BY BRIAN LIBBY
No part of the city has transformed in my 20 years here like the Pearl District.
My first memory of this former industrial enclave turned high-density mixed-use residential neighborhood is olfactory: the smell of hops coming from the Blitz-Weinhard brewery on Burnside, the border between downtown and the Pearl. That parcel of land has long since been re-purposed as the five-building Brewery Blocks (by GBD Architects), with high-density offices, condos and shops, and part of the original brewery retained. What is most special about the Brewery Blocks, I think, is not the buildings (although they were some of the first LEED-rated projects in the city, and I particularly like the renovated brew house), but rather the urban energy and high foot traffic they established there, clustered around Powell’s Books.
Speaking of the Brewery Blocks and its relationship to Powell's Books, it's noteworthy that Powell’s too has evolved numerous times over my 20 years, by the way, and it’s looking better than ever without sacrificing its authenticity and grit. I love how much natural light pours into the lobby through floor-to-ceiling glass today, and yet the exposed timber rafters and concrete floors remain. Major bookstore chains like Borders and Barnes & Noble have fallen on hard times in competition with Amazon, but Powell's it too great to stop. If Pioneer Courthouse Square is the city's living room, this is another key room in the house. It's more than a store. It's a landmark.
Wieden, Gerding, Hoyt
Here in this cluster of southern Pearl District blocks near Burnside are also two other projects that rank among the most significant of my 20 years here: the Wieden + Kennedy building by Allied Works and the Portland Armory renovation for Portland Center Stage by GBD Architects.
Without any doubt, the W+K headquarters is the top work of architecture of my time in Portland: a former cold-storage warehouse into which Brad Cloepfil’s team carved out a kind of secular cathedral-like atrium where members of the ad agency and the public come together for events. Whether it’s the beauty of the wood and perfectly-smooth concrete or the way the catwalks stretch across the top, or the gorgeous natural light permeating the space, it’s a stunner.
I’ve actually been to the Gerding Theater at the Armory for plays more often than I’ve been inside W+K, and it’s a wonderful space too, especially the multi-story lobby, where you can see the exposed old trusses. It’s also one of the first LEED-rated historic buildings on the National Register.
The Armory, the Brewery Blocks, the Casey Condominiums, the Vestas headquarters, the W+K building: they and other projects all share one developer, Gerding Edlen, which was one of two development companies that clearly shaped the Pearl District more than any other. The company seemed to be riding the crest of a wave as project after project arrived in the Pearl and later South Waterfront and downtown, from the Meriwether Condos in Sowa (Peter Busby) to the 12 West tower downtown (ZGF), the latter being the first urban tower in America topped with wind turbines. Gerding Edlen brought an unmatched passion for sustainability that seemed to make the buildings more than skin deep. Gerding Edlen’s defining characteristic was pursuing LEED-rated sustainable buildings at a time when the US Green Building Council’s green building rating system was just getting started. I believe the Casey, for example, was the first LEED Platinum-rated condominium in the country. I especially liked the company’s green renovations, such as the Vestas headquarters in the old Meier & Frank building (GBD with Ankrom Moisan).
"Our priorities as a developer are the same as everybody’s," co-founder Mark Edlen told me in a Metropolis article. "But a viable product comes from place making. How do you create great places that people want to come to live, work, and play in? Then you also have to look ahead. I personally believe we’ve got a broken national energy policy. I think it’s a national security issue. It’s about speed and scale, and we don’t have a lot of time. As a company, we have an objective over the next five years to figure out how to build buildings that produce more energy than they consume."
The other major Pearl Developer would be Hoyt Street Properties, which contracted with the City of Portland in 1997 to develop 34 acres of industrial land from a former rail yard. As a result, one can walk through a portion of the northern Pearl that is almost entirely the work of one developer. As with Gerding Edlen’s work, the buildings possessed a collective quality—nice details, no flashiness, if nothing extraordinary. But in time, Hoyt Street produced some gems such as the Metropolitan Condos and some excellent landscape architecture in the form of three parks.
In retrospect, this northern Pearl developed quickly. For example, I remember venturing north on 11th Avenue in to see the wildly colorful Portland Totems by artist Kenny Scharf in 2001, on the west edge of Jamison Square. At the time, it felt like being on the outer edge of some urban frontier; none of the condo buildings now surrounding the park and the totems had been built.
