BY LUKE AREHART
Next in the Architect’s Questionnaire series is Portland architect Kristin Slavin. Kristin is currently an associate with PATH Architecture. She recently worked on completing the finishing touches on The Radiator Building, one of the newest built additions to North Williams Avenue. Previously, Kristin’s career included stops at notable Portland firms Hennebery Eddy Architects and SERA Architects, the latter where she served as the project assist on the Collaborative Life Sciences Building.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Kristin Slavin: My mom told me that my interest started in middle school, but I don’t quite remember the beginning of my interest. I definitely knew that I wanted to be an architect when I started high school. I took every single drafting class that was available.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I earned my undergraduate degree at Texas Tech University and did my graduate work at the University of Oregon in Eugene. They were very different programs, which I think is really valuable. However, I didn’t realize how valuable the experience was until after I was done. Texas Tech was great; I think that their architecture program is underrated. It doesn’t seem to get much press in the architecture community. The program was focused on design and leveraging computer programs to get your point across graphically, along with the necessary experimentation of unique solutions. We also had really tough critiques there, which I think was very useful to develop your design. U of O, on the other hand, is driven by sustainability along with the technical details involved to get a building built. My education experience was a good combination of multiple aspects. In contrast to Texas Tech, U of O could do a better job with design reviews by being more critical of students’ work. It was a good combination of schools overall.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The last project I just finished: the Kartini Clinic, a tenant improvement project in The Radiator Building. The reason that this project was my favorite is because I was able to be in control. It was my first project where I was the lead. Our firm (PATH Architecture) is small; we’re only four people. It was my responsibility to make sure the project developed through design, permit and construction. We build our projects too; I was working directly with our contractor. This project was more hands-on than any other project I worked on, which was awesome. I’m sure my next project will be my favorite and the one after that and so on. It was a really nice introduction to leading a project from start to finish.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
I have had a lot of great bosses, mentors and people who have been willing to talk to me openly about my career path and what I want out of it. The person that I have stayed in touch with the best is Alene Davis at SERA Architects. She was my first boss in the business here in Portland. I worked with her on the Collaborative Life Sciences Building while I was at SERA. She was great at developing me as an architect. We’ve stayed in touch and it’s been very useful having someone who is a strong female in the profession to go to over issues, questions, etc. Alene has been involved in AIA Oregon and I’m involved in AIA Portland, so it’s nice to have that duality and touch base on those topics as well. We both attended the AIA Grassroots conference in Washington DC, which was great.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
The part the like best is seeing the project when it’s done. It’s nice to have that gratification. Hopefully the client is also happy, which helps to validate all of the decisions that were made throughout the process. I think what I’m best at is thinking through the building code, which is not the most glamorous part of architecture. I also really enjoy designing; it’s fun for me. I enjoy getting the design sketch or idea in your head that isn’t real yet and developing it through the city and figuring out which things need to be nudged in order to get the idea to work, this is what I’m best at.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
The Wieden + Kennedy Building. I love the beauty inside this building. The spaces are amazing and I wish more people could see it and experience it. I understand the need for secrecy and security around the building, but it’s such a nice space to be in.
I also like Union Way and the urban space that they created in the little weird, funky alley; it’s pretty cool.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
This is one question that I had some trouble with, I decided that I don’t want to mention any building that I haven’t visited yet because I don’t think that you can actually understand a place until you’ve been in it and experienced it. I know there are a lot of great buildings out there that I haven’t been to. My favorite that I have actually visited, is the Clyfford Still Museum in Denver by Allied Works. I really love the ceiling in the space and the light is perfect too.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
di loreto Architecture has completed some nice projects. In the last couple of years I have been introduced to their work and they have a great community center at the corner of NE Alberta St and NE Eighth Avenue behind St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. I had no idea who did it, and I always liked it and walked by it all of the time. When I found out di loreto designed it, I looked at their website and thought their other work was great too.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
We need to get more aggressive with design. Right now it’s way too safe and boring. I think we need some iconic buildings. People come here to Portland and everyone loves it here, but if there are architects that come here to stay and see, it’s hard to tell them where to go. There are some nice places to walk around in but there aren’t any ‘that’ buildings, or iconic buildings that you can send them to. I think we can play around a little more and try to have more freedom with our design and not worry so much about what was built a hundred years ago. Recognize old styles but try to do something new, modern and fresh.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
Depends on the day. I’m on the design-committee for Alberta Main Street and we work a lot with the PDC on grants for storefront improvements. They’ve been great usually, but not always. I think sometimes there are just odd limitations to what you can and can’t do. There are also limitations that weren’t there last year and are here this year. You understand the intent behind the move, but the execution isn’t always thought through as far as who is eligible to get grants.
The rest of city government, like the PDC, is a little bit between a rock and a hard place. We recently had the experience with the city where we wanted to do something very innovative and asked for their help to get us through. We said, "We know we are breaking the rules, but to be fair, we know new rules will be coming in the future that allow this.” We tried to work with the city to get though the issue which is going to be more prevalent in the future. They don’t really have any money, so it’s tough to do something experimental and innovative without the developer paying for it. If the developer does pay for it, it becomes difficult because they don’t have any control over the process (like a structural analysis for example). It’s up to the city to get the people together to administer the peer review, come up with the findings, and then decide whether or not it’s going to work. It’s not a very efficient model currently and it doesn’t incentivize people to do very innovative things, but there is no money for them to just take on this challenge on their own to figure ahead of time what will and won’t work. Maybe there is a different way of paying the city for permitting. Maybe there is a five-cent innovation tax on each permit, so they can preemptively decide what new technology will be acceptable.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Peter Zumthor would be great. BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group) does great work as well. I’d really like to see anyone who has a new idea and willing to open it up and let something new happen.
What’s the next style? There was modern, contemporary, post-modern running around and mixing together. There is a lot of talk, at least in residential architecture, about matching the existing fabric. This often means designing something that looks like it was supposed to be built 100 years ago, but you can tell was built only two years ago. This isn’t really what we should be doing. What’s beyond where we are at right now, what’s the next phase of design?
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
Furniture. I like this scale a lot. I did a competition with some friends for urban design and that scale was fun; but I found I like smaller scale better like furniture and product design. I find them more interesting and tangible.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
I don’t know, I fall asleep at every movie we watch at home. I did like the movie Serenity based off the show Firefly. I’m not sure if I have any others…I really like the podcast This American Life, and I’ve listened to every single one of them as well as Serial. I really like radio and audio-books. I’ve been really into listening during drafting days, where I’m focusing in on drawing.