BY BRIAN LIBBY
A few weeks ago, Multnomah County released the first renderings of what will be one of the most prominent new buildings to be erected along Portland's downtown waterfront in many years: a new courthouse beside the Hawthorne Bridge set to replace its handsome circa-1914 facility on SW Fourth Avenue.
Recently I sat down with Hussain Mirza and Steve Simpson of SRG Partnership to learn more. But more about that in a minute.
Koolhaas & SOM miss shortlist
Shortly after the interview, I was surprised to learn that one of the world's most renowned architects of his generation, Rem Koolhaas, had applied for this courthouse commission (in tandem with local firm Architecture Building Culture) but not even made the shortlist. The same was true of another internationally renowned and venerable firm: Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which besides designing landmarks new (One World Trade Center, Burj Khalifa) and old (Sears Tower, Lever House) also has a history in Oregon having designed prominent buildings like the US Bancorp Tower ("Big Pink"), Veterans Memorial Coliseum, and Autzen Stadium. SOM wasn't shortlisted either.
"Imagine if LeBron James wanted to sign a free-agent contract with the Portland Trail Blazers," I wrote in a Portland Tribune column published last Friday, "but management declined to even bring him in for a second interview…Maybe that’s OK, but only if it’s for the right reasons."
The commission is a reflection of Portland’s robust local design culture, but any local firm selected over Koolhaas's Office for Metropolitan Architecture would be scoring an upset on some level.
Was this another example of how Portland has long shied away from hiring famous out-of-town designers? Was it a sign of local government’s fundamental cheapness? Did it show the controversial Portland Building commission still was casting a long shadow? Was it that SRG's design, and that of the other shortlisted entries (DLR Group & Hacker Architects, SERA Architects & NBBJ, ZGF Architects & Heery Design), were just simply better than what the Koolhaas-ABC team and SOM could come up with? Or was it because the client simply preferred to work with a local firm and rated experience as more important than bold originality?
After talking with a lot of people behind the scenes, the answer seems to largely be that last one, but perhaps ultimately the truth lies somewhere in between.
There is certainly an argument to be made for investing in local firms if they have the ability. As one former editor at Metropolis magazine commented when I posted the Tribune column to Facebook, "There is sufficient, in fact more than sufficient talent, in Portland to produce a good building. Chasing stars is fools gold."
At the same time, Portland has a long history of spurning famous architects. Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Maya Lin: all these architects have been connected to projects here that either didn’t come to fruition or they saw themselves substituted for a local firm before the project’s completion.
Selection process and criteria
As for the selection process and the personnel, Multnomah County declined to divulge the names of anyone on the selection panel. When I asked if an independent architect or architectural expert was on the panel, I was told that yes, both an independent architect and engineer were included. To get some context, though, I talked with local architect Don Stastny, who wrote the design guidelines for the federal government's General Services Administration and its Design Excellence program, which has done an exemplary job of producing great buildings by significant architects. He told me that if this were a GSA project, transparency would extend to the names of the decision-makers.
East facade study (SRG Partnership)
In terms of criteria, the county seemed to favor the notion of hiring a local firm, several people told me off-record. And that's a very reasonable value. It’s just that if one favors that quality too rigidly, it can cost us the best talent. Again, that’s not necessarily what happened here, but I wish I could talk with those involved and hear their explanation.
The Koolhaas/ABC team also lacked substantial courthouse experience. Of course Koolhaas's firm has done countless public and private-sector buildings far more complex than the Multnomah County courthouse. Koolhaas also has at least an unbuilt courthouse in his portfolio, the TGI De Paris. But my guess is that having direct built experience with American county courthouses was important. And having an architect-of-record partner with that experience is something most of the other seven competing teams and all of the four shortlisted teams had.
Not every world-famous architect is right for Portland, of course. Historically our city doesn't like overt displays of ego, and we usually don't have a big enough budget to pursue such designs anyway. Much of Koolhaas’s Pritzker Prize-winning career and reputation has been established with architecture that reinvents the project types in which the architect works. I don't think Multnomah County wanted their courthouse to reinvent the form at all. But Koolhaas is also about innovative process, and he hails from a country, Holland, that feels similar to Oregon culturally in many ways. It would have been hard to imagine a swoopy Gehry building here, or even a bold design by one of the newer starchitects such as Bjarke Ingels. But certain world-class firms and architects are well suited for Portland, like Snøhetta (which has produced designs for the James Beard Public Market and a project at Willamette Falls) and Kengo Kuma (who is designing a Portland Japanese Garden expansion). I think Koolhaas would have fallen somewhere in between: perhaps with more ego than suits the city, but a well-matched grasp for how architecture and landscape come together.
