BY LUKE AREHART
Since founding Portland's Lever Architecture in 2009, Thomas Robinson has established himself and his firm as one of the city's most acclaimed. Whether it's local projects like the Union Way shops in the West End and the ArtHouse residence hall for Pacific Northwest College of Art, or award-winning designs for Hollywood studios, Lever displays an exceptional poetry with light and materials while remaining rooted in functionality.
And the firm's rapid rise shouldn't come as a surprise to those who followed Robinson's career before Lever, for his resume is among the most impressive in town with stints not only for the city's most acclaimed firm, Allied Works, but also legendary Swiss architets Herzog & DeMeuron, not to mention training at Harvard. Recently Robinson sat down to talk about his inspirations.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Thomas Robinson: My interest in architecture started with a house my great grandfather had built in the nineteen twenties on Cape Cod. He worked as a scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and the house was the family’s home during the summers when he conducted research at the Lab. The design was very typical of other Colonial houses on the Cape built in that time: symmetrical plan, covered completely with cedar shingles, and a dormered second story. However, what was truly striking to a seven-year-old kid growing up in the suburbs outside of Washington, DC in the 1970s was the interior. It was constructed entirely out of wide unfinished wood planks - the floors, the walls, and the ceiling - and it made a real impression on me. I recall waking up very early one morning and being mesmerized by the rising sun tracking across the ceiling and down the walls. Reflecting off the wood planks, the light took on a material quality that was unlike anything I had experienced before.
Thinking back, this was my earliest experience of being present in a space and enjoying it on its own terms. I think architecture as a career was an outgrowth of first looking for these types of experiences in buildings and places and then trying to re-create them.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied at two schools that had very different approaches, and I got a lot out of my time at both. I started my undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley in 1987. Lars Lerup was the dean and tuition was $1,500 a semester. Lerup was a young dean and a very perceptive and progressive teacher. He had an uncanny ability to read your struggles with a design in your drawings and wasn’t afraid to tell you about where you took a wrong turn. I didn’t realize it at the time, but during my early years at Berkeley an academic power struggle was taking place between the younger faculty, represented by Lerup, and the more established professors, represented by Spiro Kostof and Christopher Alexander - who also both happened to be amazing teachers as well. The diversity of views at the school during those few years was great for the students while it lasted, although unfortunately Lerup ended up leaving to go to Rice in my junior year, taking many of the younger faculty with him.
Our first year at Berkeley was all drawing and sculpture and I thought that was a great approach. Our final review was a 24x36 pencil-on-paper drawing of a coat, desk, and chair. The drawings were pinned up in the lobby for the whole school and reviewed publicly. It was a challenging project, but it taught you many of the key aspects of architecture: the public nature of the work, and how to look and think from an aesthetic point of view in terms of composition. You also had to consider schedule - filling a 24x36 sheet full of pencil was 15 to 25 hours of work. Most of us stayed up all night.
Berkeley also had a great building sciences department. Professors like Chris Benton and Susan Ubbelohde (who has subsequently worked with us on a number of recent projects) introduced me to the potential of designing with daylight and this experience continues to influence all of my work to this day.
My time at Harvard was equally valuable but very different. The GSD opened up my eyes to a broader world of architecture and design after growing up and working on the west coast. The lecture series alone was phenomenal, and included people outside of the traditional architectural fields: Philippe Starck, Ian McHarg, and city mayors. There was so much going on it was hard sometimes to stay focused on the design work, but in retrospect, it is the lectures that I really remember.
I also had the opportunity to take a studio with Peter Zumthor, which was really the highlight of my school experience. When Peter arrived at Harvard for the first studio meeting, the he told the administration that he couldn’t teach in the open trays in Gund Hall. I don’t think this had ever happened before. The administration did not know what to do at first. Peter said that he needed a dedicated room to work out of, that we could come back to each week without being disturbed. After a bit of back and forth the GSD (to their credit) agreed, and one of our first tasks as students was to go out and find a space for the studio. Peter used part of his salary to help lease a small warehouse space that is where the studio took place. The studio was the most intense and worthwhile academic experience of my time in school.
