BY JENNIFER WRIGHT
Brian Melton, a lead designer at DiLoreto Architecture, has passion for detail and craftsmanship, as seen in projects like modern renovations to his his circa-1913 worker cottage and a recently constructed backyard structure housing a woodworking/music studio. Both spaces serve as hosts to ongoing creative experiments that continually hone Melton's construction mastery. The intentional experiment of living large in a 700-square-foot home has enabled the designer to utilize deliberate space saving measures in elegant ways, even as his family has grown. These are lessons that will be expanded upon as he begins to develop 10 acres recently acquired outside of Pacific City: a decidedly personal project which ultimately reconnects him to his formative years growing up on the central coast of California.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Brian Melton: That is a great question. I actually always wanted to be a musician. I started playing rock/punk music at an early age. Most of my friends were/are musicians. I surrounded myself with musicians. I married a musician. I was living in the Bay Area, immersing myself in the music scene there, constantly playing music with my friends. And my best friend at the time simply said to me, 'You make furniture, build and draw way better than you play music.' That was in 1998 and I was 23 years old. Two years later I was at Cal Poly starting my academic career, and I thank my friend almost daily for being so blunt.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo from 2000-2005. In 2004, I was fortunate to spend a year abroad living, studying, and working in Italy, which was a thoroughly rich experience. Cal Poly is a fantastic school. I truly didn’t appreciate the education I received there until I started working as an architect here in Portland and meeting peers who graduated from other programs. Cal Poly gives you a holistic educational experience that spans the spectrum between quality design and the practical constraints architects have to deal with every day.
Furthermore, Cal Poly has an amazing resource called Poly Canyon: a fifteen-acre parcel behind the campus that backs up to the coast range in California, comprised of riparian corridors folded into rolling hills of grass and peppered with live oak trees. On these 15 acres you find a landscape of student-designed and built architectural, structural, and landscape architectural projects, ranging from a straw bale arch to the first weathered-steel house in the US, which is still being used as student housing. For my senior project, I designed and built a meditative space in Poly Canyon. Even though this resource has been available to the students for decades, I was astonished to find out I was the first person to build in the canyon in over twelve years. Incidentally, 12 years prior, computers were introduced to the school, a very interesting correlation. Historically, projects in Poly Canyon focused on innovative structural follies; mine was the first project to focus on architectural concepts rooted in spatial experimentation and perception.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
What a tough question. It all depends on the criteria, I suppose. I truly invest my life and soul into every project and emotionally get tied to each for different reasons. Architecture is a strange profession. You can work on a project for years, invest your life and emotions in each project, and in the end, what do you have? A picture. Every project I work on is mine until the inevitable day when I hand over the key, then it is the clients', and when I visit my completed works it is like running into an old girlfriend on the street: an intense familiarity coupled with the sadness of loss. In the end, though, seeing the people inhabit the spaces I have created is truly a joyful experience.
But my favorite project? Well, there are a few candidates, starting with St. Edward Catholic Church. It isn’t very often that one gets to work on a spiritual space that will help connect thousands of people to the divine over the lifetime of the church. It also isn't often once can influence the city fabric and character designing the first vertical industrial building built in Portland in over 65 years, with a project called The New York. Or I might choose Nordia House, a refined architectural project both spatially and in the details. But in the end, I would have to say my favorite is my own house and property; a continually evolving architectural experiment that I get to live in (the girlfriend who didn’t get away!). Treated much like a boat, every inch of the place is thoughtfully carved to enrich the daily use; every piece of furniture (made by me) is an extension of the spaces; every detail (whether good or bad) I get to live with.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Chris DiLoreto. I came into architecture with a good sense of design, but had no idea how to operate as an architect. Chris has taught me the subtleties of architecture: how to steer clients in the right direction, how to navigate the landscape of bureaucratic quagmires, how to identify which battles to take on and which ones to let go. He truly has a passion for architecture. I can’t even begin to quantify the amount of hours we have spent talking about architecture, details, projects. Additionally, he trusts all of us in the office and gives us the freedom to run our own projects. He is there in any capacity we need for any given project. I suppose that is why I (we) have been working with him for over a decade now.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
Details! I live for them. As I said in another interview, “I eat details for breakfast.” I have an intuitive and practical understanding of the qualities of materials and how they come together. I suppose it comes a bit from my upbringing. I grew up in the country. My father was/is a farm mechanic and ran a shop on the upper part of our property. He had a full mechanic shop, a machine shop, a welding shop and everything in between. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so we had to build/fix everything ourselves. If we wanted to add onto our house, we did it; if we didn’t have the right tool for the job, we made it. Which reminds me of a story: I was 12 years old and Roy Obayashi (a local strawberry farmer) pulled into the property with a Pinto and forklift. The Pinto ran, but the forklift didn’t. I was working for my father at the time, and after Roy left, my father turned to me and said, 'Make the forklift run, then walked away. I had to figure out how to put a Pinto motor in a forklift and tie it into the forklift transmission. After two months, I finished the project. What a valuable experience of troubleshooting, detailing and execution!
