BY BRIAN LIBBY
Last week Thomas Hacker, founder of Portland firm THA Architecture, joined host Randy Gragg for a talk at the Watzek House about his decades-long career, as part of the University of Oregon John Yeon Center for Architectural Study's Conversations at the Watzek House series.
Hacker was both taught and employed by one of the great American architects of the 20th century, Louis Kahn. But as he told Gragg, that also connects back to a longer lineage of architects and eras.
"I realized later there was a wonderful and strong tradition that goes back to 19th century France with the development of [Pierre-François-Henri] Labrouste’s work and the sense of public architecture different from the architecture of the monarchs," he said, "and that that legacy had been translated in a tight and linear way all the way through five generations of architects. Labrouste, the architect of the National Library of France, was born in 1801 and died in 1875. He handed that project off to an architect named jean Louis Pascal, who I believe was born in 1837. Pascal's student was Paul Cret, who came to the US and taught at my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania. Cret was the teacher of my mentor and teacher, Louis Kahn. Every one of us has had contact with each other."
It's not just a lineage but an evolution, Hacker explained: "Labrouste was the first architect who really understood the importance of civic architecture. And Paul Cret, two people down, was the first to understand that needed to be reimagined in relationship to the programmatic needs of the people that you were working with. Cret was able to erase some of the froufrou of Beaux-Arts classicism and give it more functional purpose. And that went on down to Kahn. It’s a big deal. Our practice is based on that. That fascinates me, you know? I like being a part of that."
Gragg then asked Hacker to set the scene for his migration to Oregon in the late 1960s, to teach at the University of Oregon. "I was hired to teach at Penn the year I graduated and I was working in Lou Kahn’s office. It was 1967, '68 and '69," the architect explained. "It was an absolute mess in the culture, all the sit-ins and everything. Which I supported: I went to the civil rights march on Washington and the anti-war marches. But there was a lot of chaos. [My wife] Margaret and I, like many people our age, wanted to find a different place to be that we felt was more open to the kinds of ideas we were interested in. And Oregon was very attractive in that way. It was that period of one of the great migrations in history: the migration of young people to the west coast. I came to Oregon sight unseen because we wanted to be someplace utterly different."
The UO's architecture department had several of Kahn's former students, but Kahn opposed Hacker's move. "He said, ‘There is no civic architecture in Eugene,'" Hacker remembers. "He was dead set on the fact that teaching was the most noble thing you could do. It was a big deal to him. He was in some ways more interested in that for his work. And he thought of his work as a method of teaching. Being in a place that didn’t have that civic sensibility was a liability."
But that may in part explain Hacker's ultimate move north. "I realized later that Portland has that. Portland has an amazing civic sensibility, and a sensibility about making places and a city that is alive and vibrant and public. It’s a big deal. Eugene isn’t like that. I’m sorry. It’s close by but it doesn’t have the economy, the engine, the relationship of what an active urban life is."
Hacker also had a hard time in Eugene because none of the teachers were practicing, including himself. Which drew him to come to Portland from time to time, as consultant or professor. "I started bringing students to Portland to study projects, like the Oregon Historical Society or the restoration of the Portland Art Museum. That led to me wanting to come here and start an office," he said. "I saw a very vibrant community of architects. I could be in a place with civic value, and I could be not only a teacher but practitioner. It took a few years to work that out. But we launched in 1983, and by '85 had a couple big commissions, like the Arizona Historical Society."
Hacker also credited Portland's collaborative culture for helping him to get started. ZGF Architects' partner Robert Frasca, for example, recommended him for the Portland Design Commission. And Frasca, in the audience for Hacker's talk with Gragg, said his help was just a matter of paying it forward. "I remember when I came here I met Saul Zaik and those guys, young practicing architects at the time, and they were so supportive. You didn’t find that in other cities," Frasca said. "People were competitive professionally and personally in other places, which I found destructive."
As Hacker talked with Gragg from the Watzek House, he noted the impact of its designer, John Yeon, on his career in a way that expanded it from urban architecture. "When I came to Oregon, I didn’t know about the way architecture could relate to the landscape," he said. "John Yeon showed me how that could be. He also had this sense of the elegance of rhythm and proportion."
A milestone in the history of Hacker's firm, known as Thomas Hacker & Associates and Thomas Hacker Architects before being rebranded THA Architecture, was the BICC (Biomedical Information Communication Center) at Oregon Health & Science University. Hacker brought to his firm some former UO students who would ultimately make their own names in local architecture (and beyond): Brad Cloepfil and Rick Potestio.
