BY BRIAN LIBBY
The phrase "Honored Citizen" sounds like a euphemism for being old. I think I've even seen it used on laminated menus at Shari's, the ubiquitous restaurant and pie house chain, in favor of "senior citizen" to denote discounts on chicken strips and Folgers. But the Architecture Foundation of Oregon's annual Honored Citizen is something a lot more special: the closest thing we have in Portland to a lifetime achievement award for architects and other members of the building industry.
Without question, Donald J. Stastny is deserving of such an award. Whether it's architecture, urban planning and design or managing design competitions, the last of which he has become particularly known for, Stastny has over the past 30-plus years helped make Portland what it is today, and has impacted a variety of cities and sites around the country. He's a talented architect and designer, but he's also been just as talented at empowering others.
A native Oregonian who studied at Oregon State University, the University of Washington and the University of Pennsylvania, Stastny has designed cultural buildings like the Museum at Warm Springs and a variety of other structures for Native American tribes across the American west. He has been involved in city planning and urban design for a variety of cities but especially here in Portland, co-creating the first Central City Plan and impacting projects like the historic Governor Hotel renovation, as well as helping to plan Waterfront Park and the Pearl District. He also co-founded the now-defunct but very influential Oregon School of Design.
Stastny may be best known for the design competitions he managed, starting with the Pioneer Courthouse Square competition won by local architect Will Martin, which became a national model. He has gone on to manage design competitions for landmarks like the Flight 93 National Memorial in Pennsylvania (honoring passengers killed on September 11, 2001) as well as for the Frank Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, the US embassy in Berlin, the Alaska state capitol (won by Pritzker Prize winner Tom Mayne), and the memorial in Oklahoma City to those killed in the 1994 domestic terrorist attack there. Stastny has managed the design selection processes for five facilities on the National Mall in Washington, DC: Union Square, the Washington Monument/Sylvan Theater area, Constitution Gardens, The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and The National World War I Memorial. He has also assisted the US State Department in selecting architects for five different American embassies.
This year's Honored Citizen award is not the first such honor for Stastny. He has already been elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, the American Institute of Certified Planners, the Canadian Institute of Planners, and the Institute of Urban Design. He was awarded the 2006 AIA Northwest and Pacific Region’s Medal of Honor and the 2009 AIA Thomas Jefferson Award for Public Architecture.
As if that weren't enough, Stastny has also helped bring some very talented architects from other parts of the world to Portland, such as Snøhetta and Behnisch Architekten.
Oh, and he's also an accomplished sculptor.
If there is one quality that links Stastny's many endeavors, though, I think it is his ability as a connector, linking architects and clients, buildings and public spaces.
Recently I visited Stastny at his condo just south of downtown to talk about his impressive career.
Portland Architecture: I’m interested in the evolution of your career over time, which has included architecture, urban planning, and managing design competitions. You’re someone who cares passionately about our city, yet you’ve also been able to bring outside perspective from the out-of-town work you do. It’s like a kind of ongoing journey to explore what cities and design are all about.
Sometime during the earlier part of this year before this recognition from AFO, I was going through the same kind of thought process: ‘How did you end up here and what trajectory does it have?’ The work in a lot of ways hasn’t changed. It’s been in three areas.
One is architecture: trying to create meaningful places. There’s a lot of cultural work within that in terms of Native American cultures, as well as some mixed-used housing, and a lot of small museum work for towns and counties: people who want to maintain a track record of their heritage.
Then there’s the planning and urban design part. At Penn, that’s what my major was: urban design. I was in one of these classes of 12 that came from all over the world. I’m from this little small farming community in southern Oregon. There are people there from Harvard and Boston, New York City, Los Angeles. Sometime in that process I realized I understood cities maybe better than they did. The reason was I understood what community was from growing up in a small town. Cities are just collections of communities. But what brings them together? What are the connections that make some sort of urban structure?
