BY LUKE AREHART
The latest installment in our continuing series of conversations with local architects about their careers and inspirations brings us to David Keltner, a principal with Hacker Architects who has become an important firm leader and part of a new generation leading the way. He's an architect with substantial talent, but also one with remarkable humility and thoughtfulness.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
When I was 15 I took a drafting class in my freshman year of high school. I remember a competition where all of the students designed a house. In addition, my parents had built houses and built each house that we had lived in so I was familiar with understanding plans and construction. Architecture resonated with me at that time and I knew that it was what I wanted to do. It was a long time ago so I don’t really remember a time when it wasn’t about architecture for me. It’s been a single track from the time I was young. I was able to work in an office when I was 17 as only my second job. I delivered newspapers prior to that.
I had a romantic vision of architecture when I started. I always felt fortunate, on the one hand, to know what I was and what I was going to do. But it has also been scary because it’s hard to ask yourself, “Is this the right thing to do?” I never had any other possibility for myself aside from architecture. I’ve seen a lot of people around me, especially after going through the recession, who were bailing out of the profession and thinking about what else they might do. I’ve always admired people who have that ability to see themselves doing different things. I’ve just never had that; architecture is what I am going to do.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I went to the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. At the time, all of the professors were pure modernists. One of the heroes that we had at that time was Tadao Ando and the villain was Peter Eisenman. In school, I was instilled with a reverence for architecture. We had one class where we would sit and ponder: “What is wall?” Which seems like a pretty simple thing to answer. The experience felt religious as we considered architecture with a capital ‘A’. This went along with the way everyone talked about architecture and the pressure that was present to make what you were doing significant enough to be a part of something larger than making buildings.
At that time at the university there were some younger professors who went on to start one of my favorite firms in the United States, Vince James Associates in Minneapolis. Vince James and Julie Snow were previously partners in a firm called James/Snow Architects; they also co-taught a studio together. I’ll never forget the time being out in the courtyard of our 1960s modernist school. They had all of us out there with 2x4s and string making human sculptures to understand what structural forces were. They were figuring out how to take the modernism that we were being steeped in and push it toward what we could do with it and make it new.
Right after school, I went to work for Tom Meyer, who was one of my professors. Interestingly, Tom’s firm, MSR Design, was selected to do the Centennial Mills renovation here in Portland. Now, at Hacker, we find ourselves competing against Tom’s firm for different types of projects.
This education left a lasting impression on me. I left there with questions that I still feel are core to my personal take on the work. I’m sometimes surprised that my thesis question is still relevant, which has to do with presence. You can make a building that works well, like a machine, but what is the poetry that it achieves? For me, it’s about the way that architecture can somehow elevate your awareness of something true about the place or yourself. Similar to the way that standing in the forest can be its own experience, but when you accompany that with poetry, it’s about the forest as a place that can elevate your awareness of certain aspects of it and your appreciation of it. I’m interested in architecture being a form of poetry that can raise your awareness of who you are and where you are.
That is why I’m not happy with any of the work. I feel like it is all striving toward that, but we’ve never made anything that has been all of that. As a result, my constant sense of being in the architecture profession is of constant striving, reaching, and pushing. This isn’t to say that I haven’t been very happy with the work when it’s done. But the overall sense of career, place, and what I hope for the office is about pushing things further and asking the next questions.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
As I mentioned, I never feel like the work is good enough. There have been aspects of each project that I have really enjoyed. To be totally honest, for our firm, my favorite project is the recently completed Recreation Center at Black Butte Ranch. Corey Martin designed this project – I have so much respect for Corey and the work that he does and I’m interested in distilling that into the work that I am directing. In particular, I’m interested in the connection to the landscape and having things that are conceptually derived from the site. I think everybody talks about these ideas, but not many are doing them in a powerful and direct way. It ends up being a lot of intellectualism and talk around the concepts. I think that we viscerally feel that connection with the Black Butte project. I also think that is very inspiring and something I’d like to see in other work as well. For me, it’s great, I was one of the strongest advocates for bringing Corey to the office because I felt that is where the firm needed to go. To see him come here and do his work by bringing himself in the way that he has while not getting transformed by this place, but elevating it to who he is, has been beautiful to watch.
Black Butte Ranch Recreation Center (Jeremy Bitterman)
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
I think Corey is the most talented architect in our region. I don’t know another architect that has what he has in terms of a pure intuitive sense about how to make things that resonate with their place and people.
Another mentor is Rick Potestio. I worked for him for three years. I learned things from him that, for some crazy reason, you don’t really learn in school, which is how to make things beautiful. You don’t hear architects talk about this much. I’m not talking about aesthetic beauty in terms of proportion and scale, which he actually did take a lot of time to teach to us. He taught us in a way other than just watching him do it; he actually told us why things were the way they were and what was functioning behind proportional systems and how parts relate in elevation. He also taught us about iteration, making a lot, and how critical it was to discovery. It was from him that I took those two understandings of continuous pursuit and tons and tons and tons of making and iteration to find something.