Of course Jamison Square itself, designed by San Francisco landscape architect Peter Walker, is also one of the best acts of urban placemaking in Portland, continuing a great tradition of landscape architecture here dating to the contributions of Lawrence Halprin and the Olmsted Brothers. I also like its companion public space three blocks to the north, Tanner Springs Park. If Jamison is successful in drawing out people, especially to its water feature in warmer months, Tanner, by German landscape architect Herbert Dreiseitl, is a more contemplative space, as well as a kind of homage to the natural landscape that used to exist here.
In a Metropolis magazine article about Tanner Springs, I described it as “a small grove of native oak trees [that] gives way to tall grass and reeds before sloping downward to a marsh.” “It’s a key idea for the park,” Dreiseitl told me for the article, “going from dry to wet, from hill to valley or forest to open fields.” The idea was not merely a symbolic evocation of nature, but also part of an emerging strategy for wildlife sanctuary: instead of setting aside only single large tracts of land, we also needed to disburse pockets of nature through the city. “Having the urban fabric on one side and nature on another in the form of a big park or wildlife refuge, that’s an older concept,” Dreiseitl agrees. “I believe we have to bring sustainability into cities in a decentralized way, more like steppingstones. And I think nature itself works like this too.”
If we step across Broadway in this conversation to include the Old Town/Chinatown district, any conversation of new landscape architecture has to include the Classical Chinese Garden. Usually when I think of greenspace I think of public parks where you can see the trees and the grass from blocks away. It’s not just nature to be in, but to be near and to see from afar, which I think satisfies some kind of deep cognitive instinctual urge—studies show views of nature calm us down and make us happy, and the Japanese even have developed a kind of forest-based therapy.
The Classical Chinese Garden is just a wall on the outside. Only when you pay admission and cross through the walled compound do you enter is world. Yet it’s more than worth the admission: once inside the Chinese garden you feel like you’ve been transported. Whether it’s the water features and greenery or the hand-made quality of the pathways and architecture, the Chinese Garden makes for an urban oasis really like nothing else in the city. The Portland Japanese Garden is great too, of course, and honestly even more beloved; but it’s more at a remove from the downtown core, part of Washington Park, whereas the Chinese Garden is right in the middle of Old Town, so the abruptness of the change when you step inside the Chinese Garden is a big part of its charm.
What’s also interesting about the Pearl District, especially now that we’ve almost completed a two-decade march north to the Fremont Bridge, is how the architecture changes as one heads in that direction. The 2000s in general were all about condo construction, and while the initial projects in the southern part of the Pearl were largely either warehouse conversions or relatively small three and four-story new construction (usually in brick to tie in with the old warehouses). In the northern Pearl, on the other hand, where there were not warehouses but rail yards before redevelopment, we have seen taller buildings, more like the half and full-block behemoths of the South Waterfront. This has also meant a more unapologetically contemporary palette.
Of the new tall condos that have been built in the Pearl, I particularly like three projects: the aforemention Metropolitan Condos by Bora, Holst Architecture’s 937 Condominiums, and, most recently, Bora’s Cosmopolitan
The 19-story Metropolitan reflected architect Jeff Lamb’s brief time at Bora, and was designed from the inside out: not a simple repeating floor plan of long, bowling-alley-shaped units like some condos projects of that era, but spaces that were teeming with natural light and elegant simplicity. 937 had my favorite façade composition; though it was brick instead of a glass curtain wall, it had what was at the time an uncommon pattern of differently shaped windows, as well as a series of red glass balconies that contrasted the cream-colored brick. The Cosmopolitan, which I interviewed Bora’s Brad Demby about for a blog post last year, benefits from being taller and, thus, more slender. I think of it now as part of an unofficial pair with the US Bancorp Tower on Burnside; they not only bookend the northern and southern edges of the Pearl, but they both are buildings that could have been exceedingly plain if not for a few simple façade moves that make them feel more elegant.
What distinguishes the northern Pearl is its relative lack of historic buildings. But there are exceptions, like the Bridgeport Brewing building (renovated by Holst) and, to a degree, Centennial Mills, the latter being one of the architectural tragedies of my 20 years in Portland.
