BY BRIAN LIBBY
The drought is over. A whopping eighteen years after completing its last entirely ground-up new construction project in central-city Portland, the 2281 NW Glisan building just of 23rd Avenue, a building designed by Portland's most acclaimed architecture firm of its time, Allied Works, is set to rise again.
Make no mistake: the firm founded by Brad Cloepfil has been productive since that building was completed. 2281 Glisan arrived in 2000 the same year as the project that put Allied Works on the map: the Wieden + Kennedy headquarters. Together they helped propel the firm to a host of acclaimed projects around the country, mostly art museums: the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, an expansion of the Seattle Art Museum, the Museum of Art & Design in New York City, and the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver, among others. And in the last few years, Allied has seen a number of projects completed in the broader Portland area, including a tasting room for the Sokol Blosser winery in Yamhill County and two great renovations: one of the circa-1916 federal building at 511 Broadway for the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and another of the circa-1948 Pietro Belluschi designed Oregonian building. More recently, Allied designed an expansion to Providence Park.
Even so, Platform, the speculative office project Allied has designed for local developer Project^PDX, which passed local Design Commission hearings with flying colors, is just the kind of new building that I would have thought there would be ten of in Portland by now. Even compared to Belluschi, who spent two mid-career decades away from Portland while heading the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's school of architecture, Allied has a modest collection of architecture in Portland. But hopefully that will now change.
Platform is an interesting project, too, starting with a challenging site. Situated along Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard just east of the Morrison Bridge, it is bordered to the west by an off-ramp that carries motorists off the bridge and onto MLK. Despite being located in our pedestrian-friendly central city, it's a decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly location, at least along that side of the street. But the architects make a compelling case that the site is also part of an emerging pedestrian boulevard along SE Taylor Street, a midway point between Water Avenue and Washington High School. Then there's the fact that the design seems to at once channel the classically muscular mid-century architecture of Mies van der Rohe and Skidmore, Owings and Merrill while also embracing the current emergence of the open office and extrapolating that trend to a whole-building scale.
Recently I spoke with Allied Works associate principal Brent Linden, a key member of the Platform design team, about the project and about Allied's re-embrace of its home city.
Portland Architecture: it's exciting to see an entirely new building by Allied Works in the central city, but why such a long gap?
Brent Linden: After Wieden + Kennedy, Brad and Allied Works was looking outwards. It had to do with the kinds of projects he wanted to work on: to engage with artists and cultural institutions. There’s only so much of that in Oregon at the time. Really in the past five years we’ve tried to get back into engaging Portland more as a place where we’re creating relationships and being able to do work. Catlin Gable is an example, Sokol Blosser. They’re not in the central city. But it takes it time when for the 15 years plus before that our clients were a national cohort. Our connections have primarily been people who do work nationally and internationally. So we’re excited about this. It just took time. With the Platform project we are working with Tom Cody and project^PDX. It took time to get a relationship with them and gain their confidence and have them want to work with us.
And I love working with them. Going through this process, their commitment to design, their almost aggressive aspiration for bringing a high level of design to the public sphere is incredibly impressive. I’ve been at Allied Works for 15 years. One of the things I’ve learned is it takes tenacity and willfulness to bring architecture to fruition that’s meaningful in any way. Market forces tend to reduce things to a similar level across the board. It really takes both vision and tenacity to do more. There can be a lot of friction in the process. I think Tom is tenacious about creating public space through buildings.
