BY LUKE AREHART
The latest installment in our continuing series on local architects, their inspirations and favorite works brings us to a key player in Portland's most acclaimed firm of the past decade. Chris Bixby has been an important collaborator with Allied's Brad Cloepfil on a host of the firm's most important projects, from the landmark local Wieden + Kennedy building to the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver. He also has good taste in local architecture and sci-fi movies.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Chris Bixby: I grew up in the Irvington neighborhood in the 70’s and 80’s. I remember being enamored with some of the stately craftsman houses there; some of my friends lived in them. Those wonderful homes became a part of my consciousness early in life and taught me about scale and proportion, and it’s probably where my appreciation for architecture began to develop.
I was in the fifth grade and I had to do a report about possible careers; that’s when architecture caught my attention. I loved to sketch and I was good at math, so I was immediately drawn to it. From that point on, a light went on for me and it became the focus of my interest as a career. My best friend at the time had a similar interest, so we supported each other in our fascination with technical drawings and learning about how things are made. It was a very early realization for me and informed my decision to go to Benson High School where they offered a major in architecture.
I come from a pretty creative family; my father is a musician, my mother is an artist and master gardener, and my uncle is a cabinetmaker and boat builder. My mother encouraged my drawing ability when I was young and always supported my interest in making things. Her father, my grandfather Young, was an artist and illustrator who made beautiful pen and ink drawings and watercolor paintings of steamboats and Northwest landscapes. He loved the outdoors and had a fascination with early locomotives. I think a combination of people and experiences starting when I was quite young influenced my interest in the built environment and sparked my interest in architecture.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied at University of Oregon and feel fortunate to have received such a well-rounded education there. The craft of building and the focus on structure making space were key to the philosophy then. The Kahn school was still very present and I focused my time with the professors that leaned that way. U of O is where I met Brad Cloepfil. He and John Cava began teaching during the end of my second year and I was encouraged by another professor to take part in the new summer studio program that they had just started in Portland. After that summer, I basically latched myself onto those guys. There was a buzz around the school at the time that their interest was to elevate the discussion of Kahn’s legacy through the filter of Ken Frampton’s writings and criticism. Space, structure and light were at the heart of every conversation, while the idea of the “tectonic” sought to weave it all together through landscape and culture. I was very drawn to what they were doing and took every studio and seminar that I could with them. Emphasis was always on questions like, “What’s the spatial idea? How is it legible? How is the structure of the building informing it? What’s the parti?” Brad hired me right out of school, just as he was starting the office.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
It’s hard to say. Each project has its own qualities and context that makes it interesting. One favorite would be the Booker T. Washington High School for the Visual and Performing Arts, located in the newly formed “Arts District” in downtown Dallas. While we were designing the high school, Norman Foster’s office was working on the Winspear opera house next door, and OMA [Rem Koolhaas] was working on the Wyly multi-form theater across the street. The high school was part of this larger urban context, attempting to create a symbiotic relationship between the different institutions by considering the space shared by them all. It was fascinating to be part of this process and for a public high school to be such an important component of the master plan for the district. I remember the first day of school very well. The look on the kid’s faces and the energy of the school on opening day was something I’ll never forget. We learned recently that four of the dancers at the school were accepted to Julliard this year. It’s quite an exceptional school, and draws talented kids from all over Dallas. Completing the project reaffirmed for me one of the reasons I became interested into architecture. We helped the school district and the school board realize a great vision for their school and the community.
More recently, the Clyfford Still Museum is another favorite. I worked on this project with Brad for four years through design and construction. Brad knew Clyfford Still’s paintings well and when we first heard of the opportunity he quickly realized that it was a project we had to get. We were in the middle of the construction documents phase when the economy collapsed, which obviously presented some challenges. The client asked us if we could reduce the budget by 20% soon thereafter. We sometimes talk about the budget reduction in the office and reflect that the design may have even improved during that time. It forced us to focus on the components that made the architecture: structure, light, and space.
