BY LUKE AREHART
Our latest talk with local architects about their inspirations, career and favorites leads us to a founding principal of Merryman Barnes Architects: Nancy Merryman. A past president of AIA/Portland, Merryman has long been active both as an architect and in the community. Her firm, founded in 1992 (and known until 2008 as Robertson Merryman Barnes), has designed a variety of project types from mixed-use and multifamily housing to religious facilities to parks and civic structures.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Nancy Merryman: Growing up in Klamath Falls, I loved buildings. Thinking about it now, I guess I could say I had a rich architectural environment as a kid. I was fortunate enough to see lots of interesting examples of architecture close to home. And I was able to travel some with my parents. I totally fell in love with Greece.
I have a relative named Ned Livingston who lives on a beautiful ranch 60 miles from town. I didn’t know anything about architecture at the time I first knew him, but I always admired him and thought he was cool. He trained to be an architect at the University of Oregon; the principals of the San Francisco firm Backen, Arrigoni & Ross were some of his friends and contemporaries. He worked for a while and got his architectural license then decided one day that he hated the practice of architecture. (I should have asked him a lot more about that at the time!) He then became a furniture maker and designed and made beautiful, handcrafted teak wood furniture. One of his pieces is a freestanding library stepladder, now in the Smithsonian collection. Also, Carole King bought one of his amazing cradles; it looks like a Viking ship. He also built every part of his house by hand. Ned and I didn’t talk too much about architecture when I was a kid, but he is one of the reasons I became interested in design. I was always interested in buildings and traveling to see buildings, but nobody had ever talked to me about architecture as a profession at that time.
Another early memory is my best friend, on another cattle ranch; her house was built in the 1850s. It had a stream running through the stone basement, a unique cold storage pantry area with very thick walls in the stone part of the house directly adjacent to the kitchen, and the upstairs had a continuous space below the eaves connecting all the bedroom closets. Great for pranks, and home to Louis, the resident ghost. Also, my next-door neighbors had a 1957 architect-designed house. We lived in a mid‑century modern builder house not done by an architect. As a result, those two houses had a deep impact on my interest in architecture because they were so well built and wonderful to live in, with the light and the way the spaces flowed together, spacious and cozy at the same time.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I started out in pre-med for two years at the University of Oregon. The turning point came while I was taking organic chemistry. One of my friends was in architecture school, and I would somehow find myself staying up until 2 a.m. talking to her about her architecture projects instead of studying my organic chemistry. She was on the selection committee that year and encouraged me to apply, and that’s when I switched into architecture as a career path. I remember asking my mom to send me a suitcase full of my drawings from under my bed at home for the application materials. Those were the old days!
It was a fabulous education. Architecture provides a brilliant liberal arts background because you study science and art and history as well as math. It’s a very well-rounded discipline for analyzing and solving problems.
I was lucky to be at the U of O during a really good time. There were wonderful professors like Gary Moye and Thomas Hacker and Pat Piccioni, who had all worked for Louis Kahn in Philadelphia. Gary Moye and Don Genasci were amazing mentors to me. I also had Thom Hacker as a reviewer and media class instructor. Earl Morsund and his spatial composition class was a revelation.
Bill Kleinsasser also taught at the U of O during my time there. He came from Berkeley and was a major proponent of the Pattern Language. Instead of being at one school where everybody was thinking the same way, U of O offered real power in the form of an education that allowed me to experience multiple architectural philosophies at once: it’s not all Pattern Language, it’s not all Khanian, and it’s not all Mies, for example. U of O provided a nuanced learning environment where I found real value in discovering that I could make thoroughly informed choices and develop my own set of values.
Don Genasci was also important to me because he taught me how to understand urban environments, the designs of cities, and the reasons quality design and development of the public realm are so critical. The summer I spent in London with him was one of the high points of my education.
I should mention that there were also a lot of amazing students there too! I learned almost as much about design and drawing from people like Ken Klos, Mark Foster, and many others.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
I started at Boora Architects right after graduation and worked there for 11 years. At Boora, I worked on the Portland Center for the Performing Arts, an amazing project. It was a competition, and I was able to work on the submission and then work on the project all the way through construction documents. The Newmark Theater was my main focus on the project. Today, I can walk by the Schnitzer and say, “I chose those colors.” Not the interior ones—that’s a whole other story! I also worked on the First Congregational church remodel on the same block as the Performing Arts Center. Those were my favorite projects at Boora.
