BY JENNIFER WRIGHT
Architect John Wright is next in our Architect’s Questionnaire series highlighting local designers. John heads up Wright Architecture, a studio that focuses equally on residential and commercial projects. Growing up with a mechanical engineer for a father and a background in construction, John values the details that are integral in fabrication. His is an approach with deep respect for the vernacular style of the Pacific Northwest and he sees his work as part of an ongoing legacy influencing the culture of Portland. Encouraged with recent opportunities to integrate site-specific furniture and installation pieces in some of his projects, John is optimistic for a future where the design influences the complete user experience.
Portland Architecture When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
John Wright: My father, a mechanical engineer, taught me a lot about making things. He had a small shop in our two-car garage. I loved to experiment with making stuff in that garage- canoes, wooden skis, walking stilts, skate boards, etc. I briefly considered following his career path (after he had convinced me to not pursue a career in art... for financial fears. (ha) After I finished high school, we walked through the design school and saw how connected the process of design could be to the making...I was hooked.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied Architecture at the University of Cincinnati Department of Architecture, Art and Planning. It was an incredible experience and really changed my life. I found my place and met so many amazing bright minded, creative, and enlightened people.
Frank Fantauzzi and his practice of large-scale installations and outdoor constructions was a big influence on me. His teaching process and focus on experimentation and working directly with the actual material as a method of teaching architecture aligned with a part of me that is still important in my work today.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The construction of a new 6,000 square foot two-story commercial building for the Parkside Clinic is so close to completion. Everyone involved made it a very positive experience. Gant Enderle and Art Cheek of B&G Construction were very professional and easy to work with; the owner, Dr. Aaron Armbruster, an amazing person and an exceptional chiropractor, was voted client of the year by B&G and we certainly agreed. He had a simple agenda and did not stray from his vision: a natural, healthy, local, relaxed building. It has been a great opportunity to refine the dialogue of how we define Pacific Northwest architecture and an opportunity to hone our focus on finding the essence in the making of a healing space.
We were able to cut and use a Blue Atlas cedar tree from the site. The tree needed to come down, and we knew we wanted to use the wood somewhere in or on the building. Atlas cedar is a subspecies of Biblical Lebanon cedar- trees that have been historically highly sought after for woodworking. The wood’s high quality, pleasant aroma and resistance to both rot and insects made it a popular building material for temples, palaces and seagoing vessels. We joked, “If it’s good enough for Solomon, it’s good enough the Parkside Clinic entry.”
In the beginning we developed a visual language for this project; the underlying image, the central motif, is a sort of white canvas. It is a reference to the blank slate and to the goal of finding the beginning and essence of things. Or put another way- emptying the mind and clearing thoughts. The concept is based in meditation practices known for detaching oneself from anxiety and promoting harmony and self-realization. The empty canvas takes many forms in this project: the large panels that make up the exterior facade float inside a plane of transparent glass, the entry has a square of white-tinted cedar over the vestibule, the reception desk is broken down into white cubes of locally reclaimed fir, and the interior spaces were also reduced into simplified geometry that employ floating white panels around clean lines of fir.
Another idea we have worked with at PSC is to bring the outside in, in a controlled way, and to express a connection to the natural environment that surrounds us. A water feature of columnar basalt greets the patients at the entry as an audiovisual transition from the busyness of the city into the calmness that awaits within. Two north-facing light wells bring natural illumination, shadow play, and a sense of scale into the corridors while horizontal bands of clerestory windows bring this light even deeper into the adjacent treatment rooms.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
I have a long list of important mentors, but most recently my friend Amit Singh and his notions of combining enlightenment and Architecture has been a huge influence. I also have had the fortunate opportunity recently to teach a couple of studios at the PSU School of Architecture. The school’s director, Clive Knights, is a good friend and his phenomenological philosophy has had an effect on my work process. I do have to re-mention Frank Fantauzzi- my college professor, Architect, conceptual artist, and alchemist-introduced the notion of transformation in art and architecture...the philosophy I still refer to when teaching and working.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
Design is the reason I became an architect and is still so fun for me. I really do like working with people and the collaborative process that is Architecture. I am fortunate to work with a very talented design staff. Melissa Ehn and Nathan Day are essential to our process of delivering well made buildings founded in research and place based design.
On top of space making, we have been able to include custom furniture design into many of our recent projects. It is wonderful to be able to consider a design philosophy at the scale of a building and then translate that same vision into its more human, tactile elements.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
The Keller Fountain by Lawrence Halprin. I love this place for being so integral to our city and for so clearly personifying a modernism of the Pacific Northwest. It is also such an adventurous piece of architecture. As Walt Lockley wrote, “Ira Keller fountain in downtown Portland Oregon is an accomplishment from the 70's that we as a society could now barely manage. It's a loud and playfully interactive physical expression of civic values that today seem too liberal and humane to be true.”
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Kiro-San Observatory by Kengo Kuma. Many of Kuma’s projects blend with the surrounding environment. He used the term “architecture of disappearance” where the architecture becomes a part of the landscape and the building “sees” rather than being seen. I believe that good architecture is like this.
My Favorite Oregon building is the 1971 Kah-Nee-Ta Resort by ZGF for its Brutalism and simultaneously being one with the harsh landscape of the high desert. It is also a very fun place to visit!
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
There are so many talented and motivated people in this town, and there are so many who deserve more recognition for what they do. For example, Kevin Cavenaugh and Brett Schulz are doing amazing things for Portland right now on top of being genuinely great people all around.
I’ve worked with Don Vallaster on several exciting projects, including most recently the Bakery Blocks.
The unique nature of the Davidson’s Bakery Building, which was built in phases starting in 1912, was both an extraordinary opportunity and equally challenging undertaking. We ended up building a lot of custom details and furniture for the building’s century-old interior.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
We are trying to have the conversation about the loss of a Portland Style and the fear of the new Portland that becomes no different from other places. I think the town is so creative there is a way to incorporate the intrinsic nature or indispensable quality of Portland into the new built environment. This should be noted however, that this is not an easy undertaking, but many of Portland’s talented Architects are delivering thoughtful place specific built solutions.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
Of course they are doing the right thing, but wow, they are taking so long to issue permits!
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Steven Holl. He is poet, and simultaneously his work is simple, even understated.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Oh man everything- but I do have fondness for late mid century products like telephones, clothes, coffee mugs, vintage trailers, motorcycles, billboards, factories, vinyl LP jackets and office furniture.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
I used to love classic art house films such as Amarcord by Federico Fellini and The Seventh Seal by Ingmar Bergman, but now I tend to watch movies with my kids. They are getting old enough to appreciate art, so I would say The Fantastic Mr. Fox is a perfect movie. Wes Anderson really has my attention right now for his storytelling and vintage styling, so I'd add The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou and of course The Grand Budapest Hotel is an architectural masterpiece.