BY BRIAN LIBBY
In a recent column for the Portland Tribune, I wrote about my first visit to Nordia House, a home for the Scandinavian Heritage Foundation that opened last summer.
Designed by DiLoreto Architecture with architect Brian Melton leading the way, the 10,000-square-foot building, located off busy Oleson Road near the Portland-Tigard border, looks out at a protected wetland and, despite its otherwise suburban setting, felt to me like an oasis — for reasons related to its architecture and site but also because of the national nightmare that may soon come true.
More than a century ago my Norwegian ancestors, the Dahl family, made the pilgrimage across the Atlantic and ultimately across North America to reach Oregon. So too my did ancestors from England, Switzerland and Germany come to America with the hope of a better future.
All these years later, though, I find myself yearning to reverse the course taken by my European ancestors. I'm so deeply, profoundly and irrevocably ashamed of my country these days and nearly half the populace's embrace of fascism that I can't help but dream of moving to Europe. It's not to say that they don't have problems over there too, for many European countries have made disconcerting lurches to the right amidst the world's largest mass migration since the end of World War II (that will happen when you destroy the places where people live). But if Donald Trump should become the American president, I want out of this spoiled land of ignorance, bigotry and twisted evangelism.
From the moment I arrived at Nordia House, I could feel the weeks of growing tension ease. Even just stepping up to its entrance on a tour with Melton, I had to pause to take in the beautifully carved door, designed by the late great Roy Setziol before his passing in 2005. I also had to stop and admire the water feature in the front of the building, which makes artful use of the rainwater captured on the roof.
I also stopped to enjoy the composition of the building, clad in a combination of cedar and board-formed concrete with a gentle slope upward at the sides. The entire experience is one of layers, causing one to pause and slow down while passing through them (the entry doors, the facade, the landscape) in gentle succession.
The building is centered around a cavernous glass-walled and Douglas fir-festooned main hall, and Nordia House also includes an attendant gallery as well as administrative offices and an outpost of the popular Nordic-themed Portland restaurant Broder. It has space for everything from concerts and movie screenings to classes and dances to church services (a Lutheran congregation holds Sunday services there), as well as the Midsummer festival each June and a popular Christmas market in December.
On the sunny day I visited, there wasn't any rain to activate the waterfall in the front of the building, but the way late-morning sunlight permeated the glass through its patterned exterior screening felt like a modernist evocation of the dappled light coming through the trees. And as the light hit those Douglas fir ceiling beams, they almost seemed to glow.
DiLoreto Architects traditionally keeps a fairly low profile, but the firm has carved out a niche (amidst the other academic, industrial and residential work in its portfolio) designing ecclesiastical spaces. The St. Edward Church in Keizer, for example, has won awards both from religious organizations and for its wood construction. It's an inspiring blend of traditional and modern forms, teeming with natural light and providing a sense of awe in its exposed wood Gothic arches.
Even though Nordia House is not really a church (the Lutheran service happening there not withstanding), there is a kind of secular spiritual feel one has visiting the building and its site. It's a spirit born not of fire and brimstone, or self-righteous moralizing, but of community togetherness in a beautiful natural setting. It reminds me of the oft-quoted Frank Lloyd Wright answer about religion in a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace: "my church I put a capital N on Nature and go there."
In times of crisis we all look for salvation. Some of us go to church and that's largely a good thing, finding camaraderie and consolation. Some of us head for the beach or the mountains, humbled by their majesty. And some of us look to great or soothing urban places and spaces, be they a park or perhaps a building.
I think back fondly on my visit to Nordia House in part for its celebration of the Scandinavian cultures that comprise part of my ancestry; part for its role as a beautiful work of architecture in an otherwise uninspiring suburban setting within a stone's throw of Washington Square mall and a sea of surrounding strip malls and pedestrian-unfriendly thoroughfares; and partly as a moment of tranquility amidst the biggest national crisis of my lifetime.
Hopefully next week enough people can listen to what Abraham Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature," but if not, inspiring places like Nordia house will only become more valuable, as some of us look for solace anywhere we can find it as we maybe even turn toward packing our bags and writing off the country we thought we knew.