BY LUKE AREHART
Our series on local architects and their inspirations continues with one of Portland's most talented and underrated building designers and planners, Rick Potestio, who, when he's not cyclo-cross racing or engaging in spirited civic debate, combines a facility for crisp, clean-lined contemporary architecture with a reverence for old-world craftsmanship.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Rick Potestio: In my SW Portland neighborhood there was a lot of new construction. On my walk home from school, I would detour through these construction sites. The experience of exploring houses in their framed state was impactful. I’d try to imagine what the spaces would be like when the transparency was encased with opaque surfaces. As a kid I thought of architecture as houses.
Once I got a bicycle it expanded the range of house hunting that I could achieve in a day. I could go as far as Lake Oswego and make it back by dinnertime. I’d knock on the door of an intriguing house and ask to come in. The owners may have been a bit taken a back, but most shared their houses and stories of their architects. I’d go home each night and fold over my notebook paper and draw houses--inspired by what I had seen that day.
By the time I was in high school, I had familiarized myself with the works of Wade Pipes, A. E. Doyle, Widden and Lewis, [Herman] Brookman, [John] Yeon, [Pietro] Belluschi, [John] Storrs, [Saul] Zaik, [Joachim] Grube, and [Walter] Gordon.
I remember going to a book signing for A Century of Portland Architecture by George McMath and Thomas Vaughan. That book was my bible.
I was distressed as I witnessed Victorian-era buildings and houses being torn down. But simultaneously, the city was building the Memorial Coliseum and the South Auditorium urban renewal area with its amazing Halprin fountains. The Standard Plaza and the Hilton Hotel were new. At this time even shopping malls such as the Lloyd Center were modernist pieces designed by architects. I was exposed to architecture that was fresh, new, simple and elegant.
I determined that architecture was what I wanted to do.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I earned my bachelor of architecture at the University of Oregon and my master’s through Syracuse University’s program in Florence, Italy.
The U of O was a dynamic, exciting place with factions of professors representing differing philosophies. The program was balanced between drawing, design, history, and structural studies. The professors who were most influential were the Louis Kahn group: [Thomas] Hacker, [Richard] Garfield, [Gary] Moye, [Pasquale] Piccioni. I learned about history and urbanism from Rosaria Hodgson and Don Genasci. Earl Morisund was my mentor. He espoused an intellectual, compositional approach to architecture.
In Italy I had the great fortune to study under professor Colin Rowe. In Florence, as you are walking around and hearing your foot fall on the cobblestones, you’re passing famous palazzos and churches—you are seeing these buildings in an intimate, casual and unexpected way each day.
After graduation, I embarked on a four-month bike tour of Northern Italy.
For some reason, my camera didn’t work so I resorted to drawing. I learned how to draw diagrammatically, and to use drawing as a way to explore and analyze. I was not simply making pretty sketches but addressing themes; one day might be about light, another about the composition of a façade, another about form.
I’d spend a week in a small town mapping, diagramming and sketching buildings and space. I would study every aspect of how the town was structured. Tourists experience these places, but few have sat down and diagrammed the picturesque views to understand how these spaces are composed.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
My first house—it was a beach house. I had just read The Mathematics of the Ideal Villa, by Colin Rowe. I worked to create a clear expression of structure (Kahn), but with Earl Morisund’s lessons in mind and Colin’s prose fresh, I sought to make a complex proportional and spatial composition in the spirit of Palladio.
Another is the Biomedical Information Communication Center (BICC) at Oregon Health & Science University. I worked on the project under Thomas Hacker. He had great aspirations for the expression of structure, material, and light. I was honored that he trusted me to realize his vision. Ironically, the building was built to facilitate new computer and communications technologies, but we drew it by hand.
There is also the Lair Condominiums. The client was the contractor, Don Tankersley, who has been a great collaborator through the years. I took a typical town home program and site plan and introduced the idea of a courtyard. The design was inspired by my experiences in Italian towns. I wanted to express each unit yet create an overriding sense of community. I worked closely with city staff to interpret the code such that I could achieve a public realm for the project unfettered by elements intended to separate rather than unify activity within space.
Most recently I designed a triplex for Randy Gragg. He exemplifies the client I am most interested in working with. His objective was to create a significant work of architecture, but he was equally concerned with practicality and budget. He never quit pushing for the best solution regardless of the nature of the problem to be solved.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
John Forsgren was my first true mentor. We met my first day of architecture school. He was my go-to person as I struggled that first year.
Later in my academic career, it was John Cava. He may not have realized it at the time, but I followed his work very closely and emulated his work.
Jeff Kovel—he formed a group called DIG for Design Industry Group. We would meet monthly for drinks and dinner and talk about our practices, sharing problems, ideas, expertise and advice.
Bill Hawkins has been a great friend, one whom I can always count on for a beer, a story and words of wisdom.
Don Genasci—I’m working with him on the problem of Burnside. It’s inspiration to engage with him on this level.
