BY JENNIFER WRIGHT
Our continuing series looking at local architects through their loves, work and mentors continues with architect Nat Slayton, a principal at ZGF Architects. With a degree in Russian Literature, pursuing a career in architecture seemed an unlikely jump. Yet this unpredictable background and the willingness to tackle complex design challenges throughout his career has given Nat the ability to successfully navigate projects at a variety of scales. In his current role at ZGF his projects range from mixed-use residential like the Emery Apartments on the South Waterfront to public projects such as the Multnomah County Health Department Headquarters. Previous to his decade-long relationship with ZGF, Nat worked with high profile firms on the East Coast and Europe including legendary Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas. The opportunities of an international portfolio have allowed Nat to visit places worldwide and provided a broad perspective to reference in his work. Yet much of his inspiration is derived from his personal travels and a lifelong love of the outdoors. Having recently returned from a two-week road trip through Mexico with his family exploring Mayan history, it’s clear that Nat prioritizes personal experience as the ultimate form of education.
Portland Architecture: When did you become interested in architecture as a possible career?
I grew up in Eugene in a family with artists, academics, carpenters, and loggers. As a kid I was always expected to have many interests and to value people who made things as much as people who thought about things. When my parents moved to new houses they would immediately begin transforming them with unending remodels. My brother and I were expected to help with both the construction and the design potential: materials, precedents we liked, and creatively stretching the dollars. My parents had a marvelous consistency in finding houses and circumstances beyond our means. I don’t know when I became interested in architecture as a career, but a childhood of moving between unfinished projects — the architectural gems that bankrupted us, the gutted bungalows — was likely the beginning. All this may have led to this career path; it could also be that architecture is my way of avoiding more serious commitments, because it allows me to be interested in everything, and expertly competent at almost nothing.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I didn’t study architecture as an undergraduate. I attended the Honors College at the University of Oregon and had a liberal arts education with a lot of history, literature and biology courses that eventually ended with a degree in Russian literature. The Russian department was next to the architecture school and I often found myself taking advantage of the catering at terminal thesis presentations. After graduating I drifted, first as a carpenter on an island off the coast in Maine, then spending a year traveling in China and biking across Tibet.
At some point I decided to apply to graduate school and wound up at Harvard. I was there for four years because I had no formal background in architecture and immediately found myself in a kind of brutal design boot camp. Drawing was emphasized: we had morning freehand and descriptive geometry classes, afternoon was history and critical theory and then four hours of studio to launch us into the caffeinated small hours. One of my strongest memories is of a surreal conversation a classmate and I had with a homeless man in Harvard Square at dawn after pulling an all-nighter. He asked us why we kept running into him at late hours; we said we were architecture students at the GSD and he said he once was too. I had a lot of great instructors — Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, Nader Tehrani, Alberto Kalach, Rafael Moneo — and humblingly talented classmates.
My thesis year was spent doing a studio guided by Koolhaas called the ‘Project on the City.’ The idea was to work with a small group of fellow students looking at an emerging urban condition. We focused on Lagos, Nigeria: the formal and informal urban networks, colonial and postcolonial modernism, Eastern Bloc expat architects, and the consequences of waves of interventions by multinational firms and planning personalities. After graduating I wound up continuing on with the research with one of my classmates and Rem. We went to Nigeria a couple of times, put together some public presentations and spent almost two years researching in various archives and eventually building a perpetually dormant book. I’ve got a closet full of slides and early drafts to show for the effort.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
About 12 years ago I started working on a building for my parents on an oak bluff south of Eugene. They had decided to move out of town, my mom was retiring, and they were interested in building a structure that would combine a woodshop, library, and art studio space with a living space that would have flexibility for visiting family. The site is fantastic: about a thousand feet off the valley floor, on small chaparral bench, with madrones, oaks and a clearing that orients to views of the coast range and the setting sun.
The scheme became a perimeter of four rectangular rooms, separated by four covered outdoor spaces between them. These spaces were all placed between two unifying horizontals: a fir plank floor and a structural grid of exposed ‘in-plane’ heavy timber joists. The idea was to avoid a hierarchy between the interior and exterior rooms, to do a building with no circulation space, what someone once called a mashup between a nine-square villa, a hacienda and farmhouse. The four corner rooms are each joined overhead by a 12-foot tall timber lantern at the center of the building, overlapping at the four corners to allow sunlight into each room. The woodshop is in this tall volume; it can be completely opened up to the exterior and framed by each room, or it can be closed off to allow the living spaces — library, studio, living and bedroom — to circle around it.
