Cosmopolitan Tower from NW 10th Avenue (Jeremy Bittermann)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
Although Portland is growing and building in nearly every corner these days amidst a construction (and demolition) boom, in the 21st century no neighborhood has represented our city's transformation more than the Pearl district, where a one-time industrial enclave has given way to a forest of condominium towers.
But there have always been two distinct halves to the Pearl: its southern portion closest to Downtown, where new buildings take inspiration from the old warehouses, and the northern portion, redeveloped from former rail yards where there is no existing architectural context and the designs are more strictly contemporary. And for the most part, the northern Pearl has come to have taller buildings than the southern Pearl. In particular, as development has reached the district's northern terminus, the Fremont Bridge, there have been taller, skinnier buildings sitting on podiums - sometimes known as point towers.
The latest such building is now the tallest residential work of architecture in the city: The Cosmopolitan, designed by Bora Architects (formerly known as Boora) for developer Hoyt Street Properties.
Recently, after touring The Cosmopolitan with Bora's Brad Demby, we discussed the design of the building, its inspiration and context.
Portland Architecture: The Cosmopolitan is being called Portland’s latest point tower. How do you define it? Do you see this as a Vancouver thing transplanted to Oregon, or a broader phenomenon?
Brad Demby: I think in the mid-2000s when we were working on The Metropolitan, there was this idea of looking to Vancouver and these smaller tower buildings. When I think of a point tower, it’s the idea of Vancouver and these skinny towers that are sitting on podiums. The idea there and in Portland is to acknowledge if you just let developers built to full FAR on a site, you could end up with lower but massive buildings, creating these canyons, 7 or 8 stories tall but very massive. But by going with the point tower idea, which to me means a building that seems thin over a podium. It seems to be a kind of west coast, Pacific Northwest thing. Around here, I think it just means a thinner tower. A lot of our buildings here in Portland are pretty low.
The reason we worked to encourage this idea of a thinner floorplate tower was because of the parks. The northern portion of the Pearl seems pretty different from the southern Pearl, which is referencing the older warehouse buildings. Everything is kind of new in the north Pearl. By going tall you preserve sunlight from the park, and views from one building to the other. We can get out of the way of the sunlight hitting the Metropolitan tower. That was the idea of verticality in the area, to provide that amenity of light and views.
Cosmopolitan Tower from NW 10th Avenue (Jeremy Bittermann)
I think of this building kind of sitting by itself, between two parks. I think it was always going to be an icon. Hoyt brought this idea to us. We played around with how tall tall should be before it overtakes the neighborhood.
And just in terms of living, if you look at the converted warehouses, they are often deep, long units stretching back. By making the tower’s floor plan smaller, they’re just better units, because people have less deep, thinner units with more glass. It’s really about what it’s like to live in one of these buildings: less depth to the center of the floor plate, so you have smaller, rectangular units that are not deep and shoebox like but are turned sideways more often or not.
This will be the tallest residential building in Portland. How tall were you allowed to go on this site? How did you arrive at the height you did?
You’re not limited at all if you reduce the size of the floor plate of your tower to less than 12,500 square feet. You can go as high as you want. You’re only limited by how much FAR [floor area ratio] you have or some kind of structural solution you don’t want to spend. The Cosmopolitan is about 340 feet tall. If you go much taller, you trip the kind of structural system you have to have, which costs a lot more. We’re at the max height before we would have had to graduate to what’s called a dual or bilateral system. We have a moment-frame. It’s more or less a standard core building system where the post tension slabs feed to a central core. When you go higher you have to switch to something more robust. The good thing about being able to do these smaller floor plates is it’s more daylight and more views. The hard part for a developer and why it’s impressive what Hoyt Properties [the Cosmopolitan’s developer] is doing is it’s more expensive. You’re paying for a lot more skin on the building. There’s a lot more surface area than a squat building with larger floor plates. It’s definitely a commitment to do something nice.
Doesn’t the height of the Cosmopolitan speak to the northern Pearl having its own identity? It seems arguably more like South Waterfront than the southern portion of the Pearl.
I think they [Hoyt Street] wanted to do something special here. The Cosmopolitan is their best property because it’s between the Fields Park and Tanner Springs Park. It was always going to have the best views, and the views of it from the park. I think they wanted to do something special, and be one of the first developers of condominiums after the recession. I think it paid off. The building’s something like 90 percent sold out right now. The tower is the thinnest they’ve done: 8,500 square feet. You could have gone up to 12,000. But the idea of this tower is you more or less have a corner unit no matter what, by default because the building’s’ so small.
I’d also like to ask you about the building’s glass façade, which to my eyes seems more or less reflective depending on the time of day and how the sun is hitting it.
In general we wanted the building to be bright. We wanted a certain amount of reflectivity in the glass. If you look at a building with low reflectivity, you kind of see into the rooms beyond. The darkness of the room informs what you see. We wanted the skin to reflect the sun and the clouds around it. We didn’t want a dark building. It’s something Hoyt likes and we appreciate too. And it helps with energy, too, to have more reflectivity. It’s reflecting out more UV rays.
