BY BRIAN LIBBY
Each year Architect magazine, the official publication of the American Institute of Architects, publishes a list of the top 50 firms in the United States. And while Portland is only the 20th-largest metropolitan area in the United States, the magazine this month named Portland firm ZGF Architects as tops nationally.
What does the list mean, and how is it calculated? It seems to be a combination of business and financial success mixed with achievement in design and sustainability. The magazine cited ZGF's 17 percent increase in net revenue in 2015, and its "relentless push for higher building performance," with managing partner Ted Hyman telling interviewer Amanda Hurley, “They feed off of each other. If we can show [clients] we’re bringing value in terms of design, it affects the bottom line. It takes care of itself.” Hurley also notes that ZGF recently brought in a chief financial officer who previously worked for two law firms and a new “chief people officer” to spearhead talent development.
At the same time, a number of major ZGF projects have come to a head, either recently completed or about to be, such as a major expansion of the Nike campus in Beaverton, a new cancer center for the University of Arizona, the J. Craig Venter Institute for genomics research in La Jolla, California outside San Diego, and offices for the Rocky Mountain Institute in Colorado, not to mention landmarks of recent years like the Federal Center South project in Seattle. And the firm has a long history, dating to 1942, with a host of important Portland buildings and structures.
"The firm practices with imagination and finesse," wrote Architizer's Eric Baldwin in a recent tribute.
When I sat down recently with two ZGF partners, Kathy Berg and Jan Willemse, they offered a mix of pride in the achievement with an acknowledgement that lists can be a bit superficial or subject to an infinite number of different calculations.
"After it was announced someone at the firm said to me, ‘What does this mean? What did we do?’ I said, ‘It’s pretty opaque,’" Willemse recalls. "You get the survey and fill it out and you give them this information, and list projects that have been completed. But it’s not entirely clear the weighting of the questions and answers and categories: business, sustainability and design. It’s some average of those. I’m not sure which counts for more or less. I do know we’ve been in the past ranked in the top 10 a few times. We’re used to being recognized, even when from year to year the questions shift. Were we surprised? Yeah. You never know."
"I think it puts us in good stead," Berg says. "There are a lot of other good firms on the list. When I looked at the questions, I was encouraged that what we’re spending a lot of time looking at, Architect was too. We’re talking about relevant topics for our firm and our employees. That to me is a good sign."
How much of the ranking is about design? "Architect is AIA sponsored. It’s probably a more balanced evaluation of things than you’d get out of more of an aesthetically driven magazine that’s looking for visual aspects for buildings, and questions about business aren’t a part of the equation," Willemse says. "This is a balanced look across these levels: with people, with clients, with business numbers. Aesthetics, beauty and meaning will always drive our business. They’re prerequisites. You have to focus on those or you won’t survive. But can you take care of your people? Can you watch the bottom line, while serving your clients and community well?"
Berg says what she found the most exciting was "being recognized for design and sustainability. I think the industry is moving away from the idea that they are mutually exclusive. Sustainable design can create incredibly beautiful solutions. I think people can really see that."
"Some sustainable projects are a bit awkward," Willemse added somewhat sheepishly. We agreed on some major, high-profile green projects of recent years in both Seattle and Portland, some completed and some unbuilt, that were categorically ugly despite meeting rigid sustainability strictures like the Living Building Challenge. "You don’t want to bash them. But as a profession we do want to believe you can create beautiful things that are sustainable."
I've long felt that ZGF is that rare firm that seems to transcend the industry's traditional distinction between "service firm" (able to win big commissions based on having done other big commissions in the past) and "design firm" (noted for its quality creations and awards but without much practical big-job experience). Berg and Willemse believe that stems from the firm's culture, and the influence of longtime partners like Robert Frasca (the 'F' in ZGF). "There’s this ethos that a project can always be better," Berg says.
Berg also cited the firm's success with trying new project types. "There isn’t a sense here that we just do health care or campus buildings or corporate offices. When we did the Portland International Airport expansion, it was one of the first airports we’d done," she explains. "When we did Doernbecher, it was one of our first children’s hospitals. We get some of the best projects in our portfolio doing that type for the first time or working for a new client for the first time. We spend a lot of time making sure the client wants to go on a fantastic journey with us."
"It’s contextual as opposed to formulaic, and all of that really originated with Frasca," Willemse adds. "It’s kind of quintessentially Portland in that you make do with what you’ve got. This was never a heavy industry driven place or an economic center. I think that allowed the firm to continually try different kinds of projects. The Vollum Institute was our first of that type. Frasca designed what’s called the interaction stair: the idea that you’d create casual collisions if you actually took some speace and said peole are going to run into each other here, and foster new ideas. You now see that everwhere. It’s the principles of how human beings utilize their space moving through their day when they have choice to be connected. Those principles drive the work, not necessarily an aesthetic."
