BY LUKE AREHART
Although not a household name, Portland architect Bill Tripp easily ranks among the city's most talented and thoughtful practitioners. Whether it's a house like the Packer residence (featured in the documentary "Coast Modern"), his competition entries or his theater sets, Tripp is both an architect's architect as well as one willing to explore design in ways beyond architecture.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Tripp: I’ve wanted to be an architect for as long as I can remember; it was never a conscious decision. I’ve never imagined doing anything else. The earliest moment that I thought about having a job or career, I knew I was going to be an architect. It’s interesting though, that over the last several years I’ve been doing more drawing and painting and theater set design, so maybe I’m branching out finally!
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I started at the University of Oregon in 1972. I took a year off, and graduated in 1978. It was a great time to be at U of O. All of the Louis Kahn people were there and the Pattern Language was going on as well. It was a really fertile time. There were a lot of exceptional teachers like Philip Dole, Earl Moursund, Thom Hacker, Richard Garfield, Gary Moye, Bill Kleinsasser and on and on. It was a time when the program was teaching design as the core to everything. Also at that time John Reynolds was teaching and Ed Mazria was writing The Passive Solar Energy Book. It was the early days of what’s now called sustainable architecture.
Then I did some graduate work at Princeton back when Michael Graves was there, when he was working on the Portland Building, which was really interesting. I decided to go to Princeton because I didn’t feel like I studied enough history and theory at Oregon. The design teaching wasn’t as strong at Princeton as it was at the U of O, but there were still some great teachers there such as David Coffin, Tony Vidler, and Alan Colquhoun. It was really rich. And Don Genasci was there at that time.
So I think I was very fortunate to be at both of these very different and very good schools at just the right time.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The Packer House is one of my favorites for sure. In the great room there is a tall wall of glass that looks out over the Tualatin River Valley. We came up with an idea of how to make that wall in a way that was inspired by, and relates to, the experience of the distant landscape. The inspiration came from being in a Douglas fir forest and moving toward a clearing. As you emerge from the forest there is a certain spacing of the trees that happens and that was the idea. It wasn’t a conscious or deliberate thing at the time, but I realized later that’s where it came from. The spacing of the 4x6 mullions is somewhat random but also a syncopated rhythm that goes from very narrow openings to much wider ones. I didn’t want a grid, because grids are arbitrary: there’s no room for poetry or mystery. I also didn’t want to try and do something without mullions because I wanted to acknowledge that the glass needs support. It was thrilling to come up with that idea and it’s one of the things about that house that I really love.
The other project that I enjoyed working on was the renovation and remodel of Central Lutheran Church in Northeast Portland, originally designed by Pietro Belluschi. It was a chance to get inside Belluschi’s head, so to speak, to learn his language and how he used various elements to order the building and to communicate that order. After you work on a project like this you realize ‘Oh, this is how he did what he did.’ We were then able to use his language in a new way with slightly different construction methods and requirements, and that was really great.
The most recent project of ours that I like is the Guggenheim Helsinki competition, which was great fun to work on. We came up with some interesting ideas of how to view art in a room that has a kind of internal emphasis, while at the same time is also related to the City of Helsinki beyond.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Amongst my teachers, Gary Moye has been an important influence and we remain good friends. Gary knows more about design than anybody I know. As a critic, he can analyze a design and bring multiple layers of consideration to bear at the same time. He has such a thorough, such an integrated understanding of architecture.
More personally, Norm Zimmer was very important to me. When Norm retired from ZGF, he and I and Alex Zimmer and Jim Van Duyn formed Pacific Studios. We worked together for a few years before Norm passed away. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of my career. Norm taught me a lot about the broader artistic and cultural context of architecture. And he had such great stories to tell about the early days. The practice of architecture has changed so much. I think retiring from ZGF really lifted a big weight off Norm’s shoulders. We had a lot of fun at Pacific Studios.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
Well obviously I love to draw and design. And from my education, my research, and my own teaching I have developed an interest in design analysis and ways to communicate design theory to students and the general public.
I am interested in the search for meaning in human experience, and its manifestation and expression in architecture. Meaning in architecture is experienced with all the senses, and it’s experienced over time and involves memory and imagination.
So this experiential meaning in architecture is not about form or shape or any kind of an image of architecture, but how you fully live in it and especially how you live in it over time. It’s about understanding the kinds of significant human experience that architecture can give you.