The SRG design is still evolving, and it has not yet gone before the city's Design Commission. So far it seems quite promising. In the Tribune, I described it as "melding modern and traditional forms and materials in a familiar contemporary architectural language."
Which brings us back to the interview.
"It’s a very prominent site. It gives me goose bumps when I think about where we are building and what we are building," SRG's Hussain Mirza said of the commission. "A building like this for the city is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s fantastic."
Over the past several decades, SRG has designed a variety of public buildings, ranging from university projects like the Lillis Business Complex at the University of Oregon to local government centers like Bellevue City Hall. [Last year I did a long two-part interview with co-founding partner Jon Schleuning you can read here.] The firm possesses first-rate sustainability credentials and has won a lot of local AIA awards over the years.
Describing the impetus for the design and their initial thoughts about configuring the entrance, SRG's Steve Simpson said, "We thought, 'Is there a verb that describes what this building needs to do?' It needs to connect: to the east side, to the river, to the downtown, and most importantly to the people of the county. There’s a strong pattern of entrances off the avenues for public buildings downtown. We picked up on that and located the entrance off of First. During a site visit, we said, 'Wouldn’t it be incredible if you could see through the building, and move up in an atrium space to the view, to the mountains?'
Indeed, the design keeps with Multnomah County's desire for an entrance on the northwest corner, away from the river. As visitors make their way through security, they'll be guided up a public stairway offering second and third-floor views of the Willamette River and Mt. Hood. "It makes for an open lobby and a strong civic plaza, in a very simple, powerful way," Simpson added. "You can imagine a prospective juror moving through that light atrium to a jury assembly room located on the east side with that as the view."
What's more, the architects, in tandem with landscape-architecture colleagues from local firm Place, have sought to make the surplus land to the north of the site, a strip of greenery between the Hawthorne Bridge ramps, into "a gateway into the west side, a civic extension of the plaza," Simpson continued. "You could imagine someone waiting for their appointment, getting a breath of fresh air."
In designing the lobby, architect and client thought about the current courthouse and how lines to get inside (and through security) wind out the door on a daily basis. You could be there just to pay a parking ticket and get soaked by the rain. SRG therefore incorporated plenty of space in the lobby for security lines to cue.
“The first level is security and orientation, on the second level are the public service counters, and the third level is for jury assembly,” Simpson explains. “It’s gradated from very public to a little less public as you go up. The idea about the lobby is people can come in and take care of their day-to-day court business, and the fact that people feel comfortable there is the key.”
The architects also take pride in how the jury assembly area comes with a striking view of the river and beyond. “Standing on the lower lobby, looking up to the east, a grand cascading staircase takes you up. There will be views at the second and third level, and at that point you’re above the tree line,” Simpson adds.
The façade makes ample use of lime, which has been used on numerous government buildings such as the Hatfield US Courthouse, and alternates with the glassiness of much of the building’s east face. “It’s for that sense of permanence, but it’s also light,” Simpson says of the limestone. “I think some of the best buildings in Portland have a real light quality to them. It’s overcast nine months out of the year. But also this sense of transparency: modern buildings should reveal the activity inside them, especially courthouses, because of that sense of transparency and justice.”
Simpson described the US Supreme Court building, the more contemporary Lindsey-Flanagan courthouse in Denver (designed by their Multnomah County Courthouse partner, RicciGreene) and Rafael Moneo’s Murcia City Hall in Spain as inspirations. And indeed, the design seems to be a smart melding of those influences. (A cynic might say that someone like Koolhaas would have created a more original language than merely synthesizing popular existing pattern language. But again, SRG's approach might be a better fit for a client like Multnomah County.)
“The US Supreme Court has a strength to it. It evokes this order, permanence and strength. And the Lindsey-Flanagan courthouse in Denver, it’s very transparent,” he explained. “Can we take the best of these attributes and invest them into how this east façade is made? The thing that gives the Supreme Court its power is its columns, its exposed structure. We’re looking at doing that on the east façade of the new building, to give it that sense of order. But we also feel the building should have a lyrical quality as well. It is a public building. We feel as though the elevation needs to have that vitality. You can see the figurines in the pediment of the Supreme Court that remind us it’s a public building. And in a more abstract way the Murcia City Hall in Spain by Rafael Moneo. The random patterning gives it that lyrical quality. It’s random but it has order to it. We feel like the eyes should move around it. I think it will be compelling. That’s more evocative of the human condition: diversity, complexity, and it’s ever changing. Those two superimposed on each other is what we’re after.”