The biggest mentor for me, who has had the biggest influence overall, has been Thomas Hacker, which is why I am here. His influence has been a kind of leadership, decisiveness and acknowledgement that you are trying to achieve something that is greater than yourself, the building, reputation and business. It’s the idea that we are serving something larger. By that I mean that we are helping people find their place in the world and giving it a meaningful form in relationship to the world through architecture. An institution for example, a school or an organization; whoever they are, it’s about helping them get a voice for who they are so they can look at something and have a concrete way of expressing something that is otherwise very abstract and ephemeral in their minds. Having this be something that they can experience instills them with a sense of life and being. It’s about finding a way to get architecture to make that sense of life be present for them and for other people to help understand who they are. The most powerful thing that architecture can do is instill that type of meaning for people.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
For me, it’s understanding the big idea that is going to make a whole building, with all of the parts relating to each other, toward a singular big vision of what the building is going to do. For me, the big vision is never a form or material. It has to do with the identity, connection to the place, and awareness of the institution and people that it is serving.
With our buildings, it is like having a child; you put so much care, love, concern and craft into helping it have its place and know who it is and give it the right values to exhibit out in the world. It goes out and you see it develop into its own character. A part of this involves people going to live in and be with the buildings. It can be the most rewarding thing to see what they are achieving. It can also lead to angst and surprise to see the building transform in a way you haven’t thought of. I like seeing the building go out there and live for a couple of years. I have a deep personal connection to the buildings. When I go to see them, I feel like I am going to visit a member of my family.
Viscerally, the part of the job I like best is drawing and making. When I make, I make thousands of sketches around the building. The sketches can be horrible and ugly, but it is about making and searching. I love that search. Because of the flashes of discovery, it’s often terrifying because you have to get everything to develop into a complete whole. You end up finding good things you can do while you are striving toward an aspirational goal. I’m just getting into the part of my career where I am developing the confidence to know that we are going to get there and things are going to work out. Earlier in my career, it was terrifying because I didn’t always know if we could get there. Until you can do it many times, you just don’t know.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
This question was fun for me to think about. I know I am going to leave some out because there is some really interesting work going on right now in the city. The city has changed dramatically since I came here in 1996. We have a whole lot more talent here now. I think there is also a greater awareness of design in the world, which has elevated the Portland discussion as well.
One of my favorite buildings is the Bank of California building. I feel like it is so completely figured out and understood. All the way from how the exterior detail works and fits into the whole system down to the ceiling detail. There is not a corner in that building that isn’t a result of the whole idea. I have a huge amount of respect for that. You can go inside and it feels simple but it’s very complex in the way that all of the forms are proportionally gathered together. The material palette is perfectly executed and figured out. In addition, the scale component is carefully thought about and understood. I’m incredibly impressed with that building.
Watzek House (Brian Libby)
On the other end of the scale, another building I admire is the Watzek House; I’m sure that you have heard this response from other architects as well. The building is so sensitive; it was designed by John Yeon when he was in his youth as his first big project. John clearly cared deeply for every aspect of the project, which resonates with me. As far as Oregon goes and our spirit as a society, this project is very humble and recognizes the power of landscape in a way that doesn’t try to make architecture of the same significance and scale as the landscape. The beautiful thing about that is how it elevates your awareness. One of my favorite moments in the house is the dining room that has a whole glass wall at the end, which frames a view of a Japanese maple tree. They are not considered ornamental plants, but because of the honoring of them as the room opens up to them, you see the beauty. That to me is the idea of presence; elevating your awareness to beauty in the world that you may not have understood.
In the more contemporary realm, I think the Wieden + Kennedy building by Allied Works is brilliant for so many reasons.
I also love the Lair Condominiums by Rick Potestio (and built by Don Tankersley). It’s one of the few buildings that Rick has done that is in the city that I can go by and see. The building is very complex, brilliant and simple feeling. It embodies a kind of care and sensitivity to crafting the proportions. I am reminded of all of the things I learned from Rick when I go by this project.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
This experience will go down for me as one of the most important moments in my career, which is both inspiring and demoralizing at the same time. The experience elevated me to a revelation of, “This is it!” And it left me wondering, “How will I ever achieve that?” I am referring to my visit to Louis Kahn’s Salk Institute.
I toured it with Thom Hacker on a day that was over 100 degrees. We were down there because we were doing the building for the Scripps Institute at UC San Diego. The visit for Thom was a great book-end for his career because he did some work on the Salk Institute while working under Kahn and then got to design a building just down the street from it. I have to say, there are things that I didn’t understand about this building from pictures. I was expecting to go there and bring some reality to it. I wasn’t expecting what I got when I arrived there, which was a really spiritual sense. I’m not a religious person, but I keep finding myself up against ways to verbalize what it is we’re doing and what motivates us, because it is about feeling the bigger thing that we are serving. This spiritual idea is constantly filtering in to the background of our language. There have been few moments in my experience with architecture where the hair stands up on my arms and you get an electric/tingling feeling in your spine – a sense of awe while experiencing something sublime. I got this feeling at the Salk Institute.