Then the third element is competitions and design process. I’ve now run over 70 different competitions, for public spaces, for institutions, for embassies. The thing that is interesting about competitions is the way I’ve been successful: I bring to them a sensibility about architecture and program and urban design: ‘What are you trying to accomplish, and how does it fit into its particular setting?’ I try to set the table for bringing in people to do their best work. But because I am an architect, I’m able to create the environment for them to work in. They don’t have to worry about politics. They can focus on doing their best stuff.
The competition thing, which is to me very interesting, goes along with your comments about what cities are about. For the last five years, the competitions we’ve been involved with deal with civic open space in different ways. I think what we’re realizing nationally is in our cities, both how we experience them and the way our cities are made, what is more important is the spaces in between, not the buildings themselves. So people, and I think we as a nation, are beginning to understand that the open space of cities is both the glue that gives us character and provides very necessary connectivity, of communal life: the commons and what it can be.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the spaces in between. How do you begin to structure those in a city? As we begin to think about these new competitions—for example, we’re doing one for a greenway corridor in St. Louis—we’re beginning to think about paths and connections: the three dimensional experience of going through a space. You’re thinking not about property lines but the sequence of moving through those spaces, which I think begins to get to questions of equity and community connections.
The buildings to me at this point are not very important. I still love to design buildings, but I think the importance of a building in a larger construct is a lot more interesting to me.
You were present for some of the big decisions that made Portland what it is today, like co-creating the first Central City Plan and the construction of Pioneer Courthouse Square. How do you see what’s playing out today as the city grows and densifies, and becomes more expensive?
I think about the dynamic of these neighborhoods going through gymnastics to maintain the quality they have. And it’s often being led by newbies to Oregon. But sometimes they don’t want it to evolve or continue to develop. What is the future form of Portland? What is the future form of the city? How are we going to get there? Another issue that comes up…the people that are moving in, and taking positions in planning and other areas, try to reduce Portland to a formula. They get down to the 200-by-200-foot block. They get down to a few other elements, and then they judge everything by that, as opposed to how a city evolved organically dealing with the economics of a certain time.
To me, in the work I’m doing in St. Louis and Dallas and Detroit, we’re dealing with the issue of equity. We’re dealing a lot with some fundamental issues we faced 20 years ago here in Portland, about transit and connectivity. People are looking to our successes in Portland. I’ve often said one of the biggest exports of Portland is the design professionals who never seem to be here anymore: they’re off lecturing in other cities. The point I keep making is we made mistakes. But can we as a city be the guiding light for other cities going through what we’re going through right now? If other cities get to this point, with this nirvana place to live that’s choking itself, how do we transport that to other places?
We did some work in Austin. I love Austin. I think it’s a great city. I go in there and say, ‘This is what Portland was 20 years ago.’ They’re on a trajectory where they’ll be dealing with some of the same issues. How do you counsel them in such a way that it isn’t what they do today or tomorrow, or what they do looking down the pike a decade or two decades? This idea of city building is not the immediate thing of building a building. It’s being a bit of a clairvoyant, maybe: ‘If I do this action, what does that mean down the road?’ That’s also a difficult thing to do in a financing climate with biannual or annual budgets and political evolution going along with that. How do you somehow get the trajectory going in such a way that even if you have the Trumps and the McConnells along the way? Somehow you get through.
Given your involvement creating the first Central City Plan, what do you make of Central City 2035 or some of the other planning efforts underway?
Have you seen the post office [redevelopment plan]? To me there’s nothing in the plan that I feel takes lessons learned and kind of re-interprets it in a different way. I think that’s what we’re missing in Portland: not necessarily regurgitating things we know already. What are we doing that’s innovative, that’s recognizing a different kind of construct?
I came to town when the Downtown Plan had just been adopted. When we did the Central City Plan, I really pushed, and a lot did, for it to be a citizen based plan. The whole way we structured that thing, from Bud Clark and Margaret Strachan and those, was to create a citizen based Central City Plan, much along the pattern of the Downtown Plan. At some point, through political intervention and otherwise, it was taken away from citizens and thrown to the Bureau of Planning to flesh it out. The Bureau of Planning, then, basically did what planning bureaus do. They looked at it as a regulatory thing as opposed to a vision thing. It was developed mostly as a set of regulations as opposed to an overall vision. They moved away from citizen-based planning, although they did a lot of workshops, to make a hybrid between professional and citizen planners.