Architecture is a series of details and a union of materials connected together to make space. Each detail should reflect the whole of the project, resonating the emotion of the space. Done right, details can provide those intimate moments when people interact with architecture, bolstering the intended spatial emotions. Details are the subtle memories of our life, like the polished bronze door handle which immediately says to the user, 'This is where you put your hand, this is where they put their hands.'
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
At the top of the list: Memorial Coliseum. Architecturally it's an amazing project. The entire roof is supported with only four columns! Even more important is the social aspect of the building: a modernist dream of equality: the general seating bringing everyone together from all walks of life in one space. The curtain surrounding the bowl that can lift up and visually connect the users to city they are from, the very reason why the Coliseum exists. Compare it to the Moda Center: once inside, you have very little connection to the place you’re from. There is a clear hierarchy of users in the seating arrangement, literally stratifying the classes of our city.
I also love Belluschi's Central Lutheran Church. What a great object in the city fabric and an outstanding plan. The proportions are perfect.
Another project is The Belmont Street Lofts by Holst Architecture, which was one of my favorite buildings when I first moved here and still is. It is aging magnificently. I love the detailing and proportions.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
That is easy: the Pantheon in Rome. It's an absolutely pure space in its intent and execution: a truly distilled project that is aging like no other.
Top: The Pantheon (Wikimedia Commons); bottom: Memorial Coliseum (Brian Libby)
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Nat Slayton. He is a masterful designer and his houses are inspiring! He understands how to build, materials, details. He builds architecture first through a deep understanding of the importance of the plan. Additionally, he appreciates the significance of proportion, which I feel most architects today ignore. As a designer of space (which is the most important part of architecture vs. mere looks) he is a master: connecting the plan with details, section and environment, emotion and space.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
Less buildings that are dated and that look like Sketchup models. More thoughtful designs responding to the place where we live. It rains here - a lot. I can’t tell you how many projects out there are approximations of good design. The designers do some zoomy moves to make a project look “modern” yet they miss the mark spatially and functionally.
Secondly there seems to be a lack of forethought about the future. Most of the projects I see going up today look their best the day they are completed and age in a bad way. I strive to have my projects age gracefully. How will they be as a ruin?
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
All in all, not bad. PDC in general is doing a good job. One can’t hit the mark every time. For example, helping to loosen the zoning codes to allow for more mixed-use projects, especially in industrial areas of Portland: let people live there if they want. I understand it is a delicate balance, but we should allow for some flexibility without having to go through overwhelming bureaucratic procedures to get a non-conforming use through the City of Portland.The development and planning bureaus seem to be overwhelmed. It is taking months to get a project reviewed. They need to staff up to serve the community in a timelier manner.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Tadao Ando. I think Portland needs an example of a thoughtfully restrained yet powerful project.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Converse Chuck Taylors. And complicated socks!
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
I love Raising Arizona, Twelve Angry Men (the original with Henry Fonda), and 2001: A Space Odyssey.