"There was this group of exceptional talent working with me on it," Hacker remembers. "If you get a job like that, you have to produce in a way that has some kind of meaning. Those guys were all about wanting to push the edges of what architecture can be. It was long days and nights of trying to understand the site and program. This was the fist completely computerized research library in the world. It was completely new territory. I’ve used many times this analogy of a jazz band. They all have their own sense of what they can do, and they’re all really talented and young and full of energy. The leader of the band orchestrates the direction or sets the tone in some way and at some points makes crucial decisions of where it’s going to go. But it’s always an ensemble work. It’s never not an ensemble. It has to be played together. The greatest architectural works are like the greatest musical works, where everyone is on the same beat and has the same spirit. And the spirit’s the most important part of it."
Beyond the BICC, libraries of all sorts have come to shape Hacker's career, whether it's the string of branch libraries his firm designed for Portland (including the Woodstock branch, named one of the ten best libraries in America by the American Library Association and the American Institute of Architects) or several university facilities.
"Libraries are places of discovery," he explained. "I think they’re the most fundamental places for learning and finding answers to things, and finding inspiration, that exists in our society. They are open to everybody. You don’t have to apply to get into them. You can go as an 80 year old or a 12 year old.
I think that will happen throughout their history. It’ll just happen in different ways. Think of how many people’s lives have been changed by going into the stacks and being inspired, and going out into the world with a new life for themselves. That still happens every day. People go into libraries and discover something they didn’t know before. They offer something that isn’t just about Google. There’s a social thing that happens in libraries that’s as crucial as the informational part. I was talking about individual discovery that can change your life, but when individuals come together in the library, that’s irreplaceable."
Asked to discuss what makes for successful library design, Hacker added: "I think it’s all about light. In spite of the fact that we’re living in an age where light can interfere with technology, all the great libraries I know are filled with great light. Not to be weird about this, but there’s something that is…the human mind and spirit searching for meaning responds to beautiful light. I think that’s been true…you can see it in churches, in libraries. I think light and structure…buildings should help you understand how they make the space that you’re in. the expression of the structure is made best, I think, by having light coming through it. That’s what our libraries are about: the structure and having one large common room where everybody is together in the space. The books and technology I think happen after you make that frame of the place where people engage that. And I hope that doesn’t change and I don’t think it will. It’s also about the connection to the outside. You live in a world with this incredible complexity happening all around you. If you separate yourself from it, you become crippled."
Gragg also asked Hacker about the Urban Center at Portland State University, which upon completion in 2000 has helped act as a kind of game-changer for the school. "If I had to choose one that exemplifies the desire to put education and the city together, the civic sense of the city, that’s the project I would use," Hacker said, crediting PSU School of Urban Studies and Planning founder Nohad Toulan, who "had that vision. He understood that through his work the city, the urban organism, was fundamentally important to making our region and city a really healthy place. He was brilliant that way. He understood as long as psu stayed in that walled area of the park blocks, that couldn’t happen, because it wasn’t connected enough to the city. His vision was the urban center would connect the city to the university and vice versa. And the other part was people in the building would be exposed to the city itself in a way they wouldn’t in a more internal campus. And it worked. PSU has been transformed since then, and it’s fantastic."
Gragg, with an almost mischievous look in his eye, pressed Hacker to critique the buildings that PSU has built since the Urban Center, as if to imply their mediocrity. But Hacker was nonplussed. "I don’t get into that," he said. "I think we have a level of design in Portland that’s very high. I’m not trying to be polite here. I really feel in Portland there’s a level of design that’s consistently higher in its level of self-serving exhibitionist work and really relates to the city. We are so lucky to live in a city where somebody in the 70s got what good cities ought to be. They put together the design review process not based on style. It’s based on making the street happen in a way that’s helping. And our city is lovely. You want to know why Portlandia is on TV? It’s because we are alive as a city in a way very few cities are. When I was on the design commission, it was a big deal to me. I spent many hours talking with developers complaining. Why do we have to do all this stuff at the street level? I said, because your property probably wouldn’t be worth crap if you didn’t. I think developers in Portland have become enlightened because of that. It’s all about making the street happen. If you went to the pearl and told people it didn’t exist 20 years ago, they’d never believe it."
The Urban Center was 15 years ago, and THA Architecture has been busy in the years since, be it with projects like the Mercy Corps headquarters, new condos on SE Division Street, or houses. And a new generation of leaders has taken over as Hacker enjoys a semi-retirement, including principals like David Keltner, Corey Martin and Becca Cavell. Hacker told Gragg that firm succession has long been an area of focus for himself and managing partner Jonah Cohen, and it's only now bearing fruit as Hacker contents himself largely with painting. But while the leadership transition THA has undergone is a model for what is ordinarily a sticky problem firms face, this night was about revisiting the firm's roots — which are, like the Watzek House where the conversation took place, enduring. Hacker is easily one of the most important and gifted Portland architects of the past 30 years, and yet it's his ideas and his passion for architecture that may be an even greater legacy than his buildings or the firm that bears his name.