The Karuna East building at One North (Leah Nash)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Recently in an article for The New York Times I had the opportunity to write about the three-building One North development, along NE Fremont Street between Williams Avenue and Vancouver Avenue. As often happens, one winds up interviewing lots of people and then only having room to fit a select few comments into the story. So I'd like to use this post to share some of the ideas and thoughts about One North that didn't make it to the final draft.
The development — comprised of two buildings by Holst Architecture called Karuna East and Karuna West, and a third building by Path Architecture called the Radiator (which I wrote a post about earlier this year) — is innovative in many ways. The Radiator possesses the city's first earthquake early-warning system for a commercial building, and the two Karuna buildings are designed to be about 50 percent more energy-efficient than code requires. They also are both mostly timber-framed, which reduces carbon. The developers (Ben Kaiser for the Radiator, Eric Lemelson and Nels Gabbert for Karuna) also worked together to try and be progressive in terms of social equity, reserving and donate space for a public courtyard (designed by Lango Hansen) in between the buildings. They also avoided the cost of building underground parking by leasing parking spots from the church next door.
At the same time, these are probably the largest commercial buildings that have come to the Williams-Vancouver corridor, making them part of the continuing story of transformation here, especially on Williams, which is nearly unrecognizable compared to a decade ago. This longtime African-American neighborhood has been gentrified to a large degree over the past 10-20 years, displacing old residents and even angering some new ones over the height of buildings on this couplet.
I'm a big fan in particular of the Holst buildings, the curves of which seem to indicate an evolving language for the firm. I love the way the facade curves, and how the large window openings seem to jut out from the wall almost like an accordion. A friend argued to me recently that despite the building's beauty the facade is just that - something aesthetic that is not rooted in function. But I can easily forgive that because the building functions so well anyway. It's a beautiful work of architecture.
Holst principal John Holmes discussed four main goals that Lemelson expressed for the project. "Number one, he said, ‘I want cutting edge architecture. Why is architecture in Portland so boring?’" the architect recalls. "He’d traveled to Spain and become enamored with Gaudi. He said, 'Why can’t we have curves?' That was exciting for me as a designer to be challenged. Number two was sustainability. Number three was community. So this notion of a courtyard was an early decision, and it’s really unusual. Usually developers want to max the site out to make it viable. And number four is it had to be market rate." Lemelson is heir to the fortune of his father, inventor Jerome Lemelson, but "this is not a rich guy hobby project. It had to be financially viable," Holms added, "or otherwise it’s not that meaningful. I think he was really trying to do a demonstration project of how to meet these goals. It had to be balanced: it couldn't just be great architecture or just sustainable. It did have a larger budget than some we get involved with, but it’s not out of bounds. It still works on paper. And because the project took a couple years or more, maybe three, the area and the economy of real estate have rebounded, and the rates they’re getting, it’s working probably better than they thought it would."
Taking the developer's thoughts about Gaudi and a bold building to heart, "I had to create the inspirational architecture, and that wasn’t easy," Holmes added. "That was a matter of me doing my thing: sitting down and starting to sketch, and just letting myself go. I think it was nice that from a creative standpoint that it was an office building, because housing is so program-driven. It’s not as free, in a sense. A lot of people might look at it and think it’s housing because it’s unusual to have an office building there. But it was just a matter of sketching and playing with stuff. And when I showed it to Eric he was excited. His sensibilities are particular. He was a hard one to figure out. Obviously the Gaudi reference was the best thing. The apertures that kind of pull and out, it’s really a matter of these curving elements. The building actually doesn’t’ curve as much as you might think. The courtyard side is a little more exuberant in terms of the curvilinear nature of it. The street side you can’t just give real estate away by making a big curve. These apertures project over the right of way. But there’s this movement that is implied by the energy of the curves."
Inside Instrument's headquarters (Leah Nash)
The Karuna East building is occupied by one tenant (except for the ground-floor retail), web design and branding agency Instrument. According to Holst's Kevin Valk, the client drove the decision to create an atrium in the middle of the space. After locating for the past few years in the Bison Building in Northeast Portland, an old warehouse near Benson High School, the company sought that same kind of wide-open feel. "That was the focus of everything: minimizing anything that cut off the view," Valk explained. "JD [Hooge, Instrument's chief creative officer] literally said, 'If I sit on this southwest corner, I want to see the person on the northwest corner.' The building modified a little bit as a result. It got a little fatter and longer to fit in everything we needed with the open space. But there’s a lot of light coming in from the west walls and the courtyard."
Having an atrium and auditorium in the middle of your office is not new. The Wieden + Kennedy building by Allied Works first gained acclaim and notoriety for such a move 15 years ago. More recently, the Holst-designed Ziba headquarters included an adjacent auditorium. "Ziba and Instrument have worked together. But it [Ziba] was kind of the antithesis of what they [Instrument] wanted," Valk said. "Ziba is a very clean, organized space. It was a little bit of a sticking point when we first met. In the end they got fairly close. But they want it to be maybe not as perfect. Or they want it to be perfect but not maybe appear as perfect."
More than the architecture, Valk adds, "The biggest thing both these projects have done is say, 'We’re not going to max out the property. We’re going to give something back.'" With the addition of the public courtyard, the architect added, "The neighborhood is getting a fairly significant space in the center of town that they don’t otherwise have. They’re not closing it off, and they’re far from maxing out FAR [floor area ratio] on the site."
What's more, the project was a victory of collaboration in a city where we lack the wealth of other metropolises to the north and south but seem to find ways to work together. "This was the biggest team effort I’ve ever seen," said Valk. "And I don’t mean our office. When you look at two developers, two different properties, really three developers, a landscape firm, two different architects, three different contractors, and on top you put a tenant on our side from almost the beginning of the project, I think that the collaboration necessary sometimes is sort of downplayed. Instrument committing to a building that wasn’t fully designed and going through a couple years’ process, and having feedback back and forth on what they wanted to see, and coming to agreements that make everybody happy, everybody’s pretty excited about what’s occurred. Everybody talks about collaboration, but for me this has been the biggest."