Currently much of my work is focused on what I call “threads of continuity,” and I’m especially interested in ritual space. The most meaningful projects I’ve been working on lately are memorial designs, especially the WWII Memorial competition and a private memorial we are doing in Massachusetts. And we just entered the WWI Memorial design competition (we collaborated with Place Studio on this). In these projects we design not only the ritual space, but also the rituals themselves. The connection, the integration, of meaningful, deep experience with space, form, material and light: that’s what it’s all about.
One of the real problems today is the commoditization of architecture. This is combined with the reduction of architecture to the purely visual: images that we carry around on our iPhones. We are all doing realistic renderings at the very beginning of schematic design, which is ridiculous. Trying to make a photo-realistic image of a building that hasn’t been fully designed is ludicrous, but you pretty much have to do it. Clients and competition juries demand it. But it diminishes architecture.
This is related to the decline in architectural literacy amongst architects and students. Ideally when a student gets out of school, you can give them two buildings to critique and they should be able to do a comprehensive analysis, critique these two buildings, compare and contrast, pros and cons, and maybe explain why one is better than the other. Fewer and fewer students can do this. Again, this aligns with architecture being reduced to image. Most of the significant and important aspects of architecture can’t be communicated by rendered images; they have to be experienced. Without the full content of architecture a critique is reduced to little more than a statement of preference. And there is no appreciation of the mystery, the poetry, and the power of architectural experience.
Clients and the public see this proliferation of images, especially on the Internet, and think that they understand architecture. So we now have to educate clients that there are aspects of the building that they are not going to understand until they are living there. And it’s the good stuff that you won’t understand until you are there and living with it for a good long while. We are asking our clients for an enormous amount of trust, but that’s how you get the good stuff.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
There are a lot of great buildings here in Portland and it’s hard to single out one in particular, but certainly all of the Belluschi churches and John Yeon houses. I don’t think that there are any one or two or three specific projects, but these categories encompass extraordinary buildings. There have been a lot of good residential architects in Portland over the years. And Portland has many great churches.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
I lived in Finland for six months and I am very fond of the work of Alvar Aalto, Gunnar Asplund and Sigurd Lewerentz. I’ve also been to some Kahn buildings that are fabulous: Exeter Library and the Salk Institute, for example. I was at Oregon when there were a lot of Kahn’s guys there. I love Kahn’s work. And not too long ago I visited a couple of Fay Jones’s chapels, which are amazing and stunningly beautiful. One of the things that I am interested in is what makes their work, which is so different from one another, equally compelling? I’m very interested in that idea.
One of the things that I discovered is that really good architecture is an accumulation of layers of meaning. Each layer might be really simple: the circulation, for example, the spatial hierarchy, the proportion of the façade, elements of the program positioned within the building and in relation to external conditions and so on. And these layers are connected, integrated, and this connection is what gives a building its meaning. The thing about Aalto’s work and Kahn’s work is that there are thousands of these layers of meaning. Kahn organizes them concentrically and Aalto organizes them in a more free-form way, with a more painterly approach. But the common thing is that there exists many layers of meaning and they have been studied and studied and studied. Both architects never let up, are never satisfied, and are always working and re-working to get even more layers in there. Contrast that with somebody like Frank Gehry where there are very few layers of meaning. There is the sculptural layer of meaning, which is very beautiful and very compelling, but it’s not very deep because it’s not integrated with other layers of meaning, like structure for example, or light, or the relationship of interior to exterior. In my view his work falls dramatically short of someone like Aalto or Kahn. Any architect that is doing really great work, you find the same thing: many, many layers of meaning threaded together into a beautiful whole, a kind of tapestry of architectural experience and meaning.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Well I think over the course of this interview series most of the contemporary unheralded architects have already been named, but there is a wonderful, under-appreciated architect from years past, Richard Sundeleaf. He did a range of work from historically inspired houses to wonderful commercial buildings. My landlord’s building across the way, for example, the Bearing Service Co, is a fabulous building. It’s so subtle, very sophisticated, good proportions and it has some whimsy in it. I would love to see somebody do a study of Sundeleaf’s commercial buildings; he did a ton of work and it’s easy to spot them. You’ll be driving around town and pass a small commercial building from the 40’s or 50’s and notice that there is something unique about it. This is cool because you can see the attention to detail and the careful proportions, and these were simple and inexpensive buildings when they were constructed.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I’ve been involved in urban design studies and zoning projects in Portland for several years. The current zoning code is designed to regulate development of private parcels of land by individual property owners. A few months back the Bureau of Planning [and Sustainability] was giving an update on the comprehensive plan to the Urban Design Advisory Panel and I asked, “Why aren’t schools and libraries shown on the Comp Plan Map? They are significant public institutions that help define community.” Nobody had an answer for it.
