BY BRIAN LIBBY
Three months ago the corner of NW 23rd and Glisan was rocked by a natural gas explosion, one that quite thankfully didn't kill anyone but did completely destroy one building and nearly another. And while it's sad to think of the century-old building on 23rd that is now completely gone, even more concerning was that the other, the one mostly but not completely destroyed, was one of the premier works of architecture in Portland constructed over the last 25 years: the 2281 Glisan building by Allied Works.
At first it seemed like 2281 Glisan would not be salvageable. After all, its walls were gone and inside much of the building looked like a disaster zone. But structurally the building survived the blast, and the owners, who also own Ann Sacks Tile & Stone, have every intention of rebuilding. What's more, Ann and Robert Sacks also owned the totally-destroyed building on 23rd. So we're not just going to see 2281 Glisan rebuilt. We're also going to get a new Allied Works-designed building next door. Even though 2281 Glisan is 17 years old, the new building next door will be the first entirely ground-up buidling project in Portland for Allied Works since 2281 Glisan was completed.
Recently I spoke with Allied Works associate principal Dan Koch, who not only is part of the team working on the 2281 renovation and the new building but also was part of the team that designed 2281 Glisan 18 years ago.
Portland Architecture: Could you talk a little bit about first getting news of the explosion? It must have been jarring: not many buildings in Portland blow up.
Dan Koch: It was a little surreal, actually. Our office is over near Providence Park, and we felt and heard the explosion in the office that morning. The owner [Robert Sacks] has an office on our building on the ground floor. He was actually here when it happened. We heard it and felt it. And then as news started coming in about what actually happened, we heard which building it was and saw the images online that were being posted. Of course everyone was thankful that no one was seriously injured or killed. That was the first concern.
How long was it before you were able to learn the building's condition?
I rode by that night on my way home, just to see the site. Of course everything was lit up with construction lights. But it really did look like a dead building. And then I think we talked to the owner that day as well and heard some of the details. I walked through it maybe a week after.
Did it look like some kind of war zone?
Exactly. Especially the second and third floors, which were occupied by the salon. The second floor sustained the most damage. I had never been in a building that had exploded like that. The way the forces worked is pretty mind-boggling. In one room there would be, say, a bathroom that would be the porcelain sink and toilet in shards, and on the wall was a glass framed photograph that was perfectly intact, in place. There were some strange forces going on there. And then every wall on the exterior in the building was pretty much affected by the explosion. Even though it occurred west of the building, walls on all sides were blown out and destroyed. So that’s why it’s basically a complete demo down to the primary structure.
Where are you at in the process now?
They haven’t completed the demo of the building yet. It’s well on its way. They’ve taken a lot of it down. They’re trying to selectively save elements that they can, such as an interior steel staircase in the residence that links the fourth and fifth floors; it’s in perfectly fine condition. So they’re saving that. There’s some finishes in the residence that are savable. But all exterior walls will be ultimately taken down, and they’re not finished with that yet. And then we’re just going through re-creating the drawing set, basically
What, if anything, will be different about the reborn building?
The goal is obviously to rebuild it as it was, and that’s our intention with a couple minor changes. We don’t want to trigger design review. And they loved the original building. So apart from upgrading the building in terms of its systems and also we’ll be held to the current energy code to the extent possible, so we want to upgrade wall assemblies in terms of insulation and things like that were we can. The city has been great. They’ve identified a team of people who will be working with us through the process. So we already know who will be involved with. And there will be some specific locations relative to the energy code issue where we just can’t do a full upgrade, and at the same time have it look the same. So they’re going to work with us on issues like that. But the goal is to have it all be as it was. Somebody with a very discerning eye may be able to see some very very slight difference, but our goal is to have it be exactly the same.
Having worked on the original building before it was completed in 2000, what are your memories of the design process or working with these clients? How do you recall it being received?
At first it wasn’t received well by a few people in close proximity, by some of the neighbors. But it also received the very first Mayor's Design Award, from Vera Katz. It was the first project I worked on at Allied. To have this strange opportunity of working on it again, 17 years later, is pretty surreal. But the clients, they’ve rolled with it better than you would expect. They love the building and they’re excited to improve it and live in it again. It’s exciting to be working with them again, because they’re delightful people.
I've always really loved this building: the transparency of the structure visible behind this glass curtain wall that extends beyond it, the veiled half-transparency created by some of the window screens, and the way the relative symmetry of the first few floors gives way to these more asymmetrical top two floors with a little outdoor terrace changing the length of the glass on one side. It's a little jewel. What do you think makes the design successful?
I think the point you made about its transparency, its kind of veiled transparency from the street, and the scale of it given what’s around it, is one of my favorite things about it. I think it’s pretty successful in that way. It’s a pretty clear straightforward idea, I think, with the structural system that reads clearly through the transparent glass. Where it gets kind of more complex is marrying the residential upper levels with the lower office/commercial spaces, and so I think there’s some nice things that actually come out of that complexity. I think that’s what you were speaking to as well, with the level shifts within the overall simple geometry. There are some more complex moves happening as you work your way up in the building. The penthouse, the upper level, was actually lowed through a variance, because it’s above the height limit. So part of why its walls are set back and it’s more of an erratic geometry is more due to the setbacks that were imposed through the variance. That upper level couldn’t exceed 50 percent of the square footage of the floor plate. By setting it back, it created those outdoor terrace spaces that that resident utilizes.
What's happening next door, to the totally-destroyed building where the gas explosion came from?
It’s kind of interesting working on another ground-up project right next door. A major issue, though, is we’ll go through a full design review on that building since it’s a complete replacement. It’s going to be something quite different from its neighbor, which is fine. I think it will be exciting, actually, to see the two side by side and have them be different. We’re just starting schematic design. We’re at the beginning stages of that.
Obviously one wishes the explosion had never happened, but it's exciting to think that it will bring a new, ground-up Allied Works building in Portland — the first since 2281 Glisan 17 years ago (other than houses), if I'm not mistaken.
That is the silver lining, really, for the client. It was a quaint, small building that they liked a lot, but it was very old. Now they get this opportunity to replace it with something new. In fact, that was the first location of Ann’s first tile showroom, really, in that corner building.
You mentioned the new building on 23rd being different from 2281 Glisan, and the design review that it will have to pass through. 2281 is a glassy building, so might you envision a more masonry-oriented facade with the other building, for instance?
Exactly: something with either masonry or tile that has a kind of small module to its materiality. Also scale-wise it’s a tiny building. The lot measures about 34 feet wide by 53 feet deep. The footprint is very compressed and small. It has the same 45-foot height limit. It was three stories before, but the roofline was basically like an A-frame it was so steep, so the upper floor was actually an attic apartment unit. Scale-wise, it felt smaller than a three-story building given the roof slope. It actually has a nice proportion to it from both sides given the small size of the lot and the height limitation.