When Peter came to Harvard, he simply closed his office and spent all his time with the studio. We’d meet him in the morning and talk about what we were working on and then spend hours in dialogue going through the various ideas. Then we’d go get some dinner with him and go out for drinks. He was very curious about where to go for music or food. At about midnight he would go back to his hotel and we would all hang out at someone’s apartment discussing the day’s events until sunrise. The final review was a big event followed by a party that he invited the whole school to attend and take part in. Later, when I was working in Switzerland for Herzog & de Meuron, my wife and I had the opportunity to visit him a few times in Chur, and he was always interested in playing a little tennis.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
That is a difficult question as it’s only in the last couple of years that I have had the opportunity to do my own work, so the projects I have done while working for others are still very influential. When I think of projects where I was working for someone else, the new de Young Museum while I was at Herzog & de Meuron is definitely a favorite. I’ll probably never do a building like that again for many reasons. For one, it is unlikely that anybody could use that amount of copper for a façade and roof relative to costs, but I also think that you only get the time to develop a new type of façade system once. We spent over two years working with Zahner and others to develop the design and technology of the perforated and embossed copper skin. One of the fun side projects that came out of that work was a new entry gate to Herzog & de Meuron’s Offices in Basel based on the de Young façade. The gate was fabricated in Kansas City by Zahner and then shipped to Switzerland. When it arrived for install, it was great to see that the Swiss metal workers in Basel surprised by the precision and quality of the gate. I’m pretty sure it is the only gate fabricated in the United States that has been installed in Switzerland.
In terms of my own work as LEVER, the housing for art students at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) is a favorite as it was our first ground-up design. That was a big step for the firm to do work in Portland, as well as an opportunity to collaborate with the developer (project^), the Powell family, PNCA, and Walsh Construction. The Digital Animation Studio in Los Angeles is the other major project that put us on the map and received a lot of recognition in LA and even here in Portland. Those two projects really got the firm going, so I am very fond of both. I think Union Way floats between these two projects. It’s hard to categorize, but it is a project with a lot of soul. It was probably the most challenging of these three in terms of design. Even though it appears simple, it took a lot of work from the whole team to execute.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
When I started working in San Francisco 1991, I had the opportunity to work with the architect Joseph Esherick. Joe worked with William Wurster in the 1930s and his uncle Wharton Esherick was a friend of Lou Kahn. He told us stories about meeting Wharton and Lou for dinner when he was a student and how Lou loved to talk. When I worked with him he was almost eighty but still sharp as ever. He had a way about him that put people at ease, but was still an incredible designer. One of his favorite questions was “How would a farmer do it?” Which was really asking how to make something simple, straightforward, and enduring. He also loved playing with daylight in his designs and taught me how to balance high and low light from different sources and at transitions.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I like the beginning of the projects - when you don’t know what you are really doing and everything is out there. You have the opportunity to free associate and visit the site and think about what is possible. It’s a small window from when you arrive at the site and start having your first thoughts and ideas. Sometimes the solution is right there in front of you and it is all about just making it happen. Other times you have to work incredibly hard to find it.