Toni Lettiere and I are doing a study of ritual space in Portland. What I would like to see, what I think we desperately need, is what you might characterize as the next Park Blocks. That is, significant urban public spaces, especially on the east side, which are unrelated to development of commercial property or housing but instead related to community and cultural centers. This means parks and schools, churches and other places that give meaning to people’s lives and their community. Rick Potestio has been talking about taking schools and parks and making them focal points for development. We’ve had long conversations on this topic because I grew up in New England and we have a town common in my hometown, around which are all the public and religious buildings, and it’s a place for the whole community to gather. How do you create public outdoor rooms like this in Portland: spaces that are related to the non-commercial aspects of community life: churches, schools, libraries, meeting halls, community centers, and soccer fields, for example? I think we need to look at these kinds of places as the organizing principles of urban design instead of transit routes and clusters of commercial development.
I worked on the Mixed-use Zones Study and we were out in the community doing these walk-abouts and people were saying, “When you have a public space, like on Division there’s a small plaza where Nature’s used to be, we need more of that.” It’s not just the street and the sidewalk; it’s an actual place, an outdoor room. I think there is a lot of hunger for more places like that. It’s great developing commercial spaces and having the grocery stores and Starbucks nearby as well as places to eat, but I think people want more than that; they want to feel some sense of the heart of their community; they want to know where their neighborhood center is: the place where they can gather as a community. I think Rick Potestio is on to something here by suggesting that we start looking at the schools and parks as neighborhood community focal points.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
Generally they are all really good people doing a difficult job. It relates to the topic we just talked about on how to not just regulate private development but to do more significant urban design. That’s probably not going to come out of the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability because there is a lot of risk involved in making strong design proposals for major urban public space. It’s going to have to be a design competition or something similar. Even Rick’s ideas about increasing development around schools, I don’t see this coming from the existing bureaucracies in Portland. This is an idea that is going to take a long time to grow, to be developed, by designers who are free from political pressure.
I think the other thing that’s happening is that in our culture there is a kind of “bean-counting” mentality that is taking over. We run up against this all the time; the bureaucratic barriers for getting things done are getting more and more difficult to overcome. The process takes a long time and it’s very expensive. This is a real problem. Twenty years ago all of the plans examiners and building inspectors were builders and architects. They were people who came from the building industry and chose to go to work for the city. Now, a lot of folks go to plans-examiner school, or building inspector school, and they study the building or zoning code. That’s an order of magnitude removed from what you are actually doing, which is making communities and making buildings. It’s like studying recipes to learn how to cook, without actually cooking. Or like writing restaurant reviews based upon reading the recipes rather than actually tasting the food. This is a significant problem in our culture in general: focusing upon the letter of the law, the minutia of the regulations, without actually taking a step back and looking at the problem and applying common sense. Portland has been a really great city to work in because the city staff are smart, well-meaning people. My critique is not laid at their doorstep per se, but the system is in fact broken and we need to fix it.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Forgive me but I think it’s the wrong question. The question isn’t who is going to design the building, but what kind of building are we going to design, and how well is it designed. What we need to do is work on designing the next layer of significant public space in the city. Much contemporary architecture is trying too hard and over-emphasizing the purely visual. There is too much emphasis on buildings that stand out when there are a lot of buildings that shouldn’t stand out and should be made as part of an urban fabric.
The best architecture grows out of a very thorough and careful consideration of a problem. There are local architects that do this just as well as famous architects. There are famous architects that can’t design their way out of a paper bag. I think we should focus on the work itself regardless of who does it.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
In my practice I do urban design, architecture, theater set design, and I draw and paint and make sculpture. I’ve also had the opportunity to design door hardware and furniture. I love it all. A few years ago we designed the art display panels for Aalto’s Mount Angel Abbey Library, which involved designing the mounting hardware. To make it all work we invented a foot-operated wrench to keep your hands free during installation. That was a lot of fun.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
I don’t really have favorite movies per se, but there are a couple of films that have extraordinary cinematography, that have a very powerful sense of space and light and landscape: “The Spirit of the Beehive” by Victor Erice and “Gerry” by Gus Van Sant. There’s this wonderful sense of time, of slowness really, in these films.