"It’s also about the quality of the detailing, and just the craft of making," Willemse adds. "That goes to stewardship of resources, whether it’s the physical or the client’s money. Frasca always loved doing institutional work, so our muscle memory became about createing 50 or 100-year-old buildings. That’s not the same mentality you get from, say, developer-driven work. It creates a quality of intention." ZGF has gone on to do a lot of developer-driven work, of course, like the 12 West building in which the company's headquarters is situated; it was developed by the city's most prominent developer, Gerding Edlen. But Gerding Edlen also has a commitment to sustainability that is seemingly as strong as its need to make a profit.
Berg and Willemse also stress the everyday firm culture and its attention to detail. "That’s what I joined the firm for: the attention to detail," Willemse says. "My bosses like Frasca used to say, 'We want it to pass the 500-foot test and the five-foot test."
"I remember coming to the firm, and ZGF was the first I'd worked at that said, 'We don’t copy details. You re-draw it, and understand how it applies to this project, and you make it better," Berg recalls. "We don’t copy for the sake of efficiency. We build on it and make it better. You won’t see the same details on project. Brooks [Gunsul, the 'G' in ZGF] was very adamant that you don’t copy and paste."
The two partners also talked about how the look of ZGF's buildings has evolved with changing times and material technologies. Works of the Reagan-Bush era like the KOIN tower, the Justice Center and the Oregon Convention Center, all with more masonry on the exterior than glass, look very different from the firm's more glassy 21st century projects. Particularly since the arrival of projects like the Eliot condos in the West End, or the aforementioned 12 West, one can associate ZGF in this Eugene Sandoval era (to name a key ZGF partner and leader of recent years) with glass as much as any material.
"As we’ve brought in new blood to the firm, things are going to evolve naturally," Willemse says. "In the ‘80s, where postmodern was on its last legs but there were residual elements you see in buildings like the KOIN center, they were of their time and place. But I don’t think there’s a panelize brick manufacturer left in the Northwest today."
"And some of what we do with glazing now," Berg adds, "the technology didn’t exist in the ‘80s: the giant pieces of glass we can get from China and the unitized curtain walls."
"Has ZGF evolved into just better design? I think in many respects that goal of a certain quality of timelessness has remained, as has a commitment to a quality of craft," Willemse says. "But it has evolved over time with the technology available and the staff? Is there a difference now? Sure."
By no means is every ZGF building a masterpiece. The Randall Children's Hospital is, while great functionally, not exactly a looker. And take the NV, a new 26-story condo in the Pearl District by the firm's Seattle office, which at least to my eyes looks both banal and, thanks to some loud patterning on one corner of the facade, quite unattractive and even trite. I'd take the much-maligned Yard tower over this building. But for every NV there are a host of very fine and timeless ZGF buildings, not just from recent years but over the decades.
In a way, I think the KOIN Center is indicative of ZGF's enduring quality as much as its impressive and highly sustainable green projects. There is so much postmodern and neo-historic architecture of the 1980s that hasn't aged well at all. But KOIN has a timeless quality that transcends 1980s style; it's almost like a brick-clad Chrysler Building in how it elegantly tapers towards the top.
When I think of ZGF over the years, I also think one of their best works is not a building per se: the canopy at Portland International Airport. ZGF's fingerprint is all over that airport, from expanded concourses to the innovative Port of Portland headquarters there next to the parking garages to even the MAX train leading there (the firm designed many of its stations). But being under that glass canopy is always a thrilling moment. Whenever I'm about to fly out or I'm there picking someone up, I almost always stop and marvel at the sensation of being underneath a glass roof bigger than a couple of football fields. It's functional — the roof is there to keep the rain off us without compromising the light — and yet it brings a sense of wonder.
What does the future hold in Portland for the firm?
Despite its tremendous success both business-wise and architecturally, the firm's true roots lie in civic and institutional projects, like the Oregon Convention Center and Doernbecher Children's Hospital. But Portland lacks the public and private wealth of other major cities that is often necessary to make such works happen regularly. Hence ZGF's strong presence outside the city with offices in several cities. But there is more to be done here of that scale. I'll bet ZGF would have done a better-looking and more Portland-appropriate headquarters hotel by the Convention Center than Metro is about to get. OHSU is also expanding steadily onto its South Waterfront campus, which seems tailor made for the firm. And as a longtime proponent of Veterans Memorial Coliseum restoration, I'd be happier seeing ZGF on the job than a firm that would mistakenly put too much of its own fingerprint on Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's masterful original 1960 design.
And with one of the biggest waves of new construction the city has seen in a century, I expect to see a host of new ZGF office buildings and condos appear in the ensuing years as well. Chances are when they come, they won't necessarily get as much attention as bolder competing works by other firms, but these buildings will endure and exhibit a sense of quality craftsmanship, sustainable performance and restrained handsomness that will mean architecture critics and passers-by of 2076 will appreciate them as much of those of us in 2016.