Let’s talk specifically about Platform as it relates to initial conversations with project^ and the design problem: that duality of the thoroughfare bordering the west side of the property but centrally located in a burgeoning district, and with east-west pedestrian connections emerging between Water Avenue and 12th
I presented this project at One City Many Futures [the Design Week Portland trio of events hosted by Randy Gragg]. I think I said there that this is a treacherous site: “You’re taking your life into your own hands.” Just yesterday there was that derailing of the streetcar on that corner, for example. It was right there! Our experience of being on the site, it’s an incredible mix of the scale of the street-it’s not as wide as a highway, but the dual nature of that pedestrian street really tends toward the vehicular speed side. Having something that can ground that spot to allow Taylor to be a street that can serve the pedestrian was a key point of the project. What we’d hope to amplify is that Taylor is the one street between the bridges (Morrison and Hawthorne) with a crosswalk and a light. So for us, feeding it both visually/symbolically and physically/actually seemed like an opportunity. You have the goat blocks on one side, and the businesses along water avenue on the other. It’s like a dumbbell and we can be in between and help raise that energy along Taylor.
The project presented to the Design Commission is apparently the first of what will ultimately be a two-phase project. Could you talk about the second building and its timetable?
The same owner owns both sites, which is how we studied two phases. The original idea was to do both at the same time, but now this first phase will come to full fruition before planning the second. But having those two buildings bracket Taylor, that’s a reason for our entry on Taylor. We effectively capture the street with phase 2 and create twice as much transformation of on the street. It was a fun opportunity to think through at the beginning of the project.
I think a chorus lends a much greater richness and tone to any piece. Having multiple voices would be super strong. But these two buildings, they will have the same note. I think being able to create that room, it’s one design. The buildings may be physically separate, but they are going to be engaged in a way that you’re going to enter the same space.
It’s doubling the place-making.
To me the brilliance of Allied Works is how the firm's designs often seem to be about what's taken away as much as what's added. I like how the form of Platform (the first phase) seems to carve public space out of what might easily have been a building simply built to the property line to maximize leasable space. Could you talk about its configuration?
Looking at this diagram, the design, it’s a series of platforms. “Platform” means it’s whatever people are doing their work on: a digital platform, a stage platform. It’s a place of occupation, be it for performing or coding. This series of platforms vertically are carved into the building. That’s part of the interior experience, and part of the civic exterior experience as well. People exist in this building and though it’s mostly in conditioned space, they’re part of the public realm of the city. It’s about revealing that. Having larger spaces on the second floor makes a captured space giving back some sense of that civic nature of people in the city. Even if you’re physically separate, you’re part of the same community. There’s also just the spatial dynamism of the in-between spaces that we love.
Where does that sense of carving out space come from?
[Artist] Gordon Matta Clark is a seminal precedent for us in place making because of that civic reveal, but also exposing that something is a made thing, a constructed thing. Our Museum of Art and Design project in New York, basically we carved a line into it like cutting up a structure, and what was a normal slab and beam structure became an interwoven cantilevered structure. Standing in that space...I was visiting New York when it was being constructed and once everything was taken out and they’d done that carve. It was jaw-dropping. Being opened up to the city, it’s just a sliver but you’re blown away by how the forms felt just from that simple move. It was very impactful. With Platform we wanted to be able to stand in the ground floor lobby and see somebody working on the eighth floor. It goes from a three-story interior atrium, there’s a bend and it becomes an exterior atrium. I can see up to the platform that comes up on the fifth, seventh and eighth floors and I feel connected to them.
Is that what the market seems to want, given that this is a speculative project?
One of the great things about the current state of office space that we’ve learned is it’s beneficial to have a greater load of communal space. At a certain point it was important to make the greatest lease space amount. Now tenants want their employees to work in communal spaces as well as having a desk. They want that choice. This is not the most efficient layout. That would be a vertical core, totally flat plates. But people want to be able to be outside and to be in communal spaces on different floors. We have spaces to connect with other people. People are demanding that. It’s allowing connected dynamic space to exist, which is cool.
You’re extrapolating the notion of an open office to the building itself.