Thankfully the whole Centennial Mills complex has not quite been demolished. The signature feed building with the water tower remains in place. But pretty much everything else either has been demolished or will be soon. There was some bad luck involved in getting us to this point: the Portland Development Commission held a competition for development teams nearly a decade ago and chose a developer from California to do what looked like a wonderful rehabilitation of the group of buildings. But then the Great Recession came and the deal fell apart. PDC also failed to come to an agreement with developer Harsch and its philanthropic leader, Jordan Schnitzer. What’s really upsetting, though, is that PDC and the city did nothing to protect the buildings from further deterioration after taking control in 2000. I’ve heard it said that the buildings deteriorated more in the last 17 years of PDC ownership than in the more than 100 years before that. This is one of the most historically significant sites in the city: a lynchpin of the city’s burgeoning economy in the 19th and 20th centuries, where wheat was loaded onto ships heading all over the world. And except for one last building, we have tragically fumbled it away.
Over the years if there is one project type that seems to yield fine architecture, it seems to be headquarters for creative companies. It started with the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters, but there are a number of offices for advertising and branding and design companies throughout the city. Two of my favorites are in the Pearl or close by: the Ziba headquarters by Holst Architecture and the Swift offices by Beebe Skidmore.
The Ziba headquarters represented a step toward the open office, which is now well established in the American workplace. Occupying the top two floors of a three-story, 76,000-square-foot building completed in 2009, the designed embodied what founder Sohrab Vossoughi called the company’s “tribal” design method. As I described in a Metropolis article, a Spartan allotment of individual workstations—including the president and creative director’s desks—were arranged into long, communal tables. The workstations were situated amid an interlocking sequence of podlike meeting rooms connected by sliding doors. It’s in these rooms that teams spend most of the workday, pinning their inspirations and ideas to the walls. “At first they were looking at one big room for everything,” Holst co-founder Jeff Stuhr explained. “But we suggested a sequence of intimate spaces that you could journey through.”
Playing counterpoint to and helping organize these labyrinthine work areas is the “street,” an open corridor stretching the length of the two-story glass curtain wall on the north facade. Left free of furniture, it bathes the entire space in natural light. “Ziba’s old office was full of chaos,” says Stuhr’s partner, John Holmes. “By having these larger scaled elements, it creates a strong spatial rhythm—it orders everything. You can still have all that chaos, but it’s grounded.”
The Swift headquarters, which I wrote about for both The Wall Street Journal and Gray, represented the migration of Portland’s burgeoning creative-class economy into industrial areas like Slabtown and the Central Eastside. But I was especially keen on the architecture itself, in which Beebe Skidmore fused a cluster of unremarkable old conjoined concrete-block warehouses with a series of contemporary interventions yet without losing the essence of what had been there.
PNCA & PNCA
When I think of the Pearl District and Old Town/Chinatown and how they have changed over my 20 years here, I also can’t leave out some old buildings like two that were inhabited by the Pacific Northwest College of Art: first the Feldman Building, a converted warehouse that was recently demolished following the school’s move to the 511 Broadway building, the latter a gorgeous early-20th Century Beaux Arts building.
There’s no doubt at all that moving to 511 was the right call. It’s one of the architectural jewels of the city, and to have Allied Works renovate and re-imagine that building marked another of the top projects of my 20 years in Portland. It also marked a kind of return for Brad Cloepfil and Allied Works, who had spent much of the 2000s and 2010s after the W+K building designing projects in other cities, namely some acclaimed art museums in New York, St. Louis, Seattle and Denver. If Bora’s Cosmopolitan tower felt like a bookend with Big Pink, so too did PNCA’s new Schnitzer Center (as the 511 building was re-christened) feel like a companion project with W+K. The per-square-foot budget was considerably smaller for 511 and it didn’t have the ultra-meticulous beautiful detail of its predecessor, but in both cases Allied succeeded in creating wonderful interior architectural spaces—grand, open atriums that are full of natural light—within the shells of these old buildings.
At the same time, it has been sad to see the Feldman Building go. I attended many events at this converted warehouse over the years, and it had a gritty charm as well as a delightful kind of crossroads in the middle of the space, where students would pin up their work or chairs would be assembled for a lecture, all beneath clerestory windows bathing the space in illumination. I also adored its amazingly creative paint job, which I wrote about many years ago for Metropolis magazine: a Mondrian-esque mural by Randy Higgins that actually translated an Arthur Rimbaud poem into a visual language of squares and rectangles. "“It’s about asking ourselves, What does this institution believe in, and how do we express that in the building?” then-PNCA president Tom Manley told me for a Metropolis article. “Design is a function of culture and vice versa. I very much think the process showed that.” The Feldman Building, like the old Portland of the Gus Van Sant films I mentioned in my first 20 Years In Portland post, felt like another piece of the city that, while it didn’t necessarily have great enduring architectural merit, I nevertheless miss.
