BY LUKE AREHART
The latest installment in Portland Architecture's ongoing series of interviews with local architects about their backgrounds, careers and inspirations continues with Agustin Enriquez V, a principal at GBD Architects who last year was named a 40 Under 40 Award winner for young business leadership by the Portland Business Journal. Enriquez, a Portland native, began at GBD in 2002 and has spent his entire career with the firm.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Agustin Enriquez: If you were to ask my mother, she would tell me that from a very young age -- I think 4 or 5 -- I declared I'd be an architect or a doctor and I would provide either shelter or health. That has sounded preposterous to me almost my entire life, but now having two young children myself and a particularly precocious daughter, perhaps I did say something like that. It's possible, children are incredibly perceptive and say such smart things. It's too bad we grow up; I wish I was still that bright. I try and spend a full day each weekend with my kids running around town on adventures and then drawing our day together in the evening. Regardless, like most children I drew all the time in my youth and I think that interest guided me from North Portland to apply and attend Benson High School. The school had such tremendous physical resources: machine shops where we made real, psychical things like hammers, electronic/electric shop classes where we made circuit boards, the school even had a working foundry where we poured molten metal! In high school. Just a really neat experience. We also had a drafting department and I just kind of never stopped drawing, drafting, and it seemed obvious to continue on to become an architect.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I attended the University of Southern California. It was a great experience. Living in a major, metropolitan city was exciting -- though as a student pursuing a degree in Architecture, there isn't much downtime to get out and explore. The professors were good, but I thought the most valuable asset the school had were the students. The students seemed incredibly talented and worked very, very hard. The studios were set up to be extremely competitive. We would typically have 6-8 studios in our class and each studio consisted of about 15 students. On average, in any given studio, one student could be awarded an A, maybe another A minus, a few B plusses and so on. The end result was every student had to compete all out to get the few available As. The reality of that situation taught me a great deal about discipline, work ethic, and frankly because we all had to work really hard we just learned a lot in general. One of the study abroad programs was a semester living in Italy on Lake Como. The basic program was work in Como for three weeks, travel for two, return and work for three, travel for two, etc. We saw so much: Rome, Florence, Venice, Tuscany, but also Berlin, Vienna, Paris, and I stayed after to visit London, Barcelona, parts of Portugal. At the time, it really seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity and very exotic. I got the travel bug after I graduated and have had really wonderful experiences traveling around the world seeing cities and studying buildings. I've been very fortunate to have been exposed to so much.
Maryhill Museum of Art expansion (Josh Partee)
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
It's hard not to reflect on the first major project with design responsibility -- an expansion to the Maryhill Museum of Art. I was relatively young and have very fond memories of that experience. We had hoped to bury the entire addition underground, but for practical reasons that was infeasible. Instead, we buried the majority of the building underground using the earth to temper the energy loads and allow the original museum building to be the dominant visual element in the landscape. The Museum is on the National Register of Historic Places and working within those confines was an interesting experience. It was formative in my thinking about designing new additions to old buildings and what is appropriate (versus what is not appropriate) and the belief that mimicking a historic style can unfortunately trivialize real history.
I've since had the opportunity to tweak other great old buildings since Maryhill: an addition and renovation at 12th and Alder for the Lease Crutcher Lewis Portland headquarters, a funky interior space in our building for a digital agency AKQA, and most recently an addition and renovation in a suburban office park for Touchmark in Beaverton. Touchmark is probably the most interesting project from a future opportunity perspective: the country is full of 3-4 decade old office buildings that were not intended to last. When we started working on the design, I was quite taken with the idea that the building was worth saving, not demolishing it and starting over, but modernizing it for today's workplace and demonstrating real sustainability with the nation's huge supply of suburban office stock. I'm really happy with the way it turned out and see it as a real world example of taking a modest ambition building and converting it into something fresh and viable.