More specifically, there’s a transmittance value in the glass that allows a certain amount of light to come through or doesn’t: a chemical built into the glass. It has a kind of normal amount of transmittance but a variable level of reflectivity. Sometimes it appears very transparent, sometimes very reflective, and there are stages in between. We’re pretty happy. We’ re on the eighth floor of a building downtown where I can watch The Cosmopolitan throughout the day. It’s always interesting how different it looks through the day or a different day. What’s more, I can see it from Highway 26 and it’s completely different from that angle.
Given the building’s height and its position at the northern edge of the Pearl, as well as its simple elegance, I’ve compared it in my mind to the US Bancorp Tower—Big Pink. Has your team thought much about that comparison, or about the conversation it seems like these two buildings seem to be having?
We always thought of that building. We weren’t trying to compete with Big Pink, but were aware of its prominence as a tall building in the central city. Portland’s growing everywhere, but because of the Fremont Bridge, we thought of this building as the northernmost point of the central city. It’s unlikely any building will be this height in the area, but there will be buildings that will be taller. It won’t be the only tall building, but we think it will be a marker to the north of the central city. I think in terms of its form, we strived not for minimalism but a simplicity of form. Because you’d see it from so far away, it didn't need to be overly complex, but just simple and frank. But we worked hard on the shaping of the tower to reflect light in subtle ways. We inset decks to fracture the overall massing of the tower and shift the planes ever so slightly. On the east elevation, which you see from the east side of the city or the bridges, it shifts a few degrees, the angle of two planes, so it reflects light differently. We did some subtle moves to the massing based on how these units worked with their deck spaces. The logic of one thing would inform the other along the way. We looked at how the units could take advantage of these corners spaces with outdoor decks surrounded on three sides, and letting that drive the form of the tower in a simple way.
With the Cosmopolitan, you’re kind of splitting one already skinny form into four parts. All of those indentations relate back to the units. It’s sort of a fun way of thinking about the building: that the building would inform the units and the units would inform the tower, with these deep gashes running through the building. And we wanted them to shift, and not have just one straight vertical line. We wanted to express changes as you go up the building, so the kind of crystalline fracturing isn’t just one straight form. All of that terminated into the roof. We dint’ want to have a top so much as dissolve against the sky. By clustering the mechanical systems we could extend one little piece higher and mask the equipment with this little top. We didn’t want to put a beanie on the building. We wanted it to kind of erode.
Is there anything you’d like to see change about height limitations in Portland?
I think there's a thoughtful way of doing it. I think that one really great thing I love about Portland, being from a smaller city in the South, is being downtown and looking up the street and seeing the West Hills: this wall of green in the distance. If we can encourage buildings to be thin on their site, even smaller than the already small 200 by 200 feet, you can see past and beyond them, and I think there’s value in that. They’re enhanced when they’re against that backdrop. I’m a pro-density person, so imagining ways to provide density in a city that needs it, one of the best ways I think is to make the street level feel welcoming. I think for the six-story podiums, they’re nicer than 10-story 200 by 200-foot buildings. There are great examples of great buildings that do that, but if you think about the quality of life in a building, it increases when people can have light and view. And when people can kind of see past them, I think it’s a nicer city. We worked hard on the podium too, so at times up and in and make it more friendly.
The Cosmopolitan from The Fields Park (Jeremy Bittermann)
Podiums for point towers can act like a smaller building in terms of intimacy, reaching to the sidewalk, versus midcentury buildings with plazas. Maybe it’s impossible given the Portland context in particular to separate the notion of skinny point towers from their bases. But you’ve also done more than most architects to make the Cosmopolitan’s podium and tower feel one.
You definitely feel removed from it when the building face is 30 feet from you. It doesn’t feel as cozy. The pedestrian experience is so great in Portland, it’s almost irresponsible not to go to the property line. We did that, and wherever there was a need for a canopy, we carved that back into the building. That related back to the podium’s relationship to the tower. It’s really meant to be one thing, not just a stake on top of a donut. A point tower to me does infer a tower sitting on top of a low podium. We tried to get away from that a little to make it feel like one mass, with one glass for the whole thing.
A lot of times I think podium buildings in town might spend more so that the parts closer to the street might be a higher quality materials than the tower. You see that a lot in cities now. You think of the best buildings in Portland, especially the old ones, it’s often one material. It’s not what drives the massing or the concept of the building. Like the Yeon building downtown. It’s beautiful but it’s one material with different levels of ornament. How we look at architecture is we try not to paint with different materials as much as possible. And because this building is tall, we felt from the beginning a curtain wall was the right answer even though it’s expensive, considering the wind pressure and the kind of enduring quality: you want to make sure it’s a quality building from the start. We wanted to just kind of pick the best material and stick with it.
Why this building is what it is also relates to Hoyt’s desire to have different buildings to market in different ways. They wanted this building to have a kind of different statement from their other holdings.