Holst Architecture, like GBD Architects, Allied Works, Bora and Ankrom Moisan, had their hands all over the Pearl District over the last decade-plus, and with the widest variety of project types. Besides residences like 937 and the Edge Lofts, and company headquarters like Ziba, there was also the Bud Clark Commons, a homeless resource access center straddling the Pearl and Old Town on Broadway.
One aspect of Bud Clark Commons seems quaint in retrospect, although it has nothing to do with the architecture: the project was a centerpiece of Portland's ten-year plan to end homelessness. I say "quaint" becuase you can't ever really end homelessness, but Bud Clark Commons certainly did good things. It includes a walk-in day center with public courtyard and access to services; a 90-bed temporary shelter; and 130 furnished studio apartments for homeless men or women seeking permanent housing with support services.
LEED Platinum rated, the project was also included on the prestigious annual Top 10 Green Projects list from the AIA's Committee on the Environment.
Renovations and Art
Thankfully some buildings do get saved and restored, though, and in Old Town I think of two buildings from the late 19th century that were given new life: the circa-1883 White Stag building, now home to the University of Oregon’s Portland outpost, and the circa-1881 Mariners Building, now the Society Hotel. They’re indicative of the incredible and still largely untapped potential of Old Town. Today when I go to there, the neighborhood feels like a cluster of social-service agencies and their clients during the daytime and one big bar-hopping party at night. But the collection of late 19th and early-20th century buildings here and in the Yamhill historic district just across Burnside in Downtown is breathtaking. We’re going to have a real challenge to seismically retrofit these largely unreinforced masonry buildings, but they’re as valuable as any architecture we have in the city.
When I think of favorite architecture projects in the Pearl, a number of them are smaller ones acting as some kind of gallery space.
There is the Center For Architecture, for example, home to the local American Institute of Architects chapter, for which Holst Architecture led the LEED Platinum-rated renovation of a circa-1880 former carriage house, which now includes a lot of vegetation growing up its façade.
I also quite enjoyed The Lumber Room, a combination art gallery and residence on NW Ninth Avenue above the Elizabeth Leach Gallery, both of which Randy Higgins led the design of. Each space is simple: wood columns, white drywall. Yet there is a subtle but powerful sense of spatial clarity.
A number of architects have designed Pearl District galleries, such as Brad Cloepfil and Rick Potestio, and of course art galleries were a foundational element of this former industrial neighborhood’s transformation, a kind of Portland version of New York’s SoHo. In both cases, high end retail and restaurants have followed the galleries there, so many of the up-and-coming art spaces are now located in other neighborhoods. Yet it was the Pearl’s warehouse conversions to artist lofts and later art galleries that made the district what it is.
That creative energy has also spawned unique spaces like Studio J, a kind of combined personal office, art gallery and entertaining spot on the second floor of a Fifth and Couch old commercial building for John C. Jay, the former creative director for Wieden + Kennedy who now works in a similar role for Japanese apparel giant Uniqlo, and his wife Janet Jay, who has formerly worked for Diane Von Furstenburg and Estée Lauder and now operates her own Pearl+ Luxury Soap brand. I couple years ago I wrote about Studio J for Gray magazine and called it a “creative clubhouse.”
And speaking of art, when I think of the Pearl District and its evolution I think of the Lovejoy Columns, those former columns of the Lovejoy Ramp painted by Greek immigrant Tom Stefopoulos between 1948 and 1952, and preserved after the overpass was demolished in 1999; two of the columns (covered with photographs of the graffiti to protect the original artwork), have long stood in the plaza of the Elizabeth Condos on NW 10th Avenue.
Of course Portland hasn’t finished in the Pearl or Old Town/Chinatown, and there are several interesting projects underway. I’m excited to see the Grove Hotel on Burnside as it’s transformed into a hip hostel, and a block north it will be interesting to see whether the longtime vacant lot there can be transformed into a high-end hotel, as is planned by William Kaven Architecture. There are still buildings being completed in the northern Pearl, some of them handsome but a couple of absolute stinkers, particularly the normally excellent ZGF’s new apartment building, NV.
Even so, for the most part I quite like what the Pearl District has become. It’s not to say there are many affordable places to live there, save for a workforce housing project or two, but the neighborhood is also more than the “Alimony Alley” it was once dismissed as: a place for divorcees and retirees. The Pearl is Portland’s initial foray into its higher-density future.