BY LUKE AREHART
The latest entry in our continuing series on local architects' inspirations and favorites brings us to Jon McGrew, an associate principal with Hennebery Eddy Architets. McGrew has been a key leader for the firm's higher education, performing arts, and K-12 education projects, drawing on 24 years of experience.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Jon McGrew: In the seventh grade. I was born here in Portland, but I grew up in Indiana from around the ages of 3 to 15 years old. I lived in a neighborhood in Fort Wayne, Indiana where a good percentage of the houses were designed by architects, but not necessarily famous ones. In fact, our neighbor across the street was an architect and had a cool house; I used to see him bringing home architectural models. They had a house like the Brady house with an open riser tread and a fireplace that divided the dining room from the living room. I used to hang out there and look at the models, which helped me decide in seventh grade that I wanted to be an architect. A couple of my friends lived in some pretty wild houses; one kid’s sister had a planetarium in her bedroom. We however were like interlopers. When we moved to Fort Wayne, my dad leased our house around the country club, so we didn’t really fit in. But I did get to hang out with all of these guys. We used to sit around and draw house plans.
I wanted to be an architect so bad to the point that I remember in freshman year of high school when we were asked to take a punch-card aptitude test that would spit out a computer print-out that would list careers that you should consider. Mine came back and had about 50 careers on listed and architect wasn’t one of them. This made me worried because this document was going to be in my permanent file. I went to the principle and asked to see if I could query the process to find out why architecture wasn’t on my list. I had completed the whole test not answering truthfully but answering the way I thought would get architecture to show up on my list. One of the questions that helped decide was “do you want to work indoors or outdoors” and my reply was indoors, and I was told occasionally you have to go outdoors on a job site. So I changed that answer and they printed it out and it went in my file.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied architecture at the University of Oregon. I moved from Indiana out to Oregon when I was in high school. I knew I wanted to be an architect and thought about and considered the other architect schools back in the Midwest that I was interested in. I asked my high school drafting teacher his opinion on some good architecture schools and he said U of O was one of the best. This prospect sounded pretty exotic to me coming from Indiana. I was able to get in, and I loved the whole experience; architecture school was a lot of fun for me. I loved U of O in the sense that I’d been studying drafting and I knew other things about architecture through drawing. At the U of O I put that training aside and worked on design. I got to meet all kinds of smart people who had vastly more experience than me. I was 18 going through the program in a class with guys who already owned their own construction company, been in the Air Force, or were working on their masters degrees. It was completely mind expanding, and great fun. I enjoyed it.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The last project I completed before I left for Portland was Stanford’s Knight Management center. It’s not cutting-edge architecture, but it was an amazing experience. Another favorite project is one I am working on right now called 2&Taylor: the renovation of the Yamhill Marketplace. We are basically taking the skin off and renovating some other elements. The thing that is exciting for me is that this is my first project in Portland. I‘ve been working for 30 years and have completed some fun projects in Texas, Arizona and California. I remember during the big building boom riding across the bridge and seeing all of the big cranes in downtown thinking I can’t wait to do a project here in Portland. It was right when I got out of college, and I thought a Portland project was going to happen for me and I wasn’t working on any of the projects currently under construction and it bummed me out. I’m excited to be working on the 2&Taylor project.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
A guy named Gordon McWilliams who was a principle at SRG Partnership, which was my first job out of school. Early on he gave me advice to buy a suit. What he really instilled in me was the importance of communication and how to deal with consultants and owners. He was always clear and had a lot to do with shaping the way that I try to communicate.
Another mentor was Bob Caruthers, who recently retired from Waterleaf Architecture + Interiors. He is a technical genius. After we got through the hazing portion he taught me how to fold skinny as opposed wrinkling it up because that made too much noise, and how to write a response to an RFI. It was an incredible education that I really benefitted from.
Another recent mentor is Stan Boles, in terms of watching how he was able to help clients navigate the process of architecture.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
Well, when I came out of school, I wanted to be the world’s greatest architect and get published in magazines and all of that kind of stuff; I wanted to be famous. But after a while and probably right around the time my first kid was born, I realized that I spend a whole lot of time doing this and it’s not always fun. It’s not all renderings and designing. What I found since this realization that makes me feel satisfied is the experience of relationships with people, whether it’s the clients or consultants while working through projects that are always challenging. Trying to find a way to enjoy myself and have some fun while maybe dragging some other people into that quest is something I think I am good at, even on difficult projects. Some projects may not be the most architecturally satisfying but it doesn’t mean it has to be a miserable life experience. This is something that I have been able to bring to my teams, projects and people that we meet. All while trying to be a little happier.
Architecturally, I think I have a good sense but I am not the most intuitive designer. But I think I am good at judging the context, breaking it down to its parts and being able to compose a solution. In terms of project teams I can guide the team and help them keep their eye on the prize. At this point in my career I am also trying to help mentor other folks in the same way as some of the mentors I had. Hopefully they can get closer to realizing the vision instead of being dissatisfied with the compromise because they didn’t have the information to be able to get built what you had in your head.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I talk a lot about the Hatfield US Courthouse and I like it primarily because I think it is one of the best detailed buildings in Portland. I talk to people about going down to look at it for different things. I think that this building is put together very well and the detailing reflects the design intent and makes it clear. For instance it’s a curtain wall system; all of the skin materials are hanging off a steel frame and I like the way the building expresses that. There are steel channels that sit inside the bedded stone. It’s not trying to pretend like it’s a gravity-bound 19th century masonry-built building.
