Garden House and Learning Center buildings at the Cultural Crossing (Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
As the parking lot and tennis courts of Washington Park gave way to a winding pathway leading toward the Japanese Garden a few hundred feet up the hillside, I could already see the new $33.5 million Cultural Crossing coming into view.
Cantilevering over the steep forested terrain was a glass box that almost seemed to defy gravity: a traditional teahouse I’d learn is called the Umami Café. Soon I made my way up the hill and across the bridge leading past the teahouse and into the rest of the three-building complex, where I was set to interview the great Japanese architect Kengo Kuma about the design. But I wouldn’t forget that little glass box, seemingly floating above its hillside perch. We’ll come back to it.
The main building of the Cultural Crossing, which I then entered for the Kuma interview, is comprised of the Tanabe Gallery (including an expanded gift shop), the Jordan Schnitzer Japanese Arts Learning Center, and the Vollum Library. It’s a zigzagging structure, like two L shapes conjoined, which Kuma explained in the interview allows natural light to permeate the innermost spaces by never having any portion of the interior far from the floor-to-ceiling glass.
The companion building across a generous stone courtyard is the smaller Garden House, which also zigzags but with three main volumes instead of four. Both buildings have second stories, yet they maintain a horizontality, as if seeking a low profile in the landscape.
That flattened land on which the buildings sit was carved out of the hillside, which is held back with the help of a massive stone retaining wall, about 18 feet tall and 185 feet long. Known as the shiro-zumi, or Castle Wall, the first of its kind to be built outside of Japan It uses the traditional ano-zumi technique for dry stone walls first developed about 350 years ago. Instead of mortar, the gaps between the large foundational boulders are filled with gravel and stone chips.
The two main buildings are a wonderful fusion of ancient architectural influences and a desire to embrace the present and future.
From top: Learning Center and Garden House (Brian Libby)
At first glance, they recall Buddhist temples or other traditional Japanese architecture with their horizontality and the large overhangs extending over on each of the two floors. Before World War II, Japan’s architecture was mostly comprised of wood, and as soon as one steps inside there is wood everywhere. In the Learning Center building, where I went to interview Kuma and Japanese Garden director Steve Bloom, one felt enveloped by the wood panels forming the ceiling, the stairway and most of the walled planes.
In what makes a key signature for the architecture, there are also tall, thin wood slats that act as a partial shading—almost like drapes—for the floor-to-ceiling glass walls of these buildings. In the interview (which will be published in Architectural Digest in a few weeks), Kuma spoke of the shadows created by the wood slats, giving the otherwise glass façade an extra sense of depth while also mitigating solar heat gain (the project is LEED-certified).
What makes the wood-slat-draped glass façade particularly cool, though, is that it can disappear. The wood slats sit on horizontal metal rods that allow them to move from side to side: again, just like vertical blinds or drapes. And for several feet at the corners, the glass too can simply slide away, not unlike shoji screens. After walking into the courtyard following my interview with Kuma, I noticed that the northeast corner of the Garden House building had been configured this way, creating a delightful indoor-outdoor feel that felt appropriate on this mercifully dry, sunny Tuesday as the cherry blossoms of a nearby tree bloomed.
Inside the Learning Center (Brian Libby)
At this point, I focused my attention on the Umami Café building, that spectacular little teahouse extending out over the hillside. With its transparency, it reminded me of Philip Johnson’s famed Glass House in Connecticut, or even more so one of the Case Study Houses in Los Angeles by the likes of Richard Neutra or Pierre Koenig given how it perched onto the hill, almost defying gravity.
Although I’m completely a coffee drinker and have never really liked any tea, I can’t think of a better place in Portland to enjoy a hot beverage. There are tables both within the glass-walled space and on the small balcony lining the perimeter, and because of the slope of the hillside one almost feels as if the teahouse is actually a treehouse. Standing inside, the view of the evergreen trees through the glass seemed like one big living mural or cinematic projection. The wood floors and ceiling only enhance the feeling of warmth and the sense of nature.
One of my favorite features inside the Umami Café building also speaks to how the Cultural Crossing is, despite its incorporation of traditional Japanese architectural traditions, unapologetically contemporary. The otherwise wood ceiling, a beautiful overlapping pattern of wood slats (some embedded with lights between the pieces so as to glow from within), includes a large triangular patch of thin white material, which intentionally resembles the rice paper used for shoji screens but is actually the most utilitarian of American building materials: Tyvek commercial wrap. The triangular swatch of Tyvek (which the architects thankfully were able to get without the ubiquitous logo pattern on the material) sits beneath a skylight, which causes the white, semi-permeable surface to glow, almost as if the Tyvek is a ceiling-mounted light itself.
