BY BRIAN LIBBY
This is a continuation of my discussion with SRG Partnership founding partner Jon Schleuning, FAIA, who recently received the received the 2014 Medal of Honor from the American Institute of Architects' Northwest & Pacific Region. From historic preservation to master planning, architecture to professional leadership, Schleuning has over the past four decades helped make Portland what it is today, and has influenced generations of designers.
Portland Architecture: How has the profession changed over time for you?
Schleuning: The profession is moving in two separate directions. The delivery side is building-focused and moving towards wanting everybody to be together, often in a common physical location. The idea is to get everybody together so we can collectively make more efficient and better decisions. On the design side, we’re at the other extreme, focused on cloud-computing, complex BIM modeling, and interactive video conferencing. The design-based teams want to be more far-reaching and as a result, are more fragmented. In addition, we’re not limited to thinking about individual buildings but larger scale eco-districts and clusters or families of buildings. Todays design challenges emphasize resource conservation and sharing, optimization of current facilities, and strategic densification. Share the energy. Consolidate the water. Thinking in bigger chunks. It’s not only, ‘Here’s the building and we’re on budget and time, but have we used the the resources on hand in an optimal manner? Are we left with 200,000 square feet of vacant space that no one knows what to do with?’ A design team has the responsibility to do more than just design a building, but to seek broader solutions: ‘ why not remodel here and add a new addition her instead. It may be smarter than just a stand-alone new building here.’
SRG previously worked on the restoration of the Washington State Capitol, and now you’re working on a $200 million plan to restore the Oregon state capitol building. Could you talk about that particular opportunity and challenge? How has it made you appreciate the original architecture?
In the early 1970s our office did the planning studies for the new wings on the south side of the State Capitol Building which ZGF designed and implemented in the mid-70’s. Thirty years later, SRG was selected to do a new master plan focused on seismic upgrades and much-needed renovations; and in 2014, our team was chosen to implement many of those recommendations. I have been deeply involved in much of that work; and hopefully the legislature will be supportive. The building needs it.
What is interesting is a major public building, the product of a national design competition, completed in 1938 at the height of the Depression. This followed a fire that had destroyed the previous, very classical and ornate facility. And here, the State of Oregon selects a building design so distinctly modernist and different than anything else. Initially I looked at it and said, ‘Well, it’s kind of a solid, utilitarian piece, neither dramatically handsome nor homely, just matter of fact.’ But the more I work with it, the more pride and respect I have for that building.
The Capitol was completed at the same time Belluschi was doing the [Portland] Art Museum. You see the similarities in terms of the simplicity of the massing, the clarity of the building elements and proportions, and the readability of its purpose and function. . There is a presence and a cadence to it that is really remarkable. There is minimal detail. There’s no base. It’s a modernist building at a pivotal time in architectural history, moving from classicism into modernism. Here is a building so appropriate for the citizens of Oregon. It wasn’t ostentatious. It was utilitarian. It was handsome. It has a presence to it. It was an East Coast architect that captured the persona of the state. Today, 75 years later, it’s probably even closer to the state’s persona than the Depression-ravaged citizenry of the ‘30s, embodying the heritage of a sustainable environments, the bottle bill, public beaches and rivers and more. Everything about Oregon is embodied in the pioneer statue on top. Not some heroic politician on a horse, just an average guy looking for something better. It’s inspiring.
What does it need to be relevant today and tomorrow as a working building?
You realize the need to protect the building from seismic damage and worn-out infrastructure; but also the need to enhance the working environment. Bring in more natural light, re-capture the natural ventilation. When it was completed in 1938, it was the most sustainable state capitol in the Union. It is a classic sustainable building and we’re preserving that. One of the goals of the 2009 Master Plan was to make it the most sustainable capitol in the country once again.
We’re addressing the seismic issue through base isolation technology [under-floor seismic protection] and we decided to lower the floor a few feet at the same to make the space usable for additional hearing rooms and departmental space. We can make this building a habitable and efficient governmental center without damaging its historic character. The public can enjoy the building and the people using it can be more efficient and get more done.
What keeps you going in the profession?
I have a strength in design that can envision new combinations of ideas and to convince people that these ideas are beneficial to the client and the public. It’s that transition from an abstract ideas into sketches into a building that’s often missing right now, especially when someone says, ‘I want 200,000 square feet for a certain amount of dollars.’ The process needs to be more flexible and nebulous. I have the privilege to work with talented people where everybody contributes. Everybody has good ideas. It isn’t hierarchical. I’m more of an orchestra leader, saying, ‘Let’s explore this point,’ or, ‘Have you thought about this?’ It’s lucky that SRG has always been blessed with diversity with people of different talents, interests and types; but also the diversity of ideas in saying, ‘Let’s try this or let’s explore this.’ When a majority of your clients are owner-users, you also have the obligation to be certain that what you do for then really works; that it’s not a whim or a fad. If you try something new, you’d better test it first.
What energizes me are the people around me. Architecture is the greatest profession in the people it attracts -- people drawn to the profession not for flashy cars or corner offices. They’re attracted to architecture because it’s about people contributing something lasting, not just here today and gone tomorrow. It’s the idea of transforming ideas and people’s expectations into something that’s special and tangible.
What’s a connecting thread amongst SRG’s clients?
They fit a common pattern – mostly people and institutions interested in contributing to the betterment of daily lives. A recent project is the Veterinary and Biomedical Research Building at Washington State University. It is a very sustainable kind of building and received national Lab-of-the Year recognition; but it is really trying to accomplish other things, many of which are relatively subtle. For example, the person working in the lab is the same person who uses the rest of the building. There’s not the differentiation of the lab portion and a corporate portion. We brought natural light into all the spaces. Everybody shares the light, the views, the common spaces, the same materials. Everybody is treated equally.
It seems like part of what you’re designing is social as well as physical.
When you have an open environment like our office, people become less territorial. It isn’t about having private offices, but having clusters of people around you. These conditions create collaboration and connectivity -- to nature, to natural light and views, to me, and to your neighbor. In the research, healthcare, and education fields where we do considerable work, the basic premise is sharing. So the question is, ‘Can we create environments for better collaboration and sharing?’ It’s not about objects or things but the more intangible elements. Finding places where you can have a public persona and a little bit of privacy. People are not just extraverts or an introverts but a little of both. Translating that to architecture is what is meaningful. It doesn’t have to be a church or a cathedral to have a spirit of place that says, this feels comfortable and I like being here. Once that’s true, then you’re willing to share things and together, you can achieve more than you ever could on our own. That’s the power of collaboration and working as a team.