BY BRIAN LIBBY
Over the course of its history, perhaps the most challenging moment an architecture firm faces is the transition from one generation of leaders to another. Often a firm is built around the personality and specialties of its founders, so when that identity heads for the golf course or to that big architecture studio in the sky, keeping the name on the door (or shortening it to an acronym, a common move) sometimes isn't enough to stave off the sense that a firm has lost its essence.
Yet a number of local firms have, at least so far, managed to do just that. Hacker Architects, for example, is doing some of its best work even as founder Thomas Hacker is largely retired. (And their succession of names tells of that full-circle process, having previously been known as THA Architecture and, before that, Thomas Hacker Architects and Thomas Hacker & Associates.) SERA Architects has flourished even as partners whose names form the acronym—the recently departed Bing Sheldon, for example, or Don Eggleston—have given way to a new generation. Success is partly about the talent you're able to acquire, partly about how you build or maintain an organization, and partly about the identity you forge. SERA, for example, has made sustainability a core tenet, while Hacker continues a kind of soulful modernism that's tied to materiality and landscape, all influenced by its namesake's days working for Louis Kahn. There has to be a kind of reason to be and not just talent bug good business acumen to last that long.
This year another multi-generational firm, FFA Architecture and Interiors, is celebrating its 60th anniversary, and I think one of the reasons for its longevity is that the firm has been able to transition its identity from time to time and develop some core areas of expertise that endure.
Recently I sat down with retired partner Dale Farr, principal Troy Ainsworth and associate Ian Gelbrich to discuss the firm's past, present and future.
Back in 1956, the firm was all about architect William Fletcher, the first 'F' in FFA. Fletcher was part of what has become known as the "14th Street Gang," a group of University of Oregon-educated architects who graduated a few years after their wartime service. Following in the footsteps of predecessors Pietro Belluschi and John Yeon, who helped forge what became known as the Northwest modern style—wood post and beam construction, lots of glass, pitched roofs with wide overhangs—were Fletcher and colleagues like Saul Zaik, Donald Blair, John Reese and Alex Pierce, who shared office space in an old Victorian house at what was then SW 14th and Columbia (now part of I-405) and would often collaborate.
"His work was always very rectilinear, really simple, not a lot of different materials: very crisp and contemporary," recalls Dale Farr. "It was a little more hard-edged compared to Saul’s and John Storrs’, even though it was still wooden structures. It was a little more Bauhaus and crisper: very simple, very well thought out plans. I always studied his plans: 'How could you make it so simple but so good?' It had great wayfinding: lots of surprises as you walked through his work."
One of Fletcher's early houses from 1959, for example, was recently restored by Jessica Helgerson Interior Design and Dale Farr, and profiled in Dwell magazine, in which Amara Holstein wrote of its "large expanses of glass, a bountiful use of wood, and generous overhangs, all markers of its vintage. It’s a bright beacon of 20th-century Pacific Northwest design."
The Architectural Heritage Center is also currently exhibiting (through September 30) a series of Fletcher's hand drawings of his projects (seen above).
"I admired Bill’s work a lot," recalls Farr, who joined the firm in 1976 after spending several years running his own small firm. "We started talking over drinks. I said, 'Are you guys looking for a younger partner?'" Farr laughs as he tells the story. "We kind of complimented each other’s design approach." Then Hal Ayotte joined Fletcher and Farr about a year later, and Fletcher Farr Ayotte was born.
Although the Northwest style of the 1930s-'60s is entrenched in our minds as what stylistically endures many years later, Fletcher did not remain married to it. Farr notes a number of renovations Fletcher did to historic houses and a changing style in new houses. "He’s seen as this purist person, but his work changed over the years," he says. "It evolved in fairly complex and subtle ways."
Fletcher's talent for and historic place in local midcentury modern house design not withstanding, another of the firm's important early projects actually did more to chart its future: a collaboration with Zaik on an addition to historic circa-1938 Timberline Lodge built by the Works Progress Administration. It achieves an impressive balancing act: at once in keeping with the original architecture even as it reveals a subtly modern form. Timberline was actually closed due to mismanagement and disrepair in the years after World War II. The addition and renovation (as well as a jump in public interest in skiing) helped renew the lodge and restore the life it enjoys today.
"It headed us in the direction of understanding how to do rustic, Cascadian architecture," Ainsworth says. "That was really followed up on in the ‘80s particularly by Hal [Ayotte, the 'A' in FFA], who was bringing more public work to the firm." FFA began to go after government contracts for renovation work for a variety of old buildings, and in the Reagan years began its first work with the National Park Service, which has been an important repeat client in the years since, including renovations to Crater Lake Lodge as well as the Paradise Inn at Mount Rainier and Multnomah Falls Lodge. "You’re working with historic buildings, cultural resources, and often in the west you’re dealing with various forms of rustic style architecture, from grand lodges all the way down to little bus shelters or cabins," Ainsworth adds. "I think it also led us to how to be aware of how to honor history but also do new construction that was sympathetic too and worked with the context and the cultural, historic setting."
