BY BRIAN LIBBY
Although all buildings are basically some variation on four walls and a roof, you never know what part of a design, if any, will stand out and why. Some architecture is successful because it's designed from the inside-out, considering function over form. Other buildings make pretty objects: nice to look at like a piece of sculpture from outside but unremarkable on the inside.
When I first arrived for a tour of the new Canopy by Hilton Pearl District, a 153-room, 10-story hotel on NW Ninth Avenue and Glisan Street in the Pearl District, I wanted to get inside as soon as humanly possible because of the summer heat. The air conditioning thankfully seemed to work despite their leaving the doors open, but in my grenade-pin's-been-pulled haste to escape the outdoor conditions, I initially skipped over what turned out to be my favorite aspect of the design: its facade. Luckily Josh Peacock and Amy Perenchio from ZGF Architects, which designed the exterior of the building, were there to take me on a tour.
The facade alternates strips of floor-to-ceiling glass with panels of aluminum that have been given a custom "print," as it's called, that makes it resemble bronze, with an earthy sheen. Working with a Minnesota-based supplier called Pure + FreeForm to adapt a material process that originated in Japan. The panels are crinkled every seven-eighths of an inch, which creates a subtle pattern of light and shadow on the exterior. That made the product more expensive, so the architects chose a thinner gauge. Since visiting the project, I've compared the panels to Ruffles potato chips and to the filter for my apartment's furnace. Neither comparison is quite right, but the fact that the panels are visually interesting enough to prompt such comparison says something in and of itself. Let's just say the crinkle was worth it.
There is also an interesting pattern to the aluminum and windows, which seems to be part of a kind of architectural conversation with the building across the street. Completed in 2007, the 937 Condominiums by Holst Architecture (with Ankrom Moisan) feature a pattern of differently sized windows set against creamy brick, with the slenderness of the 16-story tower giving the whole package a blend of elegance and kinetics. My understanding is that here too there is a pattern, but 937's windows can appear to be random unless one really concentrates to crack the code.
Canopy's facade pattern appears simpler, but it's still successful as a blend of order and variation. After the concrete base, the second and third floors are one pattern, the fourth through seventh floors another, and so on up to the 10th. Yet even then the aluminum panels are angled slightly differently. I found myself staring at it for quite a while.
Inside the hotel, I was surprised how small the lobby and front desk are. There's only one kiosk and the space itself seems not much bigger than a master bedroom. But it's a relatively moot point, because the lobby is really part of one combined larger space with a coffee bar, dining room and sitting area that extends just beyond. Along Glisan Street, the glass walls can be retracted so these spaces open up to the street for an indoor-outdoor feel — something I would have enjoyed if it wasn't 500 degrees that day.
Yet amidst the wide volume of these potentially lively gathering spaces, there is also here a glass-walled quiet area for guests who want to be a bit more removed from the fray. There's also a sunken double-height space in the back. The main portions of the building are L-shaped, but in this back area behind the tower, the design cuts down into what would be a subterranean space and then put skylights over the combined two-story volume.
Overall the interior design seems nice enough, especially as it's augmented by a series of artworks from the Elizabeth Leach Gallery next door, long one of the city's best. Mark Zeff (I just can't bring myself to say or write MARKZEFF more than I have to) employed a variety of area rugs to add warmth and color to the concrete-floored architecture, while the furniture seems like a contemporary spin on midcentury-modern.
The press release describes the interior design as locally inspired, which probably means they think the concrete is a nod to the Pearl's industrial past while the use of wood for a table or chair pays homage to Oregon's forest. It just feels like a corporate hotel to me — simpler a little bit nicer and more upscale one than, say, a Holiday Inn. I read recently that the wave of hotels opened in Portland recently means (as may competition from Airbnb) that per-hotel room occupancy levels are down but that revenue per room is up. This just seems like a corporate brand catering to a slightly more upscale demographic.
Personally, I like independent hotels best, but in certain circumstances I'm not unwilling to try a chain when I travel. I very well might recommend a hotel like this to a friend or relative, not only because the ambiance is decent but more to the point because it's a nice Pearl District location that might offer more dining and arts options than staying in certain parts of downtown and certainly more of a real urban feel than staying in the Lloyd District, where several hotels are also located.
Our building tour's last stop was a lovely little penthouse, a glass cube set back from the rest of the facade to allow a small public area. I'm not sure I would have chosen to put a gym there, even though sweating on an elliptical machine with a view of the skyline must be a lot better than staring at a row of TVs at 24 Hour Fitness.
The inside of this hotel may not have been designed by ZGF, but it's ultimately the architectural moves that I still liked best inside: the disappearing glass wall on the ground floor, the double-height space tucked into the back, and the penthouse. Really when I think of this Canopy in the future, though, I'll think of the facade: its materials, its patterning.
ZGF is such a big firm that their portfolio can vary quite a bit depending which office in which city is doing the designing, or even what group within the Portland office. The last building by this firm that I visited was also in the Pearl, but not one of my favorites: the NV Apartments. There too it's the facade that is the story, but not as successful: a shiny wrapping-paper-like material going up the corners of the tower. On the other hand, I can't wait to see ZGF's recent work at the Nike campus, which looks stunning, or its renovation of the Portland International Airport.
Canopy by Hilton is just one of many new hotels that have come online in recent months or are just about to.
A block away from the hotel I visited was another one: a Hampton Inn & Suites. (But so far not many are in the Pearl.) While downtown I've often passed the new AC Hotel by Marriott and the new Porter hotel, which is yet another Hilton offshoot. Honestly I've found most of these hotels to be pretty boring. It's not to say that they need some showy architectural feature to catch the eye, but most of them feel like unremarkable corporate cookie-cutter buildings.
And unfortunately some of my favorite existing hotels, ones in lovely old downtown buildings—hotels like The Heathman, The Sentinel, Hotel Lucia and Hotel DeLuxe that are part of the Provenance Hotels group—can now be connected with the Trump administration. Earlier this year the CEO of Provenance Hotels, Gordon Sondland, accepted an appointment from the Trump administration to be America's ambassador to the European Union. I've always loved Provenance's properties and the way they restore old buildings, and Sondland himself is respectable. But the move made me question whether I'd want to give the company my business. Honestly I'm not sure what the answer is. Besides, it's rarely black and white. Hilton, which obviously owns the Canopy brand, runs one property called Hilton Grand Vacations Club at Trump International Hotel in Las Vegas.
In the meantime, back to architecture. Canopy by Hilton in the Pearl won't necessarily blow anyone's mind. It's not about that. To do so would be to create something too showy. Instead, this is a fabric building and a good one at that. Sometimes it's enough just to be handsome and to do some little things well, like an interesting facade and some big naturally-lit interior spaces.