The project took several years to build because it had basically no budget and my dad had his hands in almost everything. He cut the trees on the property and found a person to site mill the timber into joists, posts, roof planking and siding. He made all the windows and doors, including a pair of extraordinary eight-foot-wide swinging glass doors that allow the dining room to open on to the meadow. The building is in part about framing a relationship with the climate and landscape of the Willamette Valley. I’ve never sought to have it professionally photographed or published; it is a very personal project built to allow the people I most love an opportunity to age as gracefully as possible together.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
After graduate school I was asked by Rem to work at AMO, a mirror to the Office of Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) focused on fantasy and conjecture. There were four of us who were hired to start a stateside branch, based initially out of Rem’s faculty office in Cambridge. He had been asked by Harvard University to come up with a scenario for a new expanded campus on the Boston side of the Charles River.
The effort lasted just over a year and the proposal we came up with and ultimately proposed was to redirect the river so that Harvard’s new territory wouldn’t have to leave Cambridge, we’d just distort the map. It was absurd, Rem loved it, and the client said thank you and buried it. My colleagues and former classmates — Jeannie Kim, Hunter Tura, Kate Orff — were some of greatest people I’ve ever worked with. We had no idea what we were doing. We had no address, lived out of suitcases and couch-surfed and between Rotterdam, New York and Boston. Working with them taught me how creative recklessness provides its own self-legitimizing agency. We really had no business doing what we were doing but that was the point; it somehow gave us license to access people who otherwise wouldn’t (and probably shouldn’t) have given us the time of day.
Another mentor was my grandfather, Philip Dole: a long-time architecture professor at the University of Oregon, starting in 1956. He loved literature, would read all of Jane Austin’s books annually, loved to talk politics, art history, and gardening. He kept notebooks on rural carpentry and family history and was a prolific letter writer with file cabinets full of correspondence with people like Alvin Boyarsky, Don Lyndon and the descendants of significant pioneer families. He taught me that to be interested in architecture meant, to a great extent, to be interested in everything.
What part of the job do you like best and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
Architecture is a strange profession; we’re constantly being put in positions where we are exposed for what we don’t know. In many ways architects are hustlers and improvisers, having to align other people’s various fields of expertise with someone else’s ambitions and resources. What I do now is not so different from my first job with AMO. There is a daily ‘into the void’ in simply showing up to work, where each day brings new domains of exploration, unexpected collaborations and a hundred little crises. I’ve found that what I enjoy most is the part of the project that requires building the relationships that ultimately build a building. One of my past employers once told me that ‘architecture is organization.’ Architecture gives us the station to organize space, materials, and program: to do our best to coordinate resources and schedules, prudence and crazy ideas. There is something gratifying in the fact that knowing a little about a lot is a good place to be.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
The Watzek House, which is often mentioned for how it creates different scales of relationships to the landscape. When I’ve visited I’m most struck by the interiors, by the strength and richness of the rooms themselves. The shifts between formality and informality, material exuberance and austerity. There are spaces where the orthographic plan governs the experience, where the drawing itself seems legible and almost overt. There are other spaces that turn this kind of reading on its head and seem almost like they are products of theater, where the experience is built with layers of surprise, manipulations of color, unexpected scales, profiles and textures. It is a complicated building, done by a young architect, normally a pretty inauspicious combination.
I’m also pretty fond of some of the pioneer houses south of town. The William Case house and David Zumwalt house, for example, are incredible buildings: simple structures of limited means hacked out of the frontier wilderness. You expect primitive huts but you find domestic temples. The plans are beautiful, the detailing inventive and generous. There is still a huge inventory of strong rural architecture out there with every bit as much invention and often far more delicacy than a lot of what gets built in our cities now.
I’ve always been partial to the Standard Plaza building by Nathaniel Owings of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The project’s “inverted podium” is a beautiful, if somewhat flawed, idea about how a tower can engage a sloping street. The building has a proportional and somewhat sublime elegance that contrasts with what is a pretty radical site response. It has become an aberration, and violates just about every central city guideline we are now asked to respect.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any that you’ve worked on?