What I’m concerned about is what the Central City Plan does and doesn’t do.
It doesn’t necessarily look at lessons learned and the future structure of the city. It’s, ‘What did we do before?’ It’s a good plan, but it’s not about vision. If you go back to the first Downtown Plan, it was just a very simple diagram, and it had a set of design guidelines that were true guidelines, maybe 20 or 22, saying, ‘This is the way we’d like to see you operate and perform.’ That served as the basis for design review going forward. When the Central City plan came in, the Bureau of Planning wrote a specification about how the city might develop. That was in some places not right, especially not in the Pearl District. They envisioned a five-story Pearl, and developers decided that wasn’t they wanted. How the new plan came together, I know there are some innovative people working on it. But I do know the plan is far more political. The residents here are complaining about height in South Waterfront. Everyone’s kind of focused not on the city as a whole but their piece of property.
It’s tied to the Comprehensive Plan, too. They’re going to redo that, and have to every five years according to Oregon statute. The difference between a visionary plan and things like the Comprehensive Plan is that they’re static. You can change it with amendments or going around the zoning. And yet truly visionary plans really try to set more of the context of what is going on, and what the desired outcomes might be. They should be much more performance-based than prescriptive. That is hard to do with populations that are, again, protecting what they know and being able to visualize what could be. To me, that’s what you get out of travel: you see what is possible. It opens your eyes to what can be done.
One of the big things developers work with is the cost of money. And money is cheap at this point. When you’re talking about percentage points that are double what they were in 1980 or ’82 is when the economy went bonkers. We were a young firm and we had something like $50 million worth of work on the boards. Within a month it went away. You’re just watching the rates go up: 18 percent, 19 percent. Most developers just said, ‘The hell with this.’
And today things aren’t dissimilar. We’re in a constant boom-bust-boom cycle.
It was not lessons learned. It was, ‘We’ll use the same formulas and do the same thing we did before.’ To me one of the most interesting things that came out of the bust and the Great Recession was the reorganization of the construction industry. We lost a lot of our smaller contractors and subcontractors. In the design industry, think of what it did to a whole generation of architects. There isn’t a firm in town that isn’t hungering for architects of 40, 45 with a ton of experience under their belt. That generation went on to do other things.
Could you talk about the legacy of design competitions in Portland? I was troubled by certain recent projects that could have used them, like the new courthouse for Multnomah County. It was so rigged to pick local firms that world-class firms like OMA (Rem Koolhaas) and Skidmore, Owings & Merrill weren’t even shortlisted. That seems provincial to me, and speaks to the need for a well-managed competition.
Let me precede this by saying I don’t sell design competitions. There are a lot of times when they’re not appropriate, like when a sponsor is looking for free work. They are appropriate when you’re looking for ideas, and ways to approach a situation differently than you normally would.
The work in St. Louis I’ve been involved with for redoing the whole Gateway Arch grounds, which is just about finished—about $400 million, $250 of it private—the thing that came out of that, that one of the chief authors of the process championed: he was convinced that a design competition would bring forth ideas they would not normally get with a straight RFP. The competition I’m working on with the Greenway is the same thing. They looked at an RFP. But they said no. I think what competitions give you is an opportunity to see a project through a different lens.
What we work for is getting the very best designers that we can, whether that’s local or international and national, or teams, and give them the problem with as few constraints as we can. It doesn’t mean that they will come up with what the select design is. But you’ll have a group of four or five different looks at a project. From that you learn an awful lot. In our competitions, whether you’re a juror or a sponsor, everyone comes out of it learning something.
I heard about the Multnomah County Courthouse after the fact. And I agree completely. I think that was a missed opportunity. It’s not that it won’t be a great building done by a local form. But what the opportunity might have been to put that into a competitive situation: a good example is Wayne Morse US Courthouse down in Eugene. We had a competition to develop that. At the time you’d never go and hire Morphosis straight out. Or you might now. But when you looked at the competition entries, the Morphosis one was the only one that took a courthouse apart and redefined it. I go up to the post office property again. I just think that that should be a competition, whether it’s a master-planning competition or something else.