The other part that of the job that I really enjoy is construction. I really like getting to know the contractor and all the subcontractors as they are truly critical to making something great. You have to know enough about what each trade is doing and at what stage you need to talk to them to make sure that they understand the intent. I think you can make their work easier by getting ahead of the decisions that they need to make about where the sprinklers need to be arranged and where the duct work is going. It’s important to think about all of those systems early on so you can say, “Here is how we figured it out,” to make it the best it can be and keep the systems from getting in the way of the idea. For me it goes back to the idea of always thinking of the end as you consider the beginning. The material, budget, and site inform the vision up front and are connected to the result. The connection only gets stronger as you get deeper into the process. I like to start with the end.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
That is a hard question, as I honestly don’t have a really strong emotional connection to any one building in Portland. There are definitely a few buildings that I admire, but the structure of the entire city is what I find special. The way that all of the buildings, large and small, work together with the river, the hills, and the neighborhoods to create a fabric is powerful. For me, that fabric is what is absolutely unique about Portland especially since it is such a young city. When I came to Portland ten years ago, I was struck of how much it reminded me of where we had lived in Basel, Switzerland, which is a beautiful river city over a thousand years old. What is amazing to me is how far Portland has come in 160 years and it is still evolving, which makes it an exciting place to be.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Le Corbusier’s Chapel of Notre Dame in Ronchamp is my favorite. I can vividly recall my first (and only) visit in 1997. What is phenomenal about Ronchamp is the way that it synthesizes so many opposites yet feels like a whole. It works brilliantly with light but is also very dark and moody. It is very rough, but also refined. It was a project ahead of its time formally but it also seems timeless. I found it to be a very moving building, with the presence of ancient cathedrals, but also completely new. It’s all there.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I am becoming more knowledgeable about the local architectural scene now that we are working here, but until the last two years, all my work was out Portland, so I haven’t really been around. There are a number of younger firms that are really starting to make their mark in Portland and that is really exciting. Skylab and Works Partnership standout to me. Although they are plenty well known, I think that the positive influence that Allied Works has had on the quality of design locally is maybe a little unheralded. Even though they haven’t done a large project in downtown Portland in awhile, W+K is still the best contemporary interior space in Portland, and the level of work they are continuing to do elsewhere sets the bar higher for everyone else.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I think Portland is ready for more landmark buildings that can represent the cultural and creative transformation that is taking place in the city. What I mean by that is that Portland's design and planning community has done such a great job of creating fabric buildings that a few exceptions should be welcomed, both in terms of design, energy and the environment. I would also like to see the city think about ways to encourage more innovative approaches to buildings with the way the codes and regulatory processes are constructed. We need to make it easier to the do the right thing from a design and environmental perspective.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
ArtHouse was my first time through full design review in Portland and I have to say that the experience was really positive. We worked closely with LRS Architects (who served as architect of record for ArtHouse) in communicating with the various bureaus, and they did a great job in helping make the process work for the design. I think relationships and trust are key. If you establish intent and are upfront with what you are doing, I think people will work with you.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I think Herzog & de Meuron could do a great building in Portland. They are interested in using what they find in a particular place to create something completely new. They are not just about the physical context, but about taking the culture they discover in a place and thinking of ways to completely transform it. I believe there is a lot for Herzog & de Meuron to find in Portland and I would like to see an architect do a building here that could only happen here.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I love tools - objects that were designed for a specific purpose but are beautiful in their own right. I have this template that my great grandfather used to build a violin. It’s an amazing thing made out of three pieces of laminated oak with holes drilled in it to clamp it to the workbench. He used it to carve the wood shells of the violin he made. He was a scientist so the violin was a hobby piece. I have seen the final violin but I actually really like the template. It is like the sketch of the final painting and for me that is very interesting as it shows the evolution.
Another example of a tool I love is a white porcelain palette that my German grandmother used for her watercolors. The glaze is cracked and has paint in it, and the manufacturer's mark is fired in the glaze; it’s probably from the 1920s.
There is something about these types of objects that is compelling to me. They are objects that were used to make something else, but they have an inherent visual interest. By being designed to make something beautiful like a violin or a painting, that purpose is inscribed in the form of the object.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
Star Wars. I can’t escape the fact that I saw Star Wars six times when it came out in 1977. It simply blew my mind - the visuals, sound and the story. Of course I didn’t realize it at the time, but in seeing it again, the movie is actually very architectural. It is designed down to the very last detail as a complete environment. Some of the biggest protagonists in the movie are spaces (the garbage compactor scene, cantina bar) or models of spaces (the Death Star, the Millennium Falcon). They are amazing designed objects that were photographed and then given life. I am probably stretching this a bit too far, but I can’t avoid the fact that I am product of that culture. What is amazing to me is that my son Zachary is as interested in Star Wars as I was, likely more!
Night on Earth. Early Jim Jarmusch Film about four cab rides in four different cities: Rome, New York, Los Angeles and Helsinki. This is probably one of my favorite movies and I can’t pin point why. I think it is the way Jarmusch so perfectly captures the atmosphere of each place in terms of the characters and the view of the landscape as seen from the cab. If you haven’t seen it, it is really a gem.
Early Mickey Mouse home movies like Steam Boat Willy. My father had old 8mm films of these that he used to show to on our home projector as a kid and they left an impression. Ironically the new Disney film Frozen has a short inspired by these very inventive early films, so they are coming back.