And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Kiln Apartments. That was a relatively small multi-family project in North Portland where the mission was to try and design the most energy efficient building possible. The idea was to figure out a way to really bend the curve dramatically on energy consumption on a small scale and then take those lessons learned and implement them on a larger scale (which we did on an apartment project under construction in NW Portland called Muse Apartments). That was a very challenging project all the way through and I am quite proud that we were ultimately able to figure it out. That could be a truly transformative project if we can find a way to replicate the passive house design strategies employed there on a much larger scale.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Love the question. It's easy to learn something from just about anybody - anybody that spends time with children can attest to that. It doesn't matter if it is the seasoned veterans around the office or the right out of school design interns. In fact, the most influential person I have worked with was a fellow student at USC named Raymond Urruty. I thought he was the most talented designer in school and just worked incredibly hard. He really drove me to put in the extra hours and continuously refine the ideas and pursue multiple iterations of answers to the same problem. To this day it is probably the single most formative experience of my life as a designer/architect. It doesn't have to be a traditional mentor/mentee relationship to form who you are as an architect.
Beyond that, I have been the beneficiary of working with some very talented senior people at GBD: in a profession of profound stress and pressure where bad decisions can cost millions of dollars, I have learned the value of a calming presence from Phil Beyl and never to get too high or too low. From Steve Domreis: how the relentless pursuit toward perfection may be unattainable, but if you don't move towards that, then what's the point. From Gene Callan I learned how important it is to give younger staff opportunities as he did with me at Maryhill Museum. Perhaps that is the most important lesson yet learned, one individual can only do so much, so those opportunities have to be shared. They don't have to be given to the most senior person - just the person you really believe can do the best job and allow them to rise to the occasion. If it's not working, you can always pull back some of the responsibility, but so often really talented staff will surprise you with the proper coaching, guidance, and opportunity. I try and do that every day in the office now with the folks I collaborate with and have seen really good work produced. I am very happy about that and see the design trajectory of GBD continuing to get better and better.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
I like the early gestation of "finding" a project. When working with our private sector clients, often times the process is they come to us with a piece of property, an idea for the kind of project (for example an office building or a new apartment building), and ask us what can be done. That involves zoning studies, various massing approaches, urban design strategies, and then conceptual design ideas about various buildings. I refer to that as "finding" the project and it is a core part of the services we provide. I like that part of a project as it is exciting each time to come up with lots of ideas, try new things, and establish the basic foundations for the project. This is a lot of what I do on a day-to-day basis. The more common vernacular to this might be Pre-Design or Concept Design. I also really enjoy Schematic Design where we are fleshing out the building aesthetics and functionality more and the design really starts to solidify to something that is identifiable as a building. I love this part of the project and find it magical for a lot of our clients to experience this part of the design process regardless how many times they experience it. I also really enjoy the period immediately after the building is opened and people are using it. With few exceptions it is a really gratifying experience to hear about how the building is operating, how it makes the residents lives a little bit better because of a particular apartment design or how their workspace is a pleasure to do work in.
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
We are currently designing a building in the historic Skidmore/Old Town district and I have been looking at a lot of older buildings in the neighborhood to try and understand the area. An old standby I liked from my childhood is the Bishop's House on Third and Stark. I don't know specifically why I like it architecturally, but I always have. A couple of others that stand out are the Gilbert Building on Third and Taylor and the Bank of California TR Exchange Building on SW Sixth and Washington. In particular, I really like the Exchange building. I don't know how many other people have ever stopped and looked at that building, but it really resonates with me. Very simple, almost plain with the generous amount of glazing but with just enough detail. I admire it. For a building constructed in 1902 it is very modern, still fresh, and I could easily imagine working in that building.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor in Chur, Switzerland. I had the opportunity to visit the building with three architectural school friends during my semester abroad in Italy. We happened to crash the car in a blizzard in the Swiss mountainside which significantly bummed us out. When we got to the bath house, got inside, and spent the rest of the day there, well, wow. It was a very unique experience. It is the only building I have visited where the building is dramatically better in person than the photographs. And I find the photographs to be among the most beautiful and evocative architectural photographs I’ve seen. The building operates all five of your senses: the temperature of the water in the pools, the visual play of light, the reverberation and sounds vary in many of the rooms, the smells inside and outside, there is even a fountain with mineral water that has a particular taste. The quality of craftsmanship is remarkable and the design thought and distillation is just so well done.
