BY LUKE AREHART
Next in our continuing series is Lucas Gray, of Portland architecture firm Propel Studio. Along with firm partner Nick Mira, the studio recently completed designs on a sustainable outdoor classroom shelter for Vernon Elementary School, a Street Seat for Bamboo Sushi, many accessory dwelling units around Portland, and also provided pro-bono design services for the interior design of The Rosewood Initiative community center in East Portland. In addition to his design work, Gray has been leading the charge as a strong voice for emerging architects, which includes serving as the regional associate director for the American Institute of Architects' Northwest and Pacific region, as well as being a board member of AIA Oregon and writing for online magazine Talkitect.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Lucas Gray: This may be one that you’ve heard many times in this series, but I always knew that I wanted to be an architect — ever since I was a child. My interest stemmed from what I did as a kid: I was always building things. I loved LEGO and had boxes full of wooden blocks. I would build towers in my room and make little cities out of dirt and sticks in the backyard with friends. I would constantly draw and sketch as well. I also did a lot of fine art courses in summer camps and throughout high school. My interest in architecture was always present through these various activities.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I studied in two places. I earned my undergrad in architecture at McGill University in Montreal and earned my master’s degree at the University of Oregon in Eugene. They were very different experiences, both good, but in different ways. McGill is much more of a traditional Beaux-Arts style school that was more design focused. My experience was about pushing the fundamentals of design along with making timeless spaces. The conversations were often on beauty in design, graphic representation, materiality and tectonics. My classmates were incredibly talented designers and many have gone on to work in great offices and start firms. It was a great foundation.
The University of Oregon was almost the opposite. My education there was more about a different way of thinking about how architecture can impact the world. It was much less focused on the aesthetic value of buildings and more about thinking holistically on how buildings are put together and how sustainability becomes pervasive throughout the design process. Students were probably more socially active and talking about community engagement more than design excellence. Together, the educations at these two schools complemented each other well. I don’t think I would have valued either as much without having the other one to accompany and balance it.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
A project that I’ve worked that has special significance is a small building that I designed while living in Berlin, Germany. After graduating from U of O, I moved to Berlin where I lived for two years and worked for two small boutique firms. The first firm I worked for, Mathewson Architecture, did a lot of historic building renovations around the city. We also entered a few design competitions, one of which we won. The clients were looking to renovate an existing historic brick gymnasium that was part of an elementary school that was destroyed during the war. Along with the renovation, the brief called for a small 500-600 square foot addition to house a pair of changing rooms, restroom facilities and two coach’s rooms. It was a simple project but very impactful for the community. It is located within a courtyard surrounded by housing in the heart of Kreuzberg, a district in southeast Berlin. You can’t even see the project from the main street and can only access it through a gate within one of the housing blocks. We had the freedom to go beyond what someone might see in a typical historic city. We were able to preserve the existing brick building and build an elegant, modern addition that ran perpendicular to the main structure and stretched across the entire courtyard. We used channel glass, which created a translucent, glowing box that set the backdrop for the view through the courtyard. It was a great experience. Winning a competition is always gratifying, as well as seeing it actually built. It was the first project I designed that was completed.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
That’s a great question. One of the unique aspects of my career has been that I’ve traveled a lot and lived in lots of different places. There have been good and bad things as a result of the travel. I wasn’t in any one place long enough to have a mentor that has been there throughout my career. It has been more about short touches of mentorship along the way for me. Casey Mathewson, the owner of the firm I worked for in Berlin, was great because he was very diverse in his interests. He has a small architecture practice and works on building projects, he also writes books about contemporary architecture around the world. This influenced me in that I also practice architecture and compliment the design work with a mix of writing for my blog, contributing articles to other publications, while leading the social media marketing and business development of our firm, as well as staying very active in the AIA.
When I lived in Shanghai, I worked in a boutique design firm called Brearley Architects + Urbanists. It was an interesting place because the owner is an Australian architect who had moved to Shanghai to set up his business. It was great to learn about the world of international architecture along with how you can design anything anywhere using the technology that we have today. It definitely peaked my interest in working internationally and put me in a situation where I had way more responsibility early in my career than I would have experienced working at firms in the US.
What part of the job do you like best, and as a designer what do you think you most excel at?
What I like best about what I am doing now is that I’m constantly doing various tasks. Running a small firm requires that you have to design and get the necessary drawings out the door, but in order to have a successful business you also have to meet with the clients, market the firm, develop the website, and manage employees, all while balancing each component. I think this diversity of tasks plays into my strengths. I consider myself more of a big-picture thinker than a detail oriented person. I’m much more interested in managing multiple aspects of a project or company rather than delving into any one project down to the minute details over the course of multiple years. I also enjoy, and am good at, communicating with clients, listening to what they want and interpreting what they need.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
Portland is an interesting city in that there aren’t that many noteworthy or iconic full buildings. Some of the best designs are adaptive reuse with interesting interiors. The Wieden + Kennedy project by Allied Works is a great example, or the EcoTrust building by Holst Architecture.