Right now I’m working on the Pacific Northwest College of Art’s project to relocate their campus into the historic federal building at 511 Broadway, which Portland’s central post office from 1916. It’s a beautiful building that will be reborn with PNCA’s fine-arts curriculum. The historic-landmark building had been subject to several renovations and alterations since its original construction, none of which were permitted with the City of Portland. When it was built in 1916, the City was given a copy of the drawings as a courtesy. We’ve had to document every non-compliant feature of the building and in a sense permit the building retroactively. Most of what we’re doing is editing out layers of renovations since its original construction, the end result bringing light and air back in to the heart of the building. With a light touch, we’re weaving some modern architecture into the historic body. I think that we have really maximized the design solution within the constraints and I’m excited about how it is going to give PNCA an enhanced position in the city while providing a new space for art with a strong civic presence on the North Park Blocks. I think the fact that one of Portland’s primary federal structures is now being repurposed for art education speaks a great deal to the spirit of the school’s leadership and our community leaders.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
I’ve been really lucky to have numerous mentors and supporters from early on. My high school architecture teacher was a great influence, and numerous people I met when I was a young intern have encouraged and helped me along the way. There are probably too many to mention. It was when I was at UO, when I met Brad Cloepfil and John Cava, that I feel I was really introduced to how design ethics and practice could be brought together. I’ve appreciated guidance from them both throughout my career. I was drawn to their determination to produce rigorous work that had conceptual legibility, and I’ve appreciated guidance from them both throughout my career. Brad has continued to be a mentor as I’ve worked with him for going on 20 years now. I was 25 when he got the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters project. It was an exhilarating time and I was immediately immersed in some really exciting discussions about architecture. Working through that project with Brad was a tremendous learning experience.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I definitely enjoy all aspects of it. I enjoy the beginning of projects when architectural ideas and the program are synthesizing. That can be an exhilarating part of the process, but the construction phase can be just as exciting. To see the design actualized is a real thrill. I think a lot of architects in the middle of their careers realize that the design problem is the entire process, soup to nuts. The design problem is how you manage the process, how you define the parameters, and how you work within the resources that are available to create the best outcome. I get a lot of enjoyment out of understanding the larger context of the problem and seeing it come to fruition. We have a strong ethic in the office that Brad has always reinforced, which is that design doesn’t end after the design development phase. We are making design decisions and refining elements through the entire process. I think this is one of the primary ways that craft is infused into architecture today. I always feel like we’ve achieved something when the builders are just as excited about the project as we are. I think there is an impression among most non-architects that there is a design front-end and then a technical side. From beginning to end, it’s a much more continuous and organic process.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
I think the Memorial Coliseum is resonating with me right now. It’s located in an area of the city that’s currently one of the most problematic and undefined and it stands out for me because of that. I was shocked when there was talk several years ago about it being razed. I’m glad it’s been saved with historic status. I have fond memories of going to Blazer games there, walking around the concourse and seeing the lights from downtown across the river. The experience of moving around the perimeter of the seating bowl, and the elevation of the concourse near the river’s edge with its connection to the city really, created a civic space for sports events. I may appreciate it more because of its natural comparison to the Moda Center. When I go to an event at the Moda center now, I’m always disappointed with the lack of procession, ritual and visual connection to the surrounding neighborhood, let alone the city. I think the Memorial Coliseum represents something that we may have lost in our culture. It’s significant to me in that regard and I’m glad that others had the motivation to save it from the wrecking ball.
