BY LUKE AREHART
Next in our continuing series profiling Portland architects through their careers, interests, skills and passions is Celeste Lewis, founder and principal with Celeste Lewis Architecture. Lewis has over two decades of experience in green design, remodels and new homes, all of which strive to use materials responsibly, optimize energy performance and maximize a home's most vital resource: space. Besides being a consummate professional, Lewis is also active in the community.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Celeste Lewis: In the fourth grade I remember declaring, “Mom, I’m going to be an architect.” My mom was a painter. My dad had studied math and was an Air Force B-52 radar navigator. She thought it was crazy because our family didn’t know any architects. My mom was a professional artist whose work was so fabulous it was intimidating. I feared I wouldn’t succeed as an artist personally because I didn’t draw as well.
I remember thinking at the time that architecture was a good fit between what I thought were my best skills: organizing, creativity, math, fastidiousness and drawing. There were a lot of people, including my high school counselor, saying, “Are you sure you want to be an architect?” At my alma mater, you start out with a very large class and then apply to the professional program with your portfolio at the end of your second year. Two hundred people applied; only twenty or so were women. Just six of us went onto graduate out of a final class of forty-eight.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied architecture at Washington State University. The school did an incredible job of preparing me to be sole practitioner. Although there have been famous architects who graduated from Washington State like David Miller and Robert Hull (of the Miller Hull Partnership), the school doesn’t boast many alumni starchitects. When I opened my own architectural office, I used much of what I was taught to organize myself. Also, at the time, the architecture program was part of the College of Engineering and we took more structure classes than most other architectural schools. To this day, I do my own gravity calculations. This is especially useful for residential work where I can adjust the structure to meet design criteria.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
There are two criteria I use to define favorite projects: Did I leave the house in a better state and did I have fun while making the client happy? With residential work, it’s easy to get caught up in the latest trends of fashion, like light cabinets versus dark cabinets. In general, my favorite residential projects are those which improve the relationship between spaces and way the interior relates to the best features of the site and nature.
I am proudest of remodeling projects where I have had the opportunity to rethink the existing circulation patterns and thereby improve the entire house. The Macmillan residence, the Thompson residence, the Carl Place addition and the Young residence stand out. Repurposing inefficient circulation space creates new living space. Houses that are logically laid out and have a good circulation are the ones that will survive, not only for the current owners but most future families, 10-20 years down the road.
Then of course, there is making clients happy. I’ve done some larger scopes of work, but the best remodels are those in which the clients and I connect and make a spark together. The size and budget of the project matters less if we are connecting – there is a lot more fun in that. Those are the jobs that sustain me. The older I get, the more I look for this type of fulfilling work. Specifically, if the work sounds like fun and the client is open to solving the problem in a unique and sustainable way, then that’s the job for me.
I am often reminded of the quote by Harry Cobb that Kim Ritter shared with me: “Great clients make great architecture.” I am grateful to have had many favorite projects because I am blessed with many enjoyable clients.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Being a small fish in a big pond means you have lots and lots of mentors.
Carol Edelman is the first and only female architect I ever worked for. She owned an interior design business at the time and had some forward-thinking clients. She gave me lots of good advice on how to stick up for myself and not worry if I got too loud. She cautioned against fretting about whether people “like you” and suggested that I just be myself in this profession that is typically tough for women.
John Hasenberg taught me everything I know about how to run a business that I hadn’t learn from Washington State. When you are learning, you need to be able to make mistakes to learn how to fix them while having somebody shepherd you through the process. John believed in me and allowed me to learn from mistakes. He also taught me how to be fair with employees.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
After just having a couple of preliminary client meetings, I am reminded that I am very good at indentifying a preliminary solution at the first meeting. I’m able to quickly find the 80-percent: the one that will solve most of their issues without busting their budget.
Unfortunately I occasionally disappoint people by telling them they can’t build what they want at “that” budget. On the other hand, I’ve had many people come back to me, even if they hadn’t hired me, and affirm “you were right.” I’ve also had clients, based on my initial advice, sell their existing house in order to buy a new one that was closer to their needs and then hire me for that remodel.
Finally, when you are a sole practitioner, you had better like most facets of the work, and I do. For instance, at any time you might be doing any part of the work: marketing, design work, detailing work and follow-through. Also, as I have aged, I’ve learned to vary my involvement depending on who is on my team at the time. I try to fit my tasks in around what others can do in order to get the work completed.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
There are a lot of notable buildings in Portland, but I think it’s the public spaces that I am most drawn to. I love the play between the urban and the out-of-doors.
