BY LUKE AREHART
The latest in our continuing series of conversations with architects, their inspirations and passions takes us to Opsis Architecture, where Jennie Cambier, a LEED-accredited associate architect, works on a variety of education projects.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Jennie Cambier: I had a bit of a circuitous path. My parents built a house when I was in fifth grade and I loved looking at the plans. I would daydream and draw house floor plans on graph paper. I always loved drawing and painting in general. I remember thinking that I wanted to be an artist when I grew up. I had a lot of competing academic interests, and at some point architecture took a back seat, and I ended up going to Middlebury College, a liberal arts school in Vermont, and graduated with a degree in history and minor in education. I loved having this liberal arts experience. Looking back, I’m glad that I didn’t do a five-year bachelor of architecture program because it is very specialized and focused. I feel that having a broader background is valuable to architects; it’s important to not be too myopic. After earning my degree, I thought I was going to be a history teacher because I love history and love talking about it. After teaching for a year however, I realized it wasn’t the right career for me. I did some soul searching and took stock of what I had been passionate about when I was younger. I also took an exploratory architecture class at the University of Washington and decided to go back to school to be an architect. This program was great because we were able to go around and visit many different Seattle firms like Miller Hull and Mithun and see their offices, talk with their partners. Being in those environments felt really comfortable for me and it became clear that it was definitely what I wanted to do. Currently with Opsis Architecture, I mainly work on K-12 and higher education projects, so I still get to be in the classroom and I love working with education clients. It brings everything full circle for me.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
As I mentioned, my first academic exposure was the University of Washington’s exploratory architecture seminar. U of O also has a similar course that you typically take in your last year of study, called Context of the Profession, that is used to ground your education in reality and give you more exposure to the practice of architecture. In the University of Washington’s case, we met every week at a different firm. I was with people who were about to graduate from their program and I audited the course as an observer. This experience was very valuable to me.
Afterward, I went to the University of Oregon and since I already had my BA, I did the three-year, Option 3 graduate program. This program is for people who don’t have any prior experience or background in architecture. For me at the time, it was just my speed. I loved that people in my program had super diverse backgrounds. People had prior careers. We even had an emergency room doctor who was having a midlife career switch. He was an amazing artist and very creative. In the end he went back to be an ER doctor; maybe once he realized how much architects make. Overall, though, it was a good experience. Maybe the program has changed since then, but it was a little bit like getting a second bachelor’s degree. A lot of our classes were with the undergraduate students. I wish there had been more separate, advanced classes for masters students.
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
The project I am working on now is the Education Center at the Oregon Zoo, which has been a really rewarding and cool experience. The project is located at the original zoo entrance; you’ll be able to see the building as you approach the zoo from Highway 26. Opsis specializes in a whole spectrum of K-12 and higher education projects. This particular project is unique because it ties the zoo’s education programs with their conservation efforts and connects visitors to what the zoo is doing on behalf of conservation and the environment. Architecturally and programmatically, this project has been a little bit of everything. In addition to classrooms, the main public space features interpretive exhibits related to conservation. There is also the animal component, with the Insect Zoo and the Turtle Lab where the zoo raises western pond turtles and releases them into their natural habitat. I had never worked on any project that had deionized water systems for animals along with other animal life support systems, so I have been learning a lot. It is also pretty unique to go to a client meeting and check up on the elephants or the condors along the way. That does not happen on most projects!
I have been involved with this project from day one, when we interviewed in 2014, through to now, where we’re halfway done with construction. The zoo is such an important community institution in Portland. It’s a real legacy project for Opsis. I can’t wait to take my kids there when it opens.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
I’ve worked with some great people at Opsis during the past 11 years. Chris White, who passed away last year after an illness, stands out as someone who has significantly contributed to my development as an architect. I worked closely with him on many projects through my time here. I learned so much from him, from the ins and outs of construction administration to the importance of keeping your sense of humor even when things get rough. He really valued mentorship. I was able to sit next to him for a long period of time. He was the kind of person who always hung up the phone on good terms with someone, even if he had just chewed them out minutes before. I miss his presence in our office almost every day.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I love learning things. If I could be paid to do it, I would be in school for the rest of my life. As an architect, I’m learning new things every day, from the seemingly banal technicalities of sewer manhole connections to really innovative products and details. This is what keeps it a really rich and rewarding experience for me. Maybe it’s because I was a history major, but I like to think I excel at remembering the important stuff and connecting the dots.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
The Burnside Bridgehead projects are an area that I bike past every day. I’m pretty intrigued with how they are transforming the city skyline along with the feel of the Eastside, while setting up an interesting dynamic with Portland’s downtown. I’ve enjoyed watching them slowly change that part of the city. The buildings have such a presence already, even while under construction. You really notice them and the visual impact they have from different vantage points around town, like driving in from highway 84.