And on your watch, design competitions are not just places where we create icons or memorials. It's also about interstitial spaces and how they work together, right? It reminds me of a column I wrote last year discussing four opportunity areas around the Broadway Bridge—the Rose Quarter, the Blanchard Portland Public Schools site, the post office and Centennial Mills—but no one was looking at them collectively.
We did a competition not long ago for Kendall Square in Cambridge north of MIT. That’s their innovation quarter. Through development agreements with these multinational research companies that are there, they ended up being gifted essentially four different park sites within this area. Working with the City of Cambridge, to say, ‘Let’s create a design competition for a framework plan,’ it was based on the experience here in Portland of Pioneer Courthouse Square. We felt it was our living room. We realized we wear it out and sometimes it isn’t available. In the core right now we’re dealing with Pioneer Square and Director Park and then the Park Blocks. You’re really talking about a series of spaces. They don’t each have to be the same thing. They can take on different functions. So we said, ‘Let’s do a framework plan through design competition.’ We wound up with this concept of how you glue these spaces together. Which brings me back to here. What our planning here needs to do is not necessarily think about what the icon of the place is but how it connects. Your idea of four opportunity areas [at the Broadway Bridgehead] is right on. But it’s not a time right now when they’re thinking into the future.
What about the role of architects and designers as activists?
When the Downtown Plan was put together, about half the advisory committees were made of architects and designers. Who are the activist designers today? Stuart Emmons is one of the only people who comes to mind. Others come and go. But very few are willing to become an active part of the discussion. Portland really needs to step up and be a leader. I think we get too insular here when we’re looking at our own little backyard as opposed to asking how we as Portlanders or Oregonians can impact or help other cities become better places.
I wrote something for The Downtowner 30 years ago. I wrote, ‘Portland has to avoid becoming a boutique city.’ You become insular and you become blinded to what other issues are that have to do with building cities. We really had to take a much broader look at the city: how it operates, how it functions, and be transformative in terms of what should be done for the future. Frankly I don’t think that has changed. Maybe we have become a boutique city. But we still have this very provincial attitude about Portland as an island as opposed to a beam of light.
Besides the official work you’ve done—the architecture, the urban design, the competitions—you have also been instrumental in helping to bring some world-class architects to Portland, such as Snøhetta (to design the James Beard Public Market) and Behnisch Architekten (to design PSU’s Karl Miller Center). Portland doesn’t necessarily need a starchitect like Frank Gehry or Jean Nouvel to come here, but those two firms are good fits. Could you talk about those efforts?
When I do that, it’s with the feeling they will make a difference here but can work within the culture of Portland, and that Portland can learn from these people. It’s very purposeful.
When I went to Snøhetta, we’d worked with them on the National Mall. I said, ‘You guys are kind of Portland guys. You ought to come and talk and share some of your ideas going forward.’ One of the things I’ve been able to do has a lot to do with these kinds of contacts that I’ve made throughout the world, really, and how you make the connections, say, between local situations and what some of these people represent. You don’t necessarily need starchitects coming to town. But you need people who can take us up a notch or two going forward.
When I look at the different types of work you’ve done, and the civic efforts you’ve been a part of, the word “connector” comes to mind as something that unites everything: connecting people to their city or community, connecting designers with the right project.
I think you’ve kind of nailed it. Making the connections, connecting people, connecting projects, connecting design within the projects: it’s a lot of it.
When we closed the firm [StastnyBrun Architects] I said, ‘What really intrigues me, and gets my juices going?’ I realized it was this idea of creativity. It didn’t matter if it was creativity of process, of building, of a piece of art. If you’re able to be creative, or work in a creative field, that is the juice that makes life rewarding. I think what I do, especially with competitions, is to create an environment for others to be creative—and to give them the opportunity to do their best work.