My family goes to a small coastal town in Maine every summer. There is a 200-year-old whaling captain's house in the village of Wiscasset called Castle Tucker that overlooks a harbor. The building is an anomalous distortion of styles and geometries in a New England town made up of mostly austere Federalist architecture. It has a clumsy but interesting plan: a cube-shaped second floor parlor with enormous triple hung windows supported by formal semi-circular masonry service wings and informal wooden farmhouse ”tail”. The architecture is complicated and seemingly out of place, crafted by shipwrights and furnished with an incongruity you’d expect from an owner that must have been one of the more well-traveled of his century.
Further up the coastline, Ed Barnes’ Haystack Art School on Deer Isle is another favorite. It is a breathtaking mid-century shingled ‘campus on a cliff’ that supports creative endeavors in a series of connected sheds, boardwalks and decks. All the structures are posted up just above the forest floor like a boats in a modernist marina. There are many buildings that are in the favorites collection - Ulrich Franzen’s house for his family is another that I find myself looking at regularly.
Is there a local architect or firm that you think is unheralded or deserves more attention?
Although I’d like to pass on this one, I would say Doug Minarik has been doing work that is worth more attention. I’d also say that the work of people like Julie Livingston is relatively unheralded – she does fantastic work pushing what is possible with limited budgets and big aspirations as a project manager at Home Forward and also somehow finds time to serve on the Portland Design Commission.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I think there could be a stronger collective idea about the value of Portland’s unbuilt environment. Growing up in Eugene, I spent most of my summers exploring the Willamette. Portland’s riverfront is one of few places between the Pacific Ocean and Waldo Lake in the Cascades where the river is substantially divorced from the shoreline. As soon as you head upstream or downstream the river is unrecognizable. It’s easy to get nostalgic when looking at the vitality of the river in historical images; the spaces are very inert now. There have been a couple of recent projects brought to ZGF that suggest that there is a will to find new ways to imagine what the riverfront can be. It would also be interesting to consider how Forest Park’s relationship to Portland will evolve. I love that the park doesn’t necessarily have an end; it isn’t circumscribed by the city that calls it its own. Like the river, it seems like there are alternative futures that could be imagined for how the park and city engage one another.
How would you rate the performance of the local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
Many people who answer this question seem to have talked about the performance of the Design Commission rather than the Development Commission. The Development Commission has certainly played a central role in transforming our most urban conditions — much of ‘old Portland’ — into what it is today. For better or for worse, Portland is a more genteel, more expensive and more dense city because of the PDC’s efforts over the past couple decades.
On the other hand, I think the city bureaus do a tremendous amount of more subtle and often very good work, much of it unrecognized. BES [Bureau of Environmental Services], for example, has undertaken amazing initiatives recently restoring riparian habitats and urban watersheds. We have salmon returning to urban streams, we have urban geographies being defined in terms of the vitality of non-urban habitats; BES and BPS [Bureau of Planning and Sustainability] have expanded the context for architectural projects, positioning work in terms of urban hydrological flows and local ecologies. All these bureaus have been stretched recently with what’s becoming an unprecedented load but continue to push what the city can be.
Is there a famous architect you would like to see do work here in Portland?
I would like to see Portland engage more outside firms to give speculative and inventive thought to our wild areas, industrial waterfronts and density questions — someone like James Corner of Field Operations, or Kate Orff of Scape Studio. The scope of what is possible with infill housing and near paralysis in substantively reimagining residential density could benefit from an example set by Atelier Bow-Wow, Sou Fujimoto or any number of Japanese practices. Zhang Ke, a young architect in Beijing, has done a number of really interesting infill projects as does Vo Trong, the Vietnamese architect. I don’t think I’m the only Portland architect watching what’s going on in much of urban Asia now with a bit of envy.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of?
I like simple stuff made out of clay. I also love the digital fabulations my son Charlie comes up with in Minecraft.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
Not really a movie person but tend to fall back on The Big Lebowski as a portrait of a city, of urban languor and the millennial update to the great American western. Lately I’ve been clearing my head watching lo-fi street skate videos by Peter Sidlauskas and also really love the early Spike Jonze skateboarding shorts of people like Mark Gonzales tearing through cities like I wish I could.