But my most significant relationship with colleagues is that of the group PDXplore. My partners Bill Tripp, Carol Mayer Reed, Rudy Barton, and Michael McCulloch have been mentors, critics, friends, and comrades in arms. We found each other through a series conversations about the future of our city. We started gathering on Wednesday eves, at Tripp’s office around a table laden with cheese, fruit, bread, and wine. We talked until late in the eve about a myriad of urban, environmental, architectural and artistic topics. Eventually we found support in Liz Leach, Tom Manley and Jane Jarrett, who helped us produce exhibitions on the UGB and the CRC.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I like the personal interactions with my staff, clients, and contractors. Earning the respect of the people engaged with the project is important to me.
A professional goal is to bring craftsmanship back into a key role in construction. I create opportunities on each project to collaborate with great designer/fabricators such as Tom Ghilarducci, Todd Littlehales, and Fergus Kinnel, all of who have become friends over the years. I’m looking forward to working with Leland Gilmore and Ryan Donohoe, two woodworkers who are very skilled and talented.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
In Portland one can see a condensed history of architecture from about 1850 to the present. What makes Portland unique is that its architects took the prevailing styles and married them with an appreciation of local conditions: site, climate, and materials. Portland architects also innovated with materials and technologies.
My list includes the Portland Art Museum, Veteran’s Memorial Coliseum, the Equitable/Commonwealth Building and the Watzek House as examples of this fusing of style, local inspiration and innovation.
I admire The Esco Building by Bob Frasca. It is rigorous and elegant, and its forecourt garden speaks to our connecting of building and nature.
I admire Saul Zaik’s work—especially his house for himself.
Bill Hawkins designed a house on Vista Avenue that has always been a favorite and his own residence is an exquisite gem.
My wild card is the Pittock Mansion. It’s from a period of historic revivals but it’s an anomaly in that it responds in plan to its magnificent promontory and the views of the Cascade Mountains. It’s a masterpiece of manipulation of scale and detail. I am sure Yeon was well aware of its subtleties. The main staircase is amazing—exceeding that of Garnier’s Paris Opera House.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
The Pantheon in Rome, and San Zeno in Verona. The Exeter Library and Aalto’s Mt. Angel Library.
The Barcelona Pavilion, which is probably the most magical space that I have ever been in.
It’s an interesting question because I was thinking how could I have such different buildings on the same list? Therein lies my dilemma as an architect; I’m trying to reconcile the spatial fluidity and dynamism of the Barcelona Pavilion with the raw weight and monumentality of the Pantheon or Exeter. It’s an interesting challenge.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I’m regularly visit my peers’ projects; this summer I visited projects by Skylab, Holst and Paul McKean, as well as Works Partnership Architecture and Path Architecture.
Walker Templeton, Joann Le and David Horsley are very talented designers doing interesting work.
I also follow members of my former staff: John Carhart, and Brad Lest of ZGF; Brian James at Downstream; Robin Wilcox and David Keltner of THA Architecture; Rene Berndt, Mahlum, and Jamin Aasum at Skylab. All these people are doing excellent work and should have more recognition.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
Demolish the Marquam Bridge and the I-5 East Bank freeway. This will open up the east side from the Rose Quarter to the new Tillicum Crossing to development commensurate with the west side and allow for the realization of a balanced urban core, with the river at its center.
Abolish the R5 zoning designation and allow for mid to high density, mixed-use development as a base condition across the city. Historic examples are the Sullivan’s Gulch and Goose Hollow/King’s Hill neighborhoods. The city must incorporate higher density models within the existing neighborhoods rather than concentrating it along the “corridors” like Division and Vancouver/Williams. This will counter gentrification--fostering a more diverse population and provide more equitable housing options and costs. It will make Portland affordable for families.
Adopt the Bennet Plan, or an updated version thereof. The city should conceive of its streets in a classical sense and classify/code streets as Boulevards, Main Streets, Avenues, and so on. Burnside could be an arcaded street from 1-405 to NW 23rd.
Torino would be a good model for my vision.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
There are many great people at the planning bureau who are very dedicated and hardworking, but overall there is no grand vision or bold idea for the city. Planning cannot be an end in and of itself any more than programming can be in an architectural sense. A city is a design problem and planning must serve a design concept. We need more than an updated comprehensive plan for the city. We need a comprehensive design for the city.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I think this is the wrong question.
Rather than perpetrate the “starchitect” syndrome, I’d prefer to see Portland’s architectural community work together towards a shared vision that defines this place. For this to happen Portland’s institutional and private clients need to hire architects on the basis of talent and vision, not just fee and horsepower. It also requires the architectural community to start communicating about what this vision might be. Rather than each firm trying to be the most original and unique, leading to an ever widening schism between each other’s work, I’d prefer to see architects’ designs fit within our historic context and complement each other’s work.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I love chairs; the chair is the greatest design challenge of all.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
“The Godfather”, “The Odd Couple”, and “Fight Club”. Others perfect for a rainy beach weekend: “Some Like it Hot”, “Animal House”, and “The Producers”.