I like Director Park when you can sit at the southeastern corner. Given the way the whole park is a warped plane, I enjoy sitting in the upper part and watching all the action take place below. The signage could be improved but I love the way the paving has developed a patina. It feels warmer, more light-filled than most of the Halprin spaces. The granite surfaces stay whiter/brighter in our weather.
I also like the Portland Art Museum courtyard that connects the Mark Building and the original Belluschi building. The buildings on either side make the space feel enclosed. As you look east, you can see the First Congregational Church tower rising above the tree canopy in the park blocks. I love the black and white paving. On occasion, the museum has strung red lanterns across the top of the plaza, suggesting a ceiling. I particularly enjoyed that.
The terrace at Nel Centro is my third favorite hangout. The converted parking lot plaza and vertical garden feels tucked away, private. I try to have a drink at this oasis as frequently as possible.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp. I understand that they have since changed the front entry sequence, but coming up over the rise and viewing the stark white organic form creates a very strong emotional response for me. It is so sculptural and curvy against the plain grass foreground and stark sky. The walls turn on themselves to create an entrance and two small chapels. The third, larger chapel is also sparse, with at the time of my visit two confessional booths. The roof’s shape amplifies the speaker's voice to the crowds of pilgrims. But in this rural part of France, if you were to just glance up at it, the color and the roof almost give it feel of a barn. I had also forgotten that the building collected rainwater at one time. I have never grown tired of looking at the photos and marveling at the spare creation of space and form. I hope to visit again.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Robert Oschatz. His work is magical and so creative. He employs bold modernist forms that feel contemporary and unique even today. I run by one of his houses four days a week and I am always finding new details that support the overall whole of the house. If I had been smart, I would have worked for him at some point.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I’d like to see the city create more public infrastructure. Downtown and the inner east side have well developed sidewalks and bike lanes but we need to make a commitment to constructing more sidewalks and bike lanes elsewhere. We need to focus on making Portland a livable place for many, many people besides those who can afford to live close-in, typically our wealthier citizens. I think the reason that bike travel has increased is because there are a lot of facilities on the inner east side and I’d love to see those facilities spread out.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I have heard the complaints about how difficult it is to get large projects built and how the design review process bureaucracy is likely responsible for some increases in the cost of housing. In my own little world, I see similar hassles.
I am troubled by the City of Portland residential permitting process. The FIR (Filed Issued Reviews) program has created a two-tier system for obtaining a residential permit. If you are working with a FIR-identified contractor, the amount of information needed to obtain a building permit is far less than that required for a set of documents submitted in the permit center. As an expression of the work needing to be completed, I charge an extra 1.5 percent for those needing to submit for permits at the City of Portland permit center because I must do more work and most of that work is not pertinent for building the project.
Additionally, despite all of our training and the liability that our licenses insist we accept, architects still must go through plan (code) check for residential remodeling while permit officials aren’t held liable for failing to find non-compliant drawing situations! What about a system in which an architect’s stamped drawings avoid plan check while still having a zoning review and obtaining building inspections? I think more architects would be sought out to do this work and the work itself would, on the whole, be better for the city.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Alejandro Aravena, who just won this year’s Pritzker Prize. I LOVE the Ville Verde Housing and Quinta Monroy Housing in particular. I like the way his design establishes a formal rhythm, scale and structure, and yet the finished work is not perfected or over-designed and expresses some unique character about the owners. Many times, as I pass by housing here in Portland, I see owners wishing to express themselves, but the buildings’ geometry and façades are so rigid that the expressions of individuality are limited to a couple of pots and mailbox.
Alejandro Aravena’s work provides the shell that the homeowner can then go in and modify to match their style and budget. I wonder what would happen if we had the development like this in Portland, where the building process takes place over longer time span instead of all at once. Would the changes be more acceptable if they were incremental? Could this type of development, where the homeowner has room to grow into a form, be more affordable? I think so.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Purses! When shopping for them I am thinking about the following: Are they washable? Do they have compartments for pens (so that potential ink spills are minimized)? Can they be repaired? Will they take the rain? Will the material age gracefully? Do I want it to age? Does the bag retain its shape on me or in the car? How does it look with a can of Diet Coke in it, or a small gift box or a banana?
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
Amelie, Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and The Incredibles (I think all moms want to be Elastigirl).