Another recent project that I admire is Union Way. It’s a spectacular project in many ways. It’s beautifully designed, and the materials and details are great. I love how it creates a new urban experience within the city as a covered retail alleyway that functions as an exterior and interior hybrid space. It reminds me of some of the alleyways in old Shanghai or Berlin. You see these creative re-thinking of urban spaces happening more here in Portland which is exciting. I hope developers, planners and architects continue to explore underutilized spaces throughout Portland.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
My favorite building is one that I visited a few years ago: the Thermal Baths at Vals, Switzerland by Peter Zumthor. It’s one of the few buildings that lives up to and even exceeds the built-up expectations of how great it is. You see pictures in magazines and read about it; and then going to visit and experience it in person is better than what you’ve seen. The materials, details and immense variations of spaces within the building are outstanding. He engages all of your senses and does it in a way that is so peaceful and calming. It perfectly blends into the landscape and context of this small town in an alpine valley. By far the best building in the world to me.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I mentioned a couple earlier — Allied and Holst — but I’m not sure if they are really unheralded. I think Lever Architecture does great work and look forward to continue seeing them do bigger projects in Portland. Some of the smaller firms like Fieldwork Design & Architecture is a great example of a firm that pays attention to craft and detail. I’d love to see how they would translate that into something at a much larger scale.
I’d also like to see more local work by Allied Works. I think they are a firm that is a leader within the local design community and really sets the bar for local firms. However, although they create beautiful work, most of it is located somewhere else. I would love to see them get a commission to do a ground-up building here in Portland — maybe an addition to Portland Art Museum campus or another cultural building.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I wish that both architects and developers were a bit more daring. I think there is a lot of safe design happening here, a lot of background or “filler” buildings. There aren’t many iconic buildings in Portland that make a statement. Portland has become famous in part due to its innovative urban planning, and it seems architecture has taken a backseat to that success. I think it’s time to allow the actual buildings to catch up in prestige to our infrastructure, light rail, transportation systems, etc. When visitors ask me what architecture to visit or see while in town I usually don’t really know where to send them, I usually send them to the Halprin Fountains downtown, as they are some of the most daring and beautiful designs in the city. I wish we had architecture that could rival those.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I have mixed feelings. The Portland Development Commission has been great for us; we’ve done some small projects with them. We worked with them for Lents Town Center on an information kiosk and received a grant to turn one of their vacant lots into a community park and photography exhibit. They have been really helpful. I think the PDC sometimes gets a bad reputation but I believe they are looking to do the best work that they can for the neighborhoods that they work in.
The permitting office I have less fond feelings for. I think there are a lot of regulations in place that limit the ability of architects to do the best work possible. The Community Design Standards, for instance, are a terrible guideline that basically prescribes bad design. It should be thrown out. The ADU [accessory dwelling unit] code is another example where the zoning rules dictate the aesthetics of the building at the expense of what the owner actually wants it to look like. Protecting health and safety is one thing, but prescribing what style a building should be, and what it should look like, stifles creativity and prevents good design. There is no reason that any city code should dictate style or aesthetics.
You could argue that a lot of the fees are excessive and in some way stymie development and growth. I would like to see fees be more related to a percentage of the cost of a projects rather than fixed sums. That might also prevent some of these housing builders from putting up these giant McMansions all over our residential neighborhoods. We should financially incentivize smaller dwellings that fit into the context rather than now, where people need to maximize square footage to get the most profit above the cost of construction and fees. I’d like to see some bold changes.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I would love to see some of the high-end Swiss firms do work in Portland. Herzog & de Meuron has been one of my favorite firms to look to for inspiration for years. Peter Zumthor would be a great candidate as well, although he is a much harder catch. I think someone that can really get the public excited about architecture is Bjarke Ingels with BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group). He is great at presenting work and talking about architecture in a way that the average person can understand and get passionate about. Having his firm do a project here would be something exciting for the city. Studio Gang would be great as well. Jeanne Gang’s firm is creative and has a thoughtfulness about her work, and passion for sustainability that I think would fit in well with the Portland culture.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Furniture. It’s probably pretty common for architects to say this. Furniture is sort of like a building for your body. My girlfriend and I designed a dining table and a coffee table for our house and she is working on the design of a conference table for a developer in town. We have each also designed chairs and other misc. items. My firm has designed a couple street seats around Portland which is basically furniture at a micro urban scale. The furniture exercises are fun because you get into the tectonics, materiality and details a lot faster. The projects in general are quick, so you usually get instant gratification. Where an architecture projects can take years, a piece of furniture might only take a couple weeks or months to see the results.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
There are too many to choose from. I love science fiction. The way that you can use a fictitious future (or past) setting to tell a story and explore a fundamental truth about some aspect of humanity. I also love how the stories are translated into a designed environment. Through these stories, they are having to create something either from scratch or re-envisioned from today’s world. Along these lines I have to say Star Wars — the original three movies. They combine great storytelling, innovative visual effects and a great designed environment. To go along with this theme of a dystopian, sci-fi future, I loved the film Blade Runner. I’m drawn to most of Ridley Scott’s films and how he uses architecture to create mood and tell the story.
A third movie that’s memorable is Pulp Fiction, mostly because of the way that it deconstructs and intertwines a set of stories. It was a revolutionary storytelling device at the time. I’d never seen a movie that took many different storylines and spliced them up along a non-chronological path through a series of events.