Karl Miller Center atrium (Brian Libby)
BY BRIAN LIBBY
In a recent Portland Tribune column, I had the opportunity to write about Portland State University's new Karl Miller Center, the expanded home of its School of Business. So far I've visited twice in as many weeks, and I already can't wait to go back there again and bask in its five-story atrium.
Although I'm a good couple decades past my college years, and honestly would never have majored in business, the Karl Miller Center almost makes me want to go back for an MBA. But luckily you don't have to be a business major or even a PSU student to enter the space.
About 100,000 of the 143,000 square feet comprising this project is actually a renovation of an unremarkable existing building, constructed in two phases in 1979 and 1989. The Karl Miller Center design, led by acclaimed German firm Behnisch Architekten with local firm SRG Partnership as architect of record, creates a new building just to the north as well as an atrium between the two structures.
The new construction, clad in Alaskan cedar, is striking. Its five stories are comprised of a series of interlocking rectangular volumes. While the ground floor is set back from the street, for example, the second story cantilevers outward (with the help of a few stilts) to create a covered public space. The shifting volumes create a sense of kinetics and break up the mass that otherwise would exist there, which stands in stark contrast to the original bulky building on the south side of the block.
But the architects did make a rather bold choice in their re-cladding of the existing building: a combination of aluminum and stainless steel that undulates a bit to create shadows. My understanding is that the facade was initially all aluminum but after design review the stainless steel was added, by request. And indeed: for me the overall effect of the cladding seemed somewhere between the cheap utilitarian corrugated metal of industrial applications and something more shiny or refined. I also wondered if the reflective quality of the cladding helped bounce light into the adjacent atrium. Talking with architects Stefan Behnisch and Matt Noblett of Behnisch Architekten last week, I was told that was not really the case. But it at least makes sense.
The narrative of this building for me has everything to do with that atrium and natural light. Of course if you're a student or faculty member in the School of Business, you'll probably spend more of your time in the classrooms than in the atrium itself. But thankfully it's largely in service of those classrooms and their natural light needs that the atrium exists. Instead of light coming in just from the exterior windows, with less and less natural illumination the deeper you go into the building, the atrium brings in a bevy of light through the middle of the building and into those classrooms.
Touring these Karl Miller Center classrooms, I couldn't help but think back to the semester I spent in 2012 teaching a class at Portland State. The classroom was completely windowless. I was still able to do my job, of course. But it felt like I was in a bomb shelter. It was, I suppose, the opposite of what these classrooms felt like. Would I have been a better teacher in a light-filled Karl Miller Center classroom? Maybe not. But the students and I would have all been a little more alert; that's what the studies show.
Perhaps the classrooms and study spaces are the destination and the atrium is merely the interstitial space one journeys through to get there, but it's a heck of a journey. With a series of bridges and stairways crisscrossing the five-story volume, there is a constant sense of activity. The architects also used the central staircase as a gathering place, with a series of long benches extending from the stairs. I could see this being a place to do your homework on a rainy winter day, or to kick back with a coffee between classes.
As I mentioned in the column, during the media tour School of Business dean Cliff Allen admitted that a number of students actually go back to the parking garage and sit in their cars between classes. There was that little space in which to hang out indoors, which our rainy climate requires for much of the year. Allen expressed a hope, which I think is not unreasonable at all, that the Karl Miller Center atrium can act as a shared space for all the university, not just the business, marketing and accounting majors. And that would be good for the business school. I'm not going to say that majoring in business or marketing is wrong. Of course not. But it wouldn't hurt to mingle with some liberal-arts students.
The building is also well positioned urbanistically to act as a unifying space for PSU. It stands in between the university's major built effort of recent years, the Urban Center Plaza, and the majority of its campus. You could use it not just as a place to hang out, but a pathway through campus.
In the column, I also tried to put the Karl Miller Center atrium in the context of other atria in the city that have been constructed in the last 20 years. After all, not only does our rainy climate seem to call out for such winter garden-like architectural spaces, but some of our most acclaimed architecture in recent memory possesses some of the same basic qualities as PSU's new atrium.
I think of Allied Works' Wieden + Kennedy building, for example, in which a multi-story volume was carved out of an old cold-storage warehouse. It too has bridges and catwalks across a huge shared volume. More recently, and perhaps more similarly to Karl Miller, there is the multistory atrium in the Collaborative Life Science Center by CO Architects of Los Angeles (with Portland's SERA Architects as architect of record). I'd still rank the Wieden + Kennedy building first overall for its architecture, but both W+K and the CLSB are less connected to the street than the Karl Miller Center, because on two of its four sides, PSU's building also has glass facades. On the east side of the building, the glass facade tilts in a dramatic fashion, as if leading one up the slope of the site.
Portland has a wonderful community of architecture firms, any number of which could have designed a successful Karl Miller Center. Yet cities and design communities are enhanced by having firms from out of town contribute to our built environment. Behnisch Architekten may not be as much of a household name as so-called starchitect firms led by Renzo Piano, Jean Nouvel or Frank Gehry, but it has a stellar reputation for green architecture, and is particularly adept at the challenge met in the Karl Miller Center: bringing natural light deep into buildings.
That was true even 20 years ago, on landmark projects like 1997's Norddeutsch Landesbank in Hannover, Germany, which I interviewed Behnisch about in 2013. Designed without some of the high-tech tools available to architects today like energy modeling and parametric design software, it featured a chimney effect to move air from the building’s courtyard up through its double-skin façade.
Before visiting the Karl Miller Center, I watched on YouTube an interesting presentation made by Stefan Behnisch at a Berlin lighting conference earlier this year, in which he talked about a variety of techniques used to bring more light into a space. In projects like the Allston Science and Engineering Complex for Harvard University and the Genzyme headquarters (both in Cambridge, Massachusetts), as well as a parking garage for the City of Santa Monica, Behnisch has introduced light by relatively uncommon means such as mounting heliostats on a roof to reflect extra light inside.
"I’m very interested in the sensation of light, the experience of light in a room. It appears, it disappears, it changes," Behnisch said in his Berlin talk. "The idea of daylight, of light, can really be a driving force in developing architecture."
That's certainly the case with the Karl Miller Center.