BY BRIAN LIBBY
The Old Town/Chinatown district is home to a wonderful collection of historic architecture, much of it from the cast-iron era of the late 19th and early 20th century. But over the past decade-plus it has seen very little new construction, especially from the ground up.
The 38 Davis building is thus a noticeable and noteworthy addition, especially given its location along Naito Parkway, facing Waterfront Park and the Willamette River. If Portland's skyline were a class picture, 38 Davis would be sitting in the front row. And it's nice to have an actual building here instead of a surface parking lot, which this site had been previously.
A building in this location has to receive approval from the Landmarks Commission, which may explain why 38 Davis possesses on the exterior a kind of quietly neo-historic style that seems to be trying more than anything else to fit in. It's dignified with a nice pedestrian feel, as well as an intimate alleyway between it and its neighbor, but overall aesthetically somewhat unremarkable — although often architecture like this ages well. Inside the design is more compelling.
The L-shaped building is truly mixed-use, not just in the usual way with ground-floor retail giving way to residential or commercial space above but with a mix of the firm's offices with University of Oregon classroom space, retail, and apartments. It's also a fusion of new and old. The building is part of a new generation of timber-framed architecture, which becomes apparent as soon as one enters, for its exposed wood ceilings comprise a major part of the aesthetics.
My visit was specifically to see architecture firm Ankrom Moisan's offices, but the journey began in the lobby, where one provides a variety of information to a digital keypad at the ground-floor security desk, including a hastily taken photograph. Once upstairs at the firm, one exits the lobby to find not a receptionist but a large kitchen and communal seating area, albeit with a kind of greeter taking the place of the receptionist. At first when I just wanted to find the people I was scheduled to meet, I was skeptical. But principal Michael Great and a small group were waiting for me in the kitchen, thanks to the notification from the ground-floor keypad, and the greeter was quick to offer a cup of coffee. What can I say? They won me over.
"We wanted to break down that formal introduction," explained Great.
The office itself is also much more open: not necessarily one giant open space like a Washington Post newsroom or like some totally open offices, but enough openness to perhaps change the firm's culture compared to the longtime quasi-suburban Ankrom Moisan headquarters on SW Macadam Avenue in John's Landing. "The way were working at Macadam was not efficient," Great said. "It never really represented us." People didn't interact enough. Instead of one big kitchen, for example, where people could interact, there were eight tiny ones. And opening the office also sends a kind of message to the outside world. "We wanted to invite clients and visitors into our design process," the architect added. "It's a huge culture change."
Our tour then moved down a long hallway on one side of the L-shaped building, which gave way to clusters of desks (a series of "pods" for 20-24 people) or a series of small conference rooms. Separating the hallway from these spaces were a series of sliding doors, which also doubled as pin-up walls for ongoing designs to be critiqued. I enjoyed moving through the space, which seemed to have a cinematic quality, almost like a Stanley Kubrick film, a kind of triptych with the central hallway flanked by action on either side. It really makes the wide hallway more than a means of circulation. It felt almost like a place to hang out. So too did a huge metal stairway near the kitchen that's hung from the ceiling; during our tour, we wound up stopping there for several minutes as different designers who had worked on the project passed through and contributed to the conversation.
I also enjoyed some of the smaller details. The wood ceilings and structural framing (part of a traditional tongue-in-groove system rather than cross-laminated timber) bring a lot of warmth, of course, and that is countered by an industrial feel. The architects seemed to enjoy using big, heavy bits of metal such as the tracks on which the sliding doors sit, as if to emphasize all the more that this is not a Class-A office space like the one from which the firm just moved.
The Ankrom Moisan offices recently played host to an Architecture Foundation of Oregon fundraiser, and it's easy to imagine a variety of events taking place here. Once isolated from central-city Portland, the firm now has a chance to be a much greater participant in civic life. And I can't help but think that being located here, next door to the University of Oregon and adjacent to both downtown and the Pearl District, will also help Ankrom Moisan attract top talent.
The firm is already a success story, with a staff of hundreds, offices in multiple cities and a continuing stream of large commissions over many years: multi-family housing, commercial buildings, schools. They have the experience to execute big projects and increasingly the sustainable expertise to go with it, not to mention a robust interior design department. At the same time, the last decade-plus has not seen the firm win many AIA Portland Design Awards. I think this new office will make Ankrom Moisan even more successful because it will now be a place some of the top young talents want to work. I feel as though I once saw something similar happen at another large firm, ZGF. It was already plenty successful, but since moving into new offices in the 12 West building, ZGF's reputation for design has only been elevated. As the old saying goes, as much as we shape our buildings, they and their locations shape us.