Totally. From the very beginning with WK, that came out of a daring and aggressively ambitious leader of a company. We have done other corporate headquarters, and we’ve found it’s been easy to work with visionary leaders because they’ll take chances the market won’t take. John jay, the creative director of WK at the time, would say that real estate agents would tell him you’re taking out all this space you can lease. He said that this large atrium space actually makes money by creating a sense of cultural cohesion that’s only available from an atrium that brings people together at many different scales. That visionary group of people were able to bring that to fruition. In a sense they were setting trends that the market has caught up with. We can now bring it to a building scale knowing that people perform well while they’re doing work in a variety of spaces. It’s a fun tether between the two projects. We do a lot of cultural projects. We’ve done a lot of creative workspace projects as well. This Platform project is a spec office space. We don’t know who’s going to be here, but almost everyone at work is a creative individual now. Almost every profession now can be seen as having value added to by how you bring creativity to it.
Brad has always been one to engage with artists and their way of thinking. Their needs have always been natural light, durable materials, dynamic spaces, connections to the outdoors, and places that have different scales. Spatial choice. Sometimes I want an intimate space, and sometimes one that draws awe. Artists, they distill human needs. When they are choosing space, they’re totally the trend setters.
I like the look of the metallic facade combined with the use of wood. Could you talk about the choice of materials?
The basic building material palette is a metal and glass window-wall system. We just finished schematic design. In design development we’ll be developing what these systems are. But the intent is that there is a thick, patinaed metal sensibility to the window system. To give it a feeling of heft. It’s an almost all glass building. Even with the opaque back wall, it has as much transparency as we can get from the code: about 45 percent. We asked ourselves how to get as much feeling of materiality as possible in this condition: the depth of the window system is one way. We want to go back to the 80s and get those deep mullions that were available: 6 inches wide and 10 inches deep. Chunky. Technology hadn’t driven people to thinness then. Now standards dictate a much thinner width. And going after a patina, whether it’s copper or core-ten caps on these windows, that’s the aspiration for a real feeling of materiality.
That’s the main façade, the street façade. In the carved space it’s perforated metal panels and perforated wood screens with a greater warmth. People will be surrounded by plants and these warm materials. It’s grand in scale, but the space can engage the body by the materials you’re surrounded with. As we moved into these atria, having those be a mix of metal and wood will exist, but it should feel like one thing.
What about the structure of the building and how you configure the core?
A-typically for a half block site, we have put the building’s core all the way to one side, the east side, the shared property line. It’s going to be an opaque wall; why not take the major obstruction to having the space feel connected and put it on that wall? It typically works well to put it in the center for lateral structural stability, yes, but because we have a somewhat tall floor to floor height; it doesn’t compromise the amount of light that’s going to get back to the core. We’ve also designed a concrete structural system with the rigid moment frame, so we’re not using the core for lateral structure ether. Moving the core out of the way has allowed for the carve that moves its way up to be impactful in terms of the amount of light and a sense of space that gets in. If it was in the middle the core would be right up against that. It was necessary to make the overall parti work.
The other thing is integrating water treatment planters on these platform levels with giving people a connection to landscape throughout the building. It’s an experiential and an environmental move as well. Those planters clean and filter runoff water and hold it so it can evaporate and not go into the sewer system. There’s enough planters on each level to take the runoff from those above. It’s an experiential landscape element that works pretty seamlessly with the parti of a series of platforms that move up to the top of the building.
Your presentation to the Design Commision talks about a “civic corridor” – a group of quality contemporary buildings in the Central Eastside. Could you talk a little about that?
Works Progress Architecture and Hacker Architects have buildings nearby, both of which are nice designs. That creative design energy is marching itself down the Central Eastside. On MLK, this building is going to be right in your face. It’s a civic gesture: a gateway, an introduction to this area, the Central Eastside, because you come into contact with that directly. It’s like the Burnside bridgehead. Even though we’re not on the Morrison bridgehead literally, the I-5 highway exit bends around and puts you onto MLK, onto Highway 99E, right in front of Platform. We felt it was necessary to be aspirational like those buildings at the bridgehead. I think that was our responsibility here.