Inside the Umami Café (Brian Libby)
The use of Tyvek for a skylight screen in the ceiling was one of two cases where I was surprised by use of a humble, very contemporary building material. The other case was the aluminum panels used for the lower roof plane over the first floor of the Learning Center and Garden House buildings.
I think of aluminum as a humble, inexpensive material, and at first I was a little jarred to see a material I associate with industrial applications, especially in its unpainted, raw form. But upon closer examination, it worked. The aluminum is pre-weathered so it has a bit of a patina (something the Japanese prefer over our American penchant for shiny newness). And perhaps more importantly, the aluminum panels are placed over a rain screen drainage system for the roof overhangs, which enables them to maintain a crisp edge extending over the façade. This is part of the Kuma factor: very highly resolved details. There is so much warmth to the Cultural Crossing’s interplay of materials and light that one could almost forget the precision that elevates the architecture to something greater than the sum of its parts.
If I’m discussing the roof, however, the aluminum is only half the story. The upper roof overhang is vegetative, and while the greenery has not yet fully grown to size, the roof already has an unmistakable saturated green color. What’s more, the rainwater hitting the vegetative roof doesn’t just drain invisibly. It comes over the edge of the overhang in random droplets of water.
As I sat inside the second-floor conference room in the Learning Center interviewing Kuma-San, I kept noticing the randomness of the water droplets. The weather was dry that Tuesday, but of course it had been raining earlier that morning and for weeks on end before that, so the drips were still coming, not all the time but like cars on an urban highway late at night. I was later told by Tyler Nishitani of Hacker Architects, the local firm partnering with Kengo Kuma & Associates on the project, that the vegetative roof can take as much as a week to completely drain after it rains, which maintains the pitter-patter of the droplets coming down in front of the glass walls—a kind of natural theatrical effect that made me smile.
When it was time to leave—the interview completed and lots of pictures taken—I took my time making my way out of the Cultural Crossing complex, and there seemed to be a similar reluctance among the architecture firm and Japanese Garden staff and PR people assembled there for the press preview. It seemed like a shared sensation that although the Japanese Garden has already for decades been a special place in Portland—an oasis where we can commune with nature and experience a cultivated tranquility—Kuma and his team have created a new architectural landmark in Portland.
Let’s face it: this has been a really long, dark winter. It started before the calendar officially changed over from autumn, with so many of us devastated by the national disgrace and tragedy of Donald Trump’s fascist, corrupt taking of the presidency. Then it continued with a particularly harsh succession of snowstorms and endless rain through December, January, February and March. With my fair complexion, I usually dislike summer heat the most, but even I have been depressed by the constant gray skies and precipitation.
Spending time at the Cultural Crossing, I thought to myself, “spring finally is here,” and not just meteorologically speaking.
The Umami Café perched over the hillside (Brian Libby)
As the cherry blossoms moved in the breeze and the moving clouds created constantly changing light patterns over Kuma’s buildings, I felt a sense of renewal and wonder. Yes, Donald Trump is still president, but there’s more reason than ever to believe he might not complete a four-year term; at the very least, opposition is substantial and, save for a core audience in pickups and pulpits, nearly universal.
What’s more, this new Portland landmark not only gives us a reborn oasis in which to recharge our batteries and feel a union of nature and human-made architectural artistry, but it also is a celebration of international collaboration and fellowship: the very thing that Donald Trump’s draconian demagoguery seeks to subvert. If his regime seeks to build a wall on the border with Mexico to bait and encourage Trumps followers’ misguided fears, here Kuma’s team has hand-built a spectacular Castle Wall that enables this Cultural Crossroads.
Kuma and others have long maintained that the Portland Japanese Garden is the largest and most authentic traditional Japanese garden outside Japan, which means that we have looked to our Pacific Rim neighbors in friendship for a long time, even despite the animosity of World War II: of Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March, of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My grandfather fought in the Pacific during WWII, and survived the sinking of the aircraft carrier he was aboard, the USS Lexington, during the hugely significant Battle of the Coral Sea (which, along with the Battle of Midway, changed the tide of the war). It gave me pride to think of that family history as I shook Kuma’s hand, offered my pathetic little American version of a Japanese bow, and said thank you: not just for the interview but for this gift to Portland.
The Cultural Crossing is a great work of architecture, one that will join a community of Portland landmarks like the Watzek House, the Equitable Building, the Pittock Mansion, Veterans Memorial Coliseum, Pioneer Courthouse Square and Central Library. But in these times: it’s more than that. It’s a ticket to wonder and a reminder that whatever the storm, it shall pass—and, as we drip-dry, the sun will peek through the clouds and warm us again.