get it done’ type of person and am always focused on making sure we close things out. Getting the project built and getting the problems solved that always come up in construction is incredibly satisfying. Working together with my colleagues is really an important part of what I do. This collaboration and communication is what I am passionate about, most excel at and bring to the table to a team or a project.
I’m defining the collaboration as part of design and construction, but it needs to happen all the way through a project, it doesn’t stop anywhere. I like to work with people, love to meet new people and learn about them, and generate ideas that none of us could have generated alone, that collaborative effort is what is exciting to me.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I started to think about which buildings I visit, but I couldn’t think of a building object. I really love the public spaces in Portland. I spend a ton of time at Director Park. I eat lunch there, I bring my kids there, and if I’m meeting someone, we meet there. It’s not a building; it’s a place, but I think that is such an important piece of our city. Not just Director Park, but the whole string of parks and other public spaces are a big part of what makes a city great. Anybody that I bring to town sees this park; sure, they see Timberline Lodge and Multnomah Falls if they can, but if we get near the downtown core, they get to see Director Park. For me in part it’s an homage to Greg Baldwin, who was one of the partners here – he passed away a few years ago. I bumped in to one of my friends there last summer. She had worked with Greg and she told me, ‘I always come here when I am needing good thoughts or support, because the park reminds me of Greg and it makes me feel like he is here with me’. She was going on a job interview, so she walked through the park to bolster herself, which is really cool. It’s a great place anyway, but that layer makes it so rich for me.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Being from San Diego, I would pretty regularly visit Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute. When I was in school, it was possible to walk right in to the Salk Institute. The guards would let you into the buildings and walk through the labs. They would show you everything. This building is really special to me; it was the first piece of really great architecture that I experienced.
Salk Institute (photo by Brian Libby)
Also, Tadao Ando’s Pulitzer Museum in St. Louis. I walked through this project a few years ago and found it incredibly moving and a wonderful sequence of spaces and experience - just amazing.
Architecture that has the ability to touch people in a way that they don’t really know what is going on, but they can feel that it is special, they feel inspired there: both of these buildings do that for me.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I love Firm 151; they are doing a lot of work with ZGF and have been very successful recently. They worked with ZGF on the two recent U of O projects and you can see a lot of their ‘hand’ in that work.
I think Works Partnership is doing great work. It’s simple, poetic, thoughtful and strong - all at once.
In terms of unheralded work though… as part of being President of AIA/Portland, I’m on a nominating committee and an architect named Richard Brown was on the committee with me. I asked to have a small-firm representative, somebody that I didn’t know to be in this group, so they shared Richard. He is fabulous. Then I looked at his website and the work was just beautiful. There was a wide variety of work. He’s not speaking the same language in every project. His work is very thoughtful, very elegant.
Dangermond Keane Architecture has been in Portland for about six years and they do almost all of their work outside of Portland. This is true of many firms now because of technology. We can all work anywhere in the world. This firm does really intelligent and beautiful projects that always have an interesting spin. They are working on an underground laboratory in South Dakota and an accompanying visitor’s center. The lab is 8,000 feet underground, designed for studying neutrinos. They have done work with Deafspace back east and residential work here locally. It’s an interesting practice and something I admire because the work that they are doing is so rich and for a very small office, they engage technology to do great things.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I think it’s because of my urban design background and interest that I tend to appreciate the space in between. Our connection to the waterfront could be much stronger. I would love to see that happen and I know that the city thinks about that. I know it’s probably a monumental project to undertake to make any of that happen, but it would create more opportunities for us. It was a huge and brilliant move to get rid of the freeway and have Tom McCall Waterfront Park. Now let us connect to the water and not just be up above it. When that park was built, the water probably wasn’t something that anybody wanted to touch.
I'd also favor continuing to improve public transit and the network of bicycle lanes. I can’t safely ride my bike from my house to downtown without it being risky. There are a couple parts to that ride that are tough for not being an expert cyclist. If there were a nice path, I would be more apt to ride. Continuing to work on the bike network to make it accessible to everyone makes us a unique city and we are obviously leading the pack, but we could push it further.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
A lot of the work that I have done is outside of Portland so I haven’t had a ton of interaction with our bureaus. I have, however, because of my involvement in the AIA, come to know the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. And I’m really excited because last year when I was president, we changed the structure of the AIA Urban Design Panel. The panel now includes AIA members, APA members and ASLA members, and hopefully soon will include engineers; they play such a big part in creating infrastructure. We reformatted that group and the city has been wonderful about engaging the local professionals and the work that they are doing. The Urban Design Panel meets on a monthly basis and the BPS has engaged us several times and shared central city plans; and we’ve had charrettes together. I am very impressed by their involvement, and I know from my colleagues in other cities that that engagement doesn’t happen everywhere. It seems from what I’ve seen and heard from other places that there is a willingness and openness here to include the professional community and the work that they are doing. That’s not all of it and it’s not everything. I haven’t been super attentive in terms of what the different commissioners are saying. I think that it’s unfortunate that politics can sometimes get in the way of doing the right thing; I hope that we can continue to do the right thing for our city.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I’m excited that Kengo Kuma is doing the Japanese Garden expansion.
I would love to see a Tadao Ando building here in Portland.
When you start thinking about inviting an architect like that to town, it means that there is something really big happening here, and a big investment. There is so much provincialism in other cities. Sometimes, we are told that we don’t have a chance to be selected because they want to work with a local architect. I would encourage any institution that was doing something of that scale to look here in Portland. Many of our firms are doing work nationally and internationally. So many firms are doing truly high caliber work. It’s a ‘support the locals’ approach, but I think we can design a fabulous project. Of course ZGF, but you could go to Skylab, SRG, Allied Works, Works Partnership, THA, etc. I don’t want to leave out any of the good firms. It would be a shame to do something here of that caliber - like a museum - and not lean on local resources who have so much depth and talent.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I have an incredibly beautiful canoe, which I love. It’s by Bell Canoe Works; it uses Kevlar and is slightly transparent olive green with wood railings and cane seats. I love the design of canoes - wooden ones, too, with the ribs- as a fabulous and simple object. A beautiful object and you are connecting to the environment. What could be better?
The other thing I was thinking about, as a rich design opportunity, was food and the dining experience. First of all, you can present food beautifully and that is special. In this city we have been exposed to an amazing selection of foods and chefs. I think the experience of going to a restaurant with what you are served and the order in which you are served and the environment - that whole all encompassing experience can be amazing. It’s accessible in that the richest person to the poorest person experiences food and can choose to design the consumption of food. It reminds me of Pavarotti who said “One of the very best things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
"The Piano", directed by Jane Campion. I think the cinematography is incredibly beautiful and I love the story. "La Femme Nikita", the original French version with the actress Anne Parillaud –she is a total badass.
And probably the movie that had the most influence on me was "Blade Runner". When this movie first came out, I bet my friends and I watched it 50 times. We were looking at the way it was put together, the story, the architecture and the places, the cinematography - everything about it was fabulous. Even now I think this movie holds up.