"As we move forward and another generation has come to the firm, looking back at that work, it’s not just a style but a respect for place and context," Gelbrich says. "Looking at Bill’s houses, there’s a real sensitivity to and awareness of where these buildings are landing. We do projects in amazing settings because of our National Parks Service work. That has trickled in and affected how we approach all the other work."
Besides the national park lodges, FFA has also been a renovating architect of some of Portland's most important historic buildings. After its renovation, Central Library was named one of the top ten libraries in the United States on a list curated by the American Institute of Architects and the National Library Association. The White Stag Block, the renovation and combining of three gorgeous early 20th century buildings into one, has not only given the University of Oregon a must stronger sense of place for its Portland outpost but has helped to revitalize Old Town/Chinatown. There is also a renovation to the landmark Whitman Hotel in Walla Walla.
But when our talk turns to urban renovations, the FFA trio bring up the Galleria Building, which now houses a Target store.
"It was taken back to its mercantile roots," Ainsworth explains. "It was designed as a department store and it was that for about 50 years. Then it was turned into an interior mall in the 70s. Then that gradually went downhill and wasn’t working as well. That [Target] project was fabulous in that the tenant was big enough to seismically upgrade the building and really re-enliven it again and be a commercial enterprise that opened on to the street rather than being internally focused. Portland has always been more about the spaces in between the buildings rather than the buildings. So when we’re working on those really known buildings, we know they’re also contributors to the fabric of the city, and what people have come to expect from Portland, something modest but something deeper than tearing it down and starting over again. Oregonians are always great renovators."
"And because we’ve done those types of projects," adds Gelbrich, "there’s a lot of respect and understanding of the making of buildings. That level of craft: how to put more lasting architecture together." That has also helped guide new construction work and urban place-making on projects like Orenco Station in Hillsboro, completed in 2000, The Wyatt in 2007, or the Industrial Home building in 2015.
The firm was able to parlay their experience with Central Library to a number of other library projects, many of them new construction. Ainsworth cites Medford's Central Library as a key one, for which the firm provided pre-bond master planning and, after the bond was passed, designed the library itself, which also doubled as a facility for Rogue Community College. "For Medford it was an important new urban building, and it was a hybrid facility that kind of benefitted everybody," he says. Ainsworth estimates the firm has seen about 20 libraries completed.
FFA's experience with historic buildings seems to also give the firm a sense of expertise about how to design new buildings that fit in well next to old ones, such as a library for Pacific University in Forest Grove. "The key is not to do schlock kind of work where you’re building recreations of historic elements: to pay homage but to do something of today," Ainsworth says.
Other times, like for a library in Boise, the challenge has been the opposite: a context without much appeal in terms of placemaking. There the library is "in the middle of a strip mall," Gelbrich explains. "Creating a civic context within that scenario was the challenge of the project." The firm's approach combined sustainable thinking with greenery, through a series of outdoor gardens.
One of FFA's more uncommon projects is an upcoming one with developer-designer Kevin Cavenaugh, who used to work at the firm: the Fair-Haired Dumbbell, at the Burnside bridgehead on the east side of the river. Though other larger nearby projects already nearing completion like Skylab Architecture's Yard building and the Works Partnership-designed Slate building have gained more attention, the Fair-Haired Dumbbell may be, despite its smaller scale, the boldest of the lot thanks to its artist-painted facade: an entire building as mural. Recently profiled in the New York Times, it's also noteworthy for its crowd-funded budget.
"We hadn’t worked with him for a few years, but that project was a scale and complexity that he came to us to modify and make it fit the budget, and help him sort out choices about systems and materials and get it through the permitting process," Ainsworth says. "The façade is going to be fun. From an architectural point of view we really just created a nice canvass, onto which the artist selected will be able to do their own thing. Getting it though the Design Commission, the notion developed that it should be potentially more about Portland and what’s special about it. Kevin agreed to go through a completion to select an artist for the exterior."
"Architects quite often take themselves really seriously, and that comes across in their buildings," Ainsworth adds. "I think what we love about Kevin’s buildings is that he does things a little differently. Finding ways to walk the talk."
Today, amidst the 60th anniversary, "We’re entering a kind of third act, to some degree, with Dale having retired five years ago and Troy taking the firm forward," Gelbrich says. "We have about 30 to 50 percent new staff in the last year and a half or so, a group of designers coming from other places." He mentions architects with experience like Bora, Mackenzie and YGH, all of which have also faced the challenge of surviving their founders. "All these storied firms, they go through that evolution and the assumptions you have about them changes."