In addition, Portland and the region have a handful of beautiful buildings by Pietro Belluschi. I used to walk past Central Lutheran Church in Irvington everyday on my way to school.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
This is kind of like asking ‘What’s your favorite food?’ It’s a tough question in that way. I think buildings should be judged architecturally based on the various conditions under which they came to be. It’s hard to say that one building is a favorite of mine over another. 10 years ago I received the Ion Lewis travelling fellowship from U of O and went to Switzerland to study a firm that started in the 60’s, still operating today, named Atelier 5. I had been introduced to there work in school, and have always had a fascination with their housing projects. My research proposal included visiting their projects in Switzerland and Germany and interviewing one of the original partners who is still practicing today. One of their most famous projects is called the Seidlung Halen, just outside of Bern and built in 1961. It’s a low-rise multi-family housing project tucked in the woods that almost dissolves into the forest. It’s as if the building doesn’t exist: just space, light, and nature. The houses are just over 12 feet wide and step down the hillside following the topography and permeated with trees and vegetation. It amazes me how tightly packed the composition is, yet how each unit has ample outdoor private space. This project always fascinated me. I appreciate it for what it proposed as an alternate vision of a future urbanism: an alternative to typical single family housing development in the suburbs and the standard apartment building types in the city. There’s an ongoing and current interest in fusing architecture and landscape together that I think makes this building still relevant today. An interesting side note is that the partners of Atelier 5 lived in the project when it was complete. It’s a great story of how one can strive to unify work and life. In addition to the Atelier 5 projects, I saw a lot of great contemporary architecture during that trip. As everyone knows, the Swiss are amazing builders.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Although I think they’re not unheralded, I really appreciate what Works Partnership Architecture is accomplishing. They’re really maximizing the potential of their projects. It’s been really fun to see some of my classmates excel and accomplish some of their own work. Ben Wechter is a friend and has been building some rigorous projects recently.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I’m excited to see how the “close-in” east side will evolve. I grew up on the east side and the feeling of crossing the river to get downtown is beginning to blur a bit. It’s a ways off still, but the energy that’s centering around the Willamette river is really exciting to see. The waterfront and the habitability of the river edge is such an important aspect of our city. I’ve been excited to see the efforts to reclaim that space and concentrate development around it.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
We probably have a more active planning bureau than other cities our size in the country. We’re famous for it, and I think that’s a good thing. I’ve worked in a few other cities and have observed a much lighter hand in jurisdictional oversight and the application of zoning law. There is a situation in Dallas with a highrise building in the Arts district that’s reflecting light onto the Nasher Sculpture Center roof. The museum is designed with this elaborate cast aluminum skylight screen that only allows North light to enter the galleries. The high-rise condo building is reflecting sunlight directly into the galleries from the north and completely undermining the design intent of the museum. I think it’s actually burning the trees in the garden as well. Ironically, the building is called Museum Tower; there is a huge debate going on about it. My understanding is that there were very relaxed government zoning regulations in Dallas guiding the design of the tower and little or no requirement for solar analysis for such a tall building within the downtown commercial core. It’s quite a mess. I’m not sure a situation like that would happen here.
That said, I suspect that Portland’s Bureau of Development Services could benefit from better funding and more staff, especially now that the economy has picked up again. I sometimes hear about them being overloaded with work. I think a digital permitting process that could help improve efficiency of the planning review and permitting processes.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I think it would be interesting to see a major international architect like Herzog & de Meuron, OMA, or Toyo Ito do a building in Portland. It would be interesting to see how they would respond to our culture and how a project of theirs might bring Portland into a broader international discourse of urban architecture and landscape. We often get recognition for our sustainability and green buildings but we don’t have that many buildings that challenge the intellectual aspect of architecture the way these architects do. I think it would be fascinating to see what they would find here and how they might interpret the city and culture.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I enjoy art and architecture books. I have a descent collection that I started when I was in school and I learned to appreciate them early on. I interned for an architect when I was young, doing building models mostly, and he used to pay me partly with architecture books. I’ve never tried to figure out what kind of deal I was getting, but I appreciated it at the time. I’m sure most of them are out of print now. It’s informative to look at those books and see how architects and artists present their ideas, how they use proportion, typography and graphic design to reinforce the concept, content and motivation of their work .
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
"It’s a Wonderful Life" is a favorite because it’s such a classic human story. I watched it with my two boys over the holidays. I hadn’t seen it in a long time and they were not interested in it at first, being black and white and “an old movie”. In about three minutes they were completely captivated. You know it’s a good movie when your six-year-old is completely absorbed in a story like that. I love any Hitchcock film: "The Birds," "Rear Window," "Psycho." All of his movies are masterworks that meditate on the interaction of physical and psychological space. "2001: A Space Odyssey" is one of my favorite science fiction films. I think science fiction appeals to architects as it speculates about the future physical form of the city and often portrays the limits human habitation. I think science fiction naturally resonates with anyone interested in modern architecture and urban design. You have to imagine what the urban and rural landscape might be like in the future and what forces will inform how we live.