Before you arrive to the big courtyard that everyone takes pictures of, you wander through a small grove of short trees on a winding gravel path. From the photos, the Salk seems like it would be at the end of a big formal garden or arrival sequence and it’s not. It’s incredibly humble and beautiful. When you arrive into the courtyard, I don’t know how he does it, but all you are seeing when you look out is the color of the ocean beyond and the proportion between the buildings on the sides. There is also the zero line of the plaza. I don’t know what that proportion is, but it resonates to make the whole thing hum. It’s a beautiful gradation of sky to ocean, which makes the horizon line disappear. It’s an amazing awareness of place that these elements generate in this moment in such a simple way. You get the sense of the building itself positioned to look out to this view as well with the way all of the offices are turned.
As an anecdote to this beautiful experience for me, while we were walking around the outside of the building, Thom stopped me and asked, “Did you notice something?” I was thinking, “Tell me Thom: what should I notice?” I was thinking about the architecture and he said, “We’re not sweating anymore.” Since it was so hot, we had been sweating through our shirts while waiting in the parking lot. He was right: We were outside, but totally cool. The building itself was making us comfortable with its massing and the way the shading was working. On this level, the building was connected to the environment and understood what it had to do. Every part of this project is important, there isn’t any little corner or detail that isn’t contributing to the whole experience in a profound way.
I have a hard time understanding and communicating the difference between being so focused on making the bigger thing for someone and serving something larger than myself, while separating and understanding, feeling selfish about my personal drive to make a great thing. That experience at the Salk and wanting to achieve that connection for people feels very personal; and by serving others, I am serving the deepest part of myself.
There are some other amazing buildings near the Salk Institute at UC San Diego. They have a building by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, among others, and all have done amazing buildings on this campus. These are people that I really admire. But touring the campus after experiencing the Salk made the buildings and environment feel trite, like they were trying too hard toward the wrong thing. It just didn’t have any power to connect with you as the buildings seemed to be looking for attention. The Salk did not feel this way at all; it was there to tell you about who are in the world. To me, that is what it is all about.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Yes, Rick Potestio. He is one of the few people right now that I feel is bringing actual urban ideas. He published an article recently that needs way more attention. We are really great about our intentions in this city. I don’t think Rick has ever done a project that hasn’t been really considered, cared for, thought about and beautiful. It doesn’t matter what the scale is, all of his projects are cared for. I think he deserves more attention. He is also one of the most gifted people in the city, as an artist and designer. I admire his understanding of history and his ability to present that in a way that is connected and meaningful.
Lair Condominiums (Brian Libby)
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
We live in a city that has fantastic intentions. We also have really smart people that work for our government. They aren’t bureaucrats and they all want to do the right thing. I think the problem is that what we think of as the right thing isn’t grounded in any kind of really strong idea. All of our intentions end up beating around, being do-gooders, and the latest buzz that people talk about in terms of urban design, for example. But there is no deep vision about who we are, what this place is and what this region is. How do we make a city in this region that is meaningful, powerful and connected? There are scores of five and six hundred year old examples of this. As a modern and contemporary city, I think Rick Potestio, as I mentioned, is the only one that I’ve heard that is bringing ideas that feel powerful enough to actually do something, organize us and direct us.
On another note, I’m enraged by the quality of some of the work that has been built here in Portland over the last five years. All I can hope is that there is a sustainable way that we’re able to tear these projects down once we finally figure out that we are worth building quality places. There are projects where I live in Southeast Portland that are a product of every great potential site getting snapped up and built on in the last five years with the most horrendous, unthoughtful, place-less, cheap, careless work I’ve ever seen. We had an experience in the 1970s with financial situations, which created a burst of crappy architecture that went up fast to make a buck. We were not sure what we were going to do with it. The current stuff that is happening now is bigger; some of it is five stories and it’s awful.
I just finished serving five years on the design commission. This was a really great experience. I think this particular institution is going to have to look at how it is structured to be able to handle the amount of construction that we can anticipate going forward. The group may be struggling right now; I believe they had to double the dates they were meeting for example. It’s a huge encumbrance on the people that are serving. I couldn’t do it anymore and feel like I was giving it justice.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
The architect whose work most resonates with me is Peter Zumthor. However, I think we have a considerable amount of talent right here in Portland - so much so that I’ve not seen an out-of-town architect come in and do anything I think we couldn’t do locally. It says a lot about the talents we have here in Portland.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I've always been impressed with thoughtful shop-window displays. I ride by Nordstrom and Mario's everyday on my bikeride home and what they've done has turned my head more than once. I also love the design of high-Alpine tents.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
My top three movies are all survival stories. They are the only movies I've ever bought hard copies of (except the third one)
1) "Gerry" by Gus Van Sant;
2) "The Endurance," a documentary of Ernest Shackelton's ill-fated arctic expedition;
3) A two-minute YouTube voiceover about honey badgers that went viral, not a movie, but a film I draw strength from on a regular basis.