More recently, (at Merryman Barnes Architects) we worked with the Sisters of the Holy Names to design an archive building for their order, called the Heritage Center. This fascinating group of women are among our all-time favorite clients. Their project also includes a beautiful garden designed by Mayer Reed. Their original Provincial House headquarters is now part of the Mary’s Woods Retirement Community, directly adjacent to the campus of Marylhurst College, which the Sisters founded. The Heritage Center has a very classical form that was meant to relate to the Provincial House and its architectural character.
So much of the pleasure of architectural practice depends on the client. We recently finished a new Catholic church in Portland called San Juan Diego. The parish members, along with the building itself, made this an especially rewarding project. We got the project in 2003, two weeks before the archdiocese declared bankruptcy! The project went on hold for five years and then finally came back to life. We started working on programming and, little by little, the design evolved. It was completed in November 2010.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Gary Moye, as I mentioned, was a fabulous professor who I also worked for during school. At Boora, Bud Oringdulph was always a mentor to me as were other principals including Tom Pene and Stan Boles. Truthfully, I wish I had had more real mentors. When we started Merryman Barnes Architects, I quickly realized just how much I didn’t know about so many things. But I enjoy a collegial group of friends and professionals who are always willing to share information and inspiration. And MB’s been especially lucky because some of our current work has come to the firm through other architects’ recommendations.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I think I listen well and make a point of really understanding what a client wants. That’s the fun part, eliciting the client’s needs. Figuring out how things have to work functionally is one aspect of the work; another is discovering the client’s hopes and dreams on top of the project’s functionality. I really enjoy helping the clients figure out the character of their spaces, and how their choices will affect their daily lives, whether at home or at work. It’s rewarding and fun to get to know people in that way.
I love working with clients but to a certain extent, like most architects, I’m pretty much an introvert, so I also love sitting at my desk thinking about design or daydreaming about the projects.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I tend to like architecture that manages to be grand and understated at the same time. Something a bit formal, but warm and well-scaled.
The Town Club, right above the MAC Club on Salmon Street, has the form of an Italian palazzo; the building sits tight to the sidewalk, and has a gracious brick arch marking the main entry. The brick continues past the building as a low brick wall that encircles a sunken garden in the rear of the site. I love this kind of architectural fabric. It is urban, and it has a certain mystery about it.
I still like the Performing Arts Center, especially the way it fits around the First Congregational Church. I also like Holst’s Bud Clark Commons. I’ve always admired the sculptural qualities and materiality of the Hatfield Federal Courthouse. And I expect to love Kengo Kuma’s new work for the Portland Japanese Garden!
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
I love the Soane Museum in London. It’s totally eccentric and enchanting. Soane took two old townhouses and broke through the common walls to join them horizontally and then also made floor-to-floor connections to link spaces vertically. The museum has all kinds of 3D spaces, including a picture gallery room whose walls are moveable panels full of paintings – you keep peeling back the panels until all of a sudden they open into space and you can look down into the sculpture court at Soane’s collection of marble statues and other antiquities. Light comes from the top and somehow makes it all the way down to the lowest level. Soane also designed the wonderful Dulwich Picture Gallery, which has beautiful interior spaces. I learned about Soane from Don Genasci and the summer I spent in London.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I’m sure there are dozens who deserve more credit—we are blessed with an abundance of talented architects. Some friends that come to mind immediately are Richard Brown, Liz Williams, Rick Potestio, Bill Tripp, Ken Klos, Giulietti/Schouten, Chris Diloreto…I know I’m forgetting many whose work I have admired.
Bill’s Packer House is gorgeous. When he took me to see it last year, I was thrilled to see so many Aalto characteristics. It’s a big house, but all of the rooms feel cozy thanks to his close attention to scale, light and detail.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I hope Portland is able to keep and/or encourage a lot more smaller-scale development. That’s what makes the neighborhoods like Mississippi, Alberta, Hawthorne, and Division so lively. I understand that there is huge pressure to keep increasing the density of the city—I just hope we can strike a balance that allows both smaller and larger projects. I think the huge scale of development in many places is really deadly to the life and public nature of a city. I also hope, along with Susan Anderson, that the growth and development can move east to improve parts of the city that have been neglected too long.
We’re lucky to be kind of provincial, so growth has been slower here; we didn’t get as many bad buildings as Seattle during the boom. Anytime a firm gets a building in Portland, it’s special, and it’s a big deal, so a lot of time and attention go into it. I hope that trend continues.
I’ve enjoyed Ankrom Moisan’s work in the Pearl. I think these well-detailed “fabric” buildings will stand the tests of time. I hope we keep the pedestrian scale and the urban fabric because I think the city itself—the spaces we create within the city—define our quality of life, and our relationships with our environment. It’s important to have beautiful buildings that are done well, but I don’t want them to all be “icons,” although everyone seems to crave that kind of attention in our commercialized culture. It’s tough on people when buildings are designed only to get attention.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I was on Portland’s Design Commission for eight years, so I understand that you can’t create good design through a bureaucratic process. But what you can do is encourage the clients and architect teams to consider other options, make better choices, do a better job. I think the city commissions and bureaus have tried to encourage people to do the right thing in a positive way.
I know the city has gotten some bad raps for being tough to work with, but that hasn’t been our experience. MB has productive ongoing relationships with planners and examiners. We start communicating at the beginning of a project to fully understand their goals and perspectives. It’s a hard position to be in! The city staff is answerable to many different private and public entities, all with varying levels of sophistication and knowledge about the city, and trying to achieve a dual vision of sustainability and quality design. It is a tall order! But I’m glad we have high expectations.
I think Portland has been blessed to have the Portland Development Commission. I feel sorry that it has changed its focus to economic development instead of its traditional role as a planning and development engine. Creating a vibrant city takes work in both areas and I’m not certain who will be leading the more physical aspects. I have lots of architect friends who went to work there and were instrumental in doing planning for many different neighborhoods. We have also done many studies for PDC, imagining the potential of various properties. All of that work is really important in order to be able to show people what is possible from a very physical standpoint. It seems that there are not as many of those types of explorations being done, and that’s a real loss. I understand the focus on jobs and how important that is along with sustainability, but I also think that the physical design elements should not be overlooked.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I’ve enjoyed Peter Zumthor’s work and I’d love to see something by him in Portland. One of my favorites is the museum in Cologne, Germany where he uses part of a ruin as the entrance into an amazing museum complex. I remember thinking that it was gorgeous. I was working on a church project at the time and I thought, “I want to see how much this project cost to build per square foot,” and it was something like $1,500. Needless to say, we didn’t have the same level of budget.
I also love the oval St. Benedict’s chapel that he did in Switzerland where the interior roof structure looks like the structure of a boat; a beautiful, tiny project.
I really respect people that can do beautiful work with small budgets like the Rural Studio, and others who take on the affordable housing challenge. One of our philosophies is that everybody deserves a beautiful place to live and it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the cost or the materials. With today’s codes, affordable housing has the same requirements for energy, structure, seismic, and other considerations that a custom residential house would have. The beauty of either type of housing comes through its appropriate siting, the proportions, the layout of the spaces, how natural light comes it and other experiential aspects of design. Those are much more important than the granite countertops, for example.
I’ve seen houses in ideal settings, with every luxurious material, with a beautiful view and high ceilings - and yet there is nothing there that elicits any real emotional response. You have to be careful about scale; I have a problem with a lot of the architecture I see in the magazines. It is visually stunning and interesting, but when I try to imagine myself in that space, I wonder how I would feel and where I would hang out. I am a real humanist in that sense, because I’m always trying to consider the human response and there is a lot of stuff out there that doesn’t appear to.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I have a whole collection of Mexican Oaxacan folk art animal carvings, but now I’m very picky about which ones I buy. I also love pottery, especially Italian, Spanish, and Mexican versions. I also enjoy furniture, but I have way too much of it.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
"Local Hero," "Roman Holiday," "Enchanted April," and "Good Will Hunting."
I wondered, after I made my list: what do all of these have in common? I think they share a theme of stepping outside your normal life and routine, doing something else, being somewhere else, being another version of yourself - and being enriched from the experiences. They are all basically positive about life. Which suits me. I know I’m supposed to say "Blade Runner," "Belly of an Architect," "The Draughtsman’s Contract," or something edgy like that.