I also enjoy The Weatherly Building at the east end of the Morrison Bridge, by architect Richard Sundeleaf. It’s a tall, slender building with a nice proportion for an old building. Also, the building has gargoyles, and I love gargoyles. I like the fact that the gargoyles are looking over and keeping watch; we should have more gargoyles in Portland.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
My favorite building right now is the Nasher Sculpture Center that Renzo Piano did down in Dallas, TX. I was working on a project down in Dallas for a few years, so I was able to go and visit that project a couple times. I’ve seen lots of projects that are famous or have received acclaim and been published that have been good. But every once in a while you go to one and are in amazement, and the Nasher was one of them. The architecture is so well thought out and executed.
Another favorite which isn’t really a building but one that I can’t believe anybody actually did. The High Line in New York City has a massive impact on how you perceive time and space was. I was able to tour that with Charles Renfro who was showing us around while we were teaming with him on a project at Boora. He took us to see the project and it just blew me away how you could go from all the energy at ground level Manhattan, and then you change your elevation by 18 feet and it’s a whole different planet. It’s amazing and one of the coolest things I have ever experienced.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I don’t know about unheralded or deserving more credit, but a firm that I really like is FieldWork Design & Architecture. The partners are Cornell Anderson, Tonia Hein, and Timothy Fouch. I used to work with Cornell and Tonia. They opened in 2010 and have a very cool space near Division and 26th and they do interiors, architecture along with fabrication and furniture. They have done some really thoughtful and beautiful stuff. They did a lot of the display work up for Will Leather Goods at Union Way. Very talented people doing some really cool stuff.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
The skyline. I’d love to have a couple buildings with decent tops. As to whether these building tops would include gargoyles or not; I don’t know. Portland is amazing at the pedestrian scale, and some of that comes from our miniature block sizes; the mid-block scale is also nice. We don’t have too many terrible buildings. We just don’t have many exceptional buildings either. I think our city could do better with some skyline improvements.
What I am looking for are buildings with distinct and purposeful tops. If you look at the skyline of Portland right now the closest we have to a top is the KOIN tower. Everything else is kind of chopped off like the Wells Fargo Center and the US Bancorp Tower. If you think about watching a professional sports game when the camera pans the city and you can often recognize the city of the event. Imagine if they panned San Francisco you’d know its San Francisco; same with New York and even Dallas. In Portland whenever they pan, they always show you Mt. Hood because there is nothing discerning about our skyline at all. I really love Portland, and I would not change very much about the architecture because we maintain a very high level of design compared to other cities.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
It’s interesting: I’ve been working in Portland for almost 30 years, but I haven’t worked with in Portland for most of that time. Most of my projects have been other places. Since I came to Hennebery Eddy, one of the reasons I came here was to actually change that trend and work in Portland.
Just recently with the 2&Taylor project I experienced the Type 3 application process with the City of Portland's landmarks commission. I had heard all of the stories, and it’s kind of an onerous process with lots of guidelines. But I was really impressed. We went through the process and worked really hard with the folks from the city. We tried to be proactive with what we were after and it was an enlightening process for me that I learned from and had the opportunity to go through. The city staff were really helpful as well as the commissioners on the landmarks board. We did a couple of design advice requests as opposed to jumping right into the process. As a result, we got our proposal approved on the first review and I think the design advice requests helped the building get much better based on the feedback from the landmarks commission. It was exciting and fun and the project got better.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
It would be fun to see a Renzo Piano building in Portland. His buildings are beautiful and technically put together in a nice way. I’d be just as happy to see some of the talented local firms complete a significant project, like a skyline project. There are some really great firms here.
If I had to pick another famous national firm, I’d like to see SHoP Architects design here; which may give an opportunity to observe the process closely if they were doing a design build.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
It’s not very deep…cars, mostly old cars. I think new cars all start to look the same since they are trying to meet the same parameters, like gas mileage for example.
I also like motorcycles. Even though I don’t ride a motorcycle, I’m afraid of them. But I love watching "Biker Build-Off" and those types of shows. It’s amazing. I like watching the craft and the fabrication of the builders and what they can accomplish. I’m jealous; I wish I had the same tools and an aptitude to do the same thing. I appreciate it. There are the guys who build the crazy fiberglass dragon thing; I don’t like that. I like the guys who find an old engine and build every tube of the frame, and since it’s a custom build, beautiful and composed, they don’t cover it up with other stuff. There is an idea about the aesthetic they are going for, so they use corresponding rims and tires. I like the customization shows since we apply the same process to architecture. It’s about breaking down the problem and thinking about the pieces, or program. Anyone can put it together to make it run, but it’s a difference entirely to put it together so it’s composed and reflected and aesthetic and an idea, that also operates. It’s fascinating to me.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
This is the hardest question out of all of them. The first one is easy: The Big Lebowski. I like to think of myself as an aspiring Dude. I’m trying harder and harder just to be calm. Number two because I like the idea of top five lists and top three lists and one of my all time favorites is High Fidelity with John Cusack. I like it because he spends a lot of time doing top five lists. I also like it because that whole movie is about him growing up and being able to move away from a record store. The reverse of this is actually my goal; I would love to devolve into owning a record store and making top five lists. If I could become what he was trying to escape, I’d be happy as a clam. Also Bruce Springsteen gives him advice. I tend to take advice from Bruce once in awhile myself. The third one was hard, but I would say The Sandlot because it’s an amazing movie and I’ve enjoyed it with my kids. It just makes me smile; and I like nicknames. Everyone should have a nickname.