Overton 19 (photo by Joshua Jay Elliott)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
The Overton 19 building in Northwest Portland’s Alphabet District, designed by Works Partnership Architecture, is a bold arrival in a district where many architects might have focused on just fitting in.
Located, as its name indicates, at the corner of NW 19th and Overton, the project is situated in a transitional area where the fabric of historic early 20th Century homes and buildings gives way to light industrial structures to the north. Some architects might have used a little brick, for example, to tie in with the old buildings while others could easily have chosen an industrially tinged modern palate to tie in with the warehouses, or maybe just built a box and clad it with reclaimed wood, the material du jour.
But instead, Works created something more visually arresting and memorable: a three-story building with an eye-catching façade seemingly veiled by a grove of trees. And yet because of its modest scale, the building fits in well with the rest of the neighborhood.
The project began when local artist Linda Hutchins and her husband, John Montague, hired Works to transform an adjacent single-story warehouse next door into a home, and decided to develop the adjacent parking lot in order to create a private walled-in garden for the residence. Overton 19 consists of five two-story loft units (which act as live-work spaces, making them ideal for creative small businesses) that occupy the first two floors, wrapping either side of a glassy ground-floor retail space at the corner. On the second and third floors above the retail space are two apartments.
Overton 19 (photos by Joshua Jay Elliott)
By placing the three-story portions at the corner, there is a kind of graduation of scale that allows the building to step down to the height of nearby homes while also creating a geometry of interlocking upper and lower cube forms in how these three stories at the corner relate to the loft units on either side. Yet the building is still defined visually by the series of reed or tree-like forms on the façade that undulate to form a series of uniquely shaped windows as they rise from the first to second or second to third floor.
The strands help create “a sense of privacy for the residents while also maximizing the amount of natural light,” Works Partnership co-founder Carrie Strickland explained by email. It allows floor-to-ceiling glass but reduces the fishbowl effect: a balance between transparency and privacy that makes sense given how the lofts’ ground-floor spaces could be residential or commercial in use.
Although Works Partnership first gained notoriety (and a number of design awards) in the 2000s for transforming a succession of old industrial buildings, particularly ones in the Central Eastside Industrial District for Beam Development such as the Eastbank Commerce Center and the Olympic Mills Commerce Center (as well as the more recent Eastside Exchange), it’s not surprising that the firm would go for a bold façade pattern. After all, this is the firm behind 2009’s b-SIDE6 on East Burnside, one of the most striking Portland buildings of the past decade with its protruding cube-like forms that hang over the street, a reference to the lower Burnside’s arcade district (created in the 1920s when the street was widened).
Overton 19 doesn’t look quite like anything else in Works’ portfolio that I’ve seen; my frame of reference might instead be a building like Herzog & De Meuron’s Prada store in Tokyo, its façade alternating glass and masonry in an ameba-like form. But Strickland and co-firm-leader William Neburka have always treated their projects as a chance to create function-driven sculpture. They never make bold shapes for their own sake; all of their designs are rooted in purpose, and so Overton 19’s reed-like façade patterning is a way of delivering the right balance of transparency and privacy.
And it’s not just façade patterning, by the way: the building itself gently undulates back and forth from the sidewalk to allow room for small planters.
Overton 19 (photos by Joshua Jay Elliott)
Personally, I usually have a low tolerance and high skepticism about anything that smacks of faux in architecture: forms that are meant to ape other forms, be it the way that a lot of postmodern architecture mimics (or perhaps lampoons) classical design or how modern, particularly sustainable design (or biophilia) can take obvious cues from nature.
Yet I quite like Overton 19, which probably says something about Works Partnership’s inherent sense of balance: the willingness to design something that stands out yet the restraint to keep it from seeming cartoonish. They don’t take the reed/tree resemblance too far. The organic curve of nature is unmistakable, but Works never lets their gesture take over the architecture, as one might argue is the case with the reed-like screening at the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt federal building downtown.
It also occurred to me that there may be a faint resemblance between the reed/tree patterning of Overton 19's façade and Hutchins' drawings and her other artwork. Her drawings, for instance, have been acclaimed as "a duet between material and immaterial," (Richard Speer, Willamette Week) and have a way of evoking nature. And for the Oregon College of Art & Craft's ean Vollum Drawing, Painting and Photography Building in 2010, she designed laser-cut steel panels to form the railings for an exterior plaza that, like the Overton 19 façade, bring to mind reeds or blades of grass.
Oregon College of Art & Craft railings (images courtesy Linda Hutchins)
Hutchins told me earlier today that despite little advertising or fanfare in the weeks since the building was completed, it is almost completely rented out. For the residents or small business owners who locate there, the look of the building’s exterior is only part of the equation. Inside, the architects have tucked a lot of function into these modestly sized units. When I visited, it was noticeable how an entire kitchen, bathroom or closet seemed to almost disappear into the wall, maximizing the space’s flexibility and adaptability. Both figuratively and literally, the reed pattern on the façade only partially covers what’s inside. Luckily the view there too is, while not as sculptural, just as intuitive.