BY BRIAN LIBBY
Each year on the eve of the Portland Architecture Awards, the trio of jury members selecting the awards gather with an audience at the AIA's Center For Architecture to discuss their own work and, more importantly, what the awards submittals lead them to think about Portland's architecture and architects overall.
This year's Boston-based jury of Tim Love, Elizabeth Whittaker and Mariana Ibanez has between them some remarkable resumes. Each has taught or currently teaches architecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. Whtitaker's firm, Merge Architects, combines design and craft in an innovative, meaningful way. Ibanez's work explores new possibilities for integrating architecture and technology. Love's firm has a lengthy history with public buildings, housing and master planning.
The jurors, only one of whom (Love) had been to Portland before, began by noting "a lot of commonalities between the interesting work being done in the Boston metro area and Portland," as Tim Love put it. "One reason might be because of land values and the rising cost of real estate and those pressures. It’s forced our cultures to get smart about using inexpensive materials. The use of HardiePanel or metal panel, that family of stuff is similar. And the building types are similar; the single family small lot stuff that’s very much like neighborhoods in south Boston and Somerville: cottages on small lots. You’ve got the small developer stuff off like 12 to 30 units, and the big macho developer stuff. That whole food chain is familiar to us. It was like we were shopping for moves."
"I really appreciated the level of detail," Whittaker added. "It’s uncanny how you’re pulling that off out here. Some of these projects are so well crafted. I think it wasn’t necessarily a fancier or more expensive material. It’s as if the people putting them together care more, maybe more than I find in Boston with the crews we work with. I don’t know what the building culture in Portland is like. Maybe there’s something going on out here. Maybe there are less of them and they’re less of a dime a dozen."
"The Boston market is so overheated now it’s hard to get contractors and the quality is dropping off," Love agreed. "I think the difference is…for the most part the projects that we liked, there’s a little bit more sense on the architects’ side about what the capacity of the contractors are. Some firms in Boston I think over-reach what the crafts can deliver."
Love and Whittaker also identified a couple of quirks relating to how different parts of buildings are put together.
"Portland is very good at realizing that he ground floor is different from the upper floors," Love said. "You do good podiums here, and not always in the same way."
"Which is interesting, because there aren’t as many tall buildings," Whittaker added. "You don’t need to rely on the podium."
"I think the ground floor and upper floor uses are also about choreographing sequences," Love explained. "On the ground floor it can be tunnel-like with competing retail things. We had discussions about the quality of coming into the lobby and what the effect of surprise was when you went to the upper floor: that difference is undervalued, I think. Some very modest projects had a very interesting handle on that."
The jury then returned to the notion of how Portland architects handle materials and form, not just in a sense of craftsmanship but also "a smart economy of materials, where a lot of the projects have one or two," Whittaker explained. "Very simple, super pure forms."
As they talked, the jury showed what was supposed to be a random group of images from projects submitted, but the work of Waechter Architecture seemed to keep coming onscreen, and some of the jury's comments seemed, at least in my mind, to refer to Waechter's sense of material economy as an emblem for the greater Portland architecture community.
"If you can’t use luxurious materials to do your thing and you’re left with HardiePanel or metal panel, you need to really use that material more to clad a volume," Love said. "You can’t objectify it. It’s a wrapper. And then what you’re left with as you have fewer and fewer moves is to just subtract voids and proportions. It almost becomes like a version of stucco contemporary architecture in Vienna. But it’s not stucco. It’s HardiePanel or metal panel. That’s very interesting to us. You’re forced to think about composition with the basics. I think American architecture is more one of assembly. I think there’s an interesting theoretical 'aha.' Maybe we’re just trying too hard. Pick a nice gray HardiePanel and embrace the thing. That’s weird because it changes the strategies a little bit."
When the jury offered to take questions, I asked what some of their initial impressions of Portland had been.
"It’s a pretty great city, and probably a great city to be in as an architect," Love said. "The only downside is it may be more isolated as an economy than a city like Boston is. But I think the scale of the city has an influence on the scale of the work. I think that sense of appropriate scale, almost miniaturized. It’s almost like a four-fifths scale. I like four-fifth cities. Houston is like a six-fifths city. Everything seems all pumped up there."
Another member of the audience asked if the jurors had any advice for Portland architects. Whittaker seemed to want more formal daring.
"I think you’re doing so much so well, in terms of how you’re detailing, and the care shows in the finished product: the way it’s built. That’s what stands out the most," she said. "I think there is a formal sensibility that seems very specific to Portland, and I see a few projects that are breaking out of that. I’d like to come back in eight years and see even more ambitious geometries that are also bringing along this level of craft. It’s easy to do something that’s formally loud but not to do it well."
"I’d like to see some public architecture that isn’t schools," Love added. "I’d like to see an excellent civic building where people can argue about what’s coming to their neighborhood. Most of the excellent work is private, right? Maybe some advocacy can be done for that."
Love also offered some praise based on the local set of conditions. "Small firms in Portland have to be more entrepreneurial. In Boston they’re all connected with the universities."
But Whittaker confirmed that the world has taken notice of our city. "There is a buzz about Portland, and there has been for a while," she said. "And it’s about livability."
Ibanez added that a lot of her students at Harvard do thesis projects on Portland even though they’re not from here.
Ultimately the jury process is always an imperfect one. It makes sense for objectivity's sake for out-of-town professionals to act a jurors, but they almost always have to decide the winners based on photos instead of site visits, and in most cases they have no familiarity with the city at all. Yet these annual awards have shown a continuity across the years and across juries in terms of what they like: projects that blend craftsmanship and an eye for the little details with a reverence for local natural material and, increasingly, a little bit of formal daring.