The only comparable experience I have are the Portland Japanese Gardens. It is a very sophisticated design experience with a lot going on that is both readily apparent yet subtle and subdued. The change of walking surface from crushed rock that has an audible quality to it that causes one to walk slower, the hard surfaces that allow for easier movement and less sound, the change in topography that require a more measured approach to stepping and thus a slower cadence, the wood plank bridges that turn at right angles in the koi pond that redirect your vantage point and distant vistas. It is special. And all of that could just be on one day in the summer. It is quite different in the spring, the winter, the fall, it's just a very, very special place. We are fortunate to have it and even more fortunate that it is a publicly accessible space.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
I recently got back from New York City presenting Kiln Apartments at a Passive House Conference. One of my co-presenters was Dylan Lamar with Green Hammer (he did not work on Kiln but has on a similarly next generation energy efficient building). I haven't had the opportunity to work with him personally, but I liked his talk, his message, and believe that energy efficiency and sustainability is vitally important. The work he does and advocates for so passionately is fundamentally important and I'd like to see folks like him getting more public credit for something that could literally save the world or at least avert some very serious negative effects from the world's consumption of energy.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
A focus back on neighborhoods in new development. It doesn’t mean that development cannot happen in neighborhoods. It means that when new development happens, to consider the entire neighborhood holistically rather than individual buildings. We have been very fortunate to have worked on multiple neighborhood projects: Belmont Dairy where Zupan’s is probably the first multi block project the office designed, the Brewery Blocks has had a tremendously positive impact on the neighborhood, Hassalo (Lloyd Blocks) is being dramatically revived, South Waterfront, Slabtown... All have been or are being transformed in a very positive way. It’s tricky to figure out how to do it – our best examples are probably where we were intimately involved with multiple buildings and one property owner. How is that repeatable property by property with multiple architects and developers? I don’t have the answers, but I think that is the one thing I would love to see continue to be a focus in Portland – a real sense that individual buildings are important but how 4 or 5 blocks all working together is the magic to creating great urban space and ultimately good neighborhoods for people to live and work in.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
I've had the opportunity to take a number of projects through the Portland Design Commission [not part of PDC]. A caveat: these are my own personal observations. Generally speaking, I have found the Commission to be reasonable, usually on point with their observations, and we've been fortunate to often times conclude the review process in a hearing or two. Something that I believe has changed is the level of detail being requested. I think the Design Commission does the city the largest service when the review process is focused on really large scale building issues like where on a block the vehicle access is (if there is any), how the public accesses the building, how utilitarian functions are being handled to avoid substandard urban design issues, and then focusing on the design of the first 20-30 vertical feet of a building: the areas that have a significant impact on the pedestrian experience. I think they do a good job with that. However, my perception is that in recent years the commission has expanded the review to include quite a bit more detailed information. This could be a result of us architects showing too much information and the advent of photorealistic renderings and thus more to comment on, but I think the commission could review less about all the details and focus primarily on the big picture. The details are important, but other cities allow their commissioners to focus on these major design decisions and allow city staff to review the details. An approach like that could reduce the workload for commissioners, speed up the process, and still accomplish the critical need to maintain Portland's wonderful street presence and urban design ethos.
Culver Building, before and after (top - GBD Architects, bottom - Josh Partee)
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
I like the design of most tools. An uncle of mine is a professional furniture maker and who doesn't like staring at old woodworking tools? Particularly vintage planes. Those are beautiful instruments. Tools tend to be so distilled in their design to only what is absolutely necessary for them to work and then over decades and centuries were refined into things of immense utility and beauty. I really like can openers. Did I just say that? I think it's really neat that we make metal cans to store our food and the only way to open them is with a tool with a few gears and a circular knife that cuts the top of the can lid off. Why that is the best way to store perishable foods is beside the point. I just really admire the simplicity of a basic kitchen can opener.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
Yikes, I should watch more movies as this is a hard question to answer. Stranger Than Fiction I think is seriously underrated. Don’t know if its all-time, but I love that move. I don’t watch a ton of Will Farrell movies, but this is one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen. Can we do books? Many years ