Downstream entrance (photo by Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Over the past decade and a half many of Portland's most compelling office projects have been renovations of former industrial spaces and warehouses. Allied Works' Wieden + Kennedy building, for example, transformed a former cold-storage warehouse. Boora's design for Adidas’s American headquarters took advantage the former Bess Kaiser hospital. GBD Architects and Ankrom Moisan designed a renovation of the old Meier & Frank Delivery Depot for Vestas. Works Partnership re-imagined the Olympic Mills Commerce Center. Each project may have started with a good location and ample square footage, but the resulting architectural experience became an important part of the building occupants’ DNA. They all resisted suburban office parks and paid more to give their employees a better sense of place inside and out, and it paid off.
The new THA Architecture-designed home of Downstream, the local company formerly known for video postproduction but now a multidisciplinary designer of branded environments (with a staff of architects, graphic designers, writers and software engineers involved with nearly every project), falls squarely in that tradition.
Downstream and THA initially planned to build an entirely new building, also in close-in Northwest Portland. They even won a 2012 AIA/Portland Design Award for those unbuilt designs. But the company only needed two out of its five stories, and ultimately decided being a landlord would distract Downstream from its burgeoning core business. Instead, the company (with THA's consultation) decided to renovate a two-story warehouse at NW 16th and Johnson.
Though ideally located along border between the Pearl District and Northwest Portland (with downtown also close by), the building keeps a low profile from the outside rather than shouting any architectural ambitions. Viewed from the street, it’s not that different-looking from any of the other warehouses nearby, minus the forklifts moving in and out. But despite a much smaller per-square-foot budget, the interior is recalls the masterful Wieden + Kennedy design, which THA principal Corey Martin worked on earlier in his career while an employee at Allied Works.
Downstream workstations (photo by Brian Libby)
The Downstream headquarters is comprised of two large, wide-open central spaces, around which a series of smaller enclaves (glass-enclosed bigwig offices, conference rooms) collect and sometimes overlap, with the design maintaining an economy of materials—concrete, glass, white oak—that unifies the interior.
“It’s at once very open and dynamic but also humane and scaled in a way that feels like you can work in it,” Martin said in a recent conversation. “There’s these shifting spaces offset from each other and shifting planes to create different sense of enclosure. Some of the studio spaces and offices feel private, and then as you get more into the middle you feel more open and connected and centralized.” Indeed, walk into the far west portion of the office and the wide-open volume is compelling. Yet in other spaces one feels enclosure and intimacy. It's a nice balance.
Offices in general have transformed over the last generation, with many companies, especially creative-industry ones, minimizing the size and footprint of individual workstations in order to create more and larger communal areas. You may not have as big a cubicle, or even have a cubicle at all, the thinking goes, but there’s a large kitchen and dining area, and plenty of places for your team to gather together and pin ideas on the wall.
“It does foster collaboration for a design firm,” explained Downstream CEO Tim Canfield during a recent building tour. “In our old office you’d have to go down the hall and talk to this person and then go back down the hall. You really couldn’t work together.”
In the new office, he adds, “These guys have their rally caps on and are working together to meet a deadline. They’re pinning ideas onto the wall. Then they go next door together and have a couple of beers and play pool. It’s this beehive of energy with everybody working toward the same goal. That never happened at the old office. You can see there’s energy. It’s a quiet energy but things are happening.”
Martin actually made pin-up space for collaborative areas a priority. “It’s a challenge to create something that provides enough daylight but includes enough pinup or wall space, and yet when you’re working with visual imagery like Downstream, or like an architect, you need that,” he explains. “Usually you have a perimeter of windows, and if your interior is completely open, that doesn’t leave many other walls. We have that problem in our office. But “Downstream’s space a perfect place for visual design.”
THA’s plan places the employee dining room (which the company stocks with sandwich fixings and cold drinks) and two conference rooms along the 16th avenue and Johnson Street perimeters so everyone can enjoy the views outside, yet thanks to rooftop sawtooth skylights, there is a bounty of illumination, even though the other two sides of the building are (because they border on other buildings) without windows.
Small details also bring out personality. That employee dining room, for instance, has a long family-style table with a tree growing out of the middle. A glass conference room table has as its base an all but obsolete film transfer machine that used to be the company’s core business. There’s even still a film cued up.
In recent years Downstream has become a world-class designer of interactive audio-visual environments, and in the center of the new headquarters is a mural-sized video screen that comprises both one of the headquarters’ highlights and its most incomplete setting. By touching different visual prompts on the screen, as Canfield demonstrated impressively on my visit, one can bring up any number of stories about Downstream’s work, be it displays of basketball-team heritage at the University of Oregon’s Matthew Knight Arena or the story of a German octogenarian making headlines as a long-distance runner. Once devoted to technical tasks like color-correcting film or transferring it to video, Downstream now possesses an altogether more imaginative grasp of how audio-video tools can be fused with interior environments to create memorable and unique experiences. Which the video wall ably demonstrates.
But this impressive interactive display is paired with a small cluster of circular tables and chairs. It’s the only part of the Downstream space that doesn’t feel completely resolved. It seems to want to be the company’s living room but the furniture is more like a break room by rote. Still, it's probably a few good sofas away from an enlivening experience.
By no means, though, should this minor quibble distract from the rest of the Downstream headquarters design. Like Wieden + Kennedy and Vestas, it's a company headquarters that successfully communicates good values: a commitment to first-rate local talent, to urban infill and embracing density, and finding ways to make volume and materials sing with a relatively modest budget.
The project also continues a string of successful designs for THA in an era when its esteemed founder, Thomas Hacker, has increasingly given the design reigns to other principals; most architecture firms based around a unique talent have a difficult time transitioning to a new generation, but THA is thriving. In that way, the archtitecture firm, its client and the building itself make a good match. They're all transforming in a way that, while not shouting about itself from the rooftops, is impressive to behold.