I’m also really taken with the new Tilikum Crossing Bridge that recently opened. It’s not a building per se, but it also has changed the experience of the river, the South Waterfront and the city skyline. Currently they seem to be working out how people connect with and use it on bikes with the different signals, signage and pathways. The idea of this project and the experience of being on the bridge is very cool. I’ve had a lot of fun biking across this bridge. It’s also nice that there is an Elephant’s Delicatessen on the west side, which helps create a fun destination.
I’ve also been really digging the Portland Mercado on SE Foster Road; it has a great vibe. It’s a PDC project that features an outdoor canopy with covered seating with about eight colorful food carts plugged into it. There is also an indoor market area. It always feels like such a great neighborhood experience when I go there. The food is great too. I would love to see more of this kind of project, as a grassroots style, nonprofit while providing a huge amenity for the community.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
This is totally clichéd for a University of Oregon graduate, but I was recently in Copenhagen and made a pilgrimage to the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of the city. Our studio professors at the U of O loved using this project as a design precedent. Visiting the building and grounds really was a sublime experience. It’s a wonderful museum, a great collection of art and has beautiful context and surroundings with great indoor/outdoor connections.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Jeff Stern, who used to work at Opsis, is doing really great, thoughtful work with his practice, in situ architecture. His house, which meets Passivhaus standards, is beautiful. I wish I had been able to work with him more.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
I would love to see real action on improving biking infrastructure throughout the city, even though Portland already has great biking infrastructure compared to other cities and is well recognized for it. There’s a general feeling among the biking community that Portland is resting on its laurels from previous accomplishments and national awards and that any real change or improvement is reactive. I tend to agree. Our city is still way too car dependent and we need separated, protected bike lanes to increase safety and encourage more people to bike. My husband and I bike with our daughter to daycare, but we are limited to a certain range from our house that we feel comfortable biking with her. I’d love to be able to bike with her from our house to the office, which would include crossing a bridge. I don’t currently feel comfortable doing that. I wish we had more Copenhagen-esque bike path design elements. For example, a new buffered bike lane was recently put in on NW Third Avenue, providing a connection to downtown, but it abruptly stops a few blocks south of Burnside. What a lost opportunity to make a viable and safe downtown bikeway.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
The planning department is in the middle of reviewing my project for permit, so no complaints here. ;) Those guys are doing a great job! But in all seriousness, it goes without saying that there is a lot of change going on in Portland these days in terms of zoning, affordability and parking issues, for example. It sounds like there is still a lot to be figured out. As an architect, I’m usually pretty appalled at the housing going into the close-in neighborhoods that are out of scale, have no backyards along with poor detailing and quality. But at the same time, it’s market driven, and people are buying this type of housing. People snatch it up and the builders keep building. I’m not sure what kind of mechanisms need to be in place to allow for enough change without being too restrictive.
Name a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland.
BIG (Bjarke Ingels Group). Does everyone say that these days? I also like the work of Jeanne Gang's studio in Chicago. She has done some great, smaller community projects for clients that don’t have a lot of money. They have created some beautiful, thoughtful designs.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I love bikes. Bike design, especially in Portland, is pretty fun to follow. This morning I was biking behind someone that had a really cool speaker strapped to their bike; luckily they were playing good music. There are lots of accessories that people are getting to enhance their commutes, which I find interesting.
And since I have worn them every day since I was five, I like eyeglass design. I always notice glasses. They can say a lot about a person.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
There are a couple movies from when I was growing up that I could watch over and over. I’m not sure if that makes them great movies, but I don’t ever tire of them. I have a special dorky affinity for The Last of the Mohicans (maybe because I am a sucker for Daniel Day-Lewis with long hair, historical fiction and a good soundtrack). I was really taken with the movie Amadeus, which resonated with me for some reason; the actors are amazing and it’s a fascinating dramatic story, heightened by the music. For my third favorite I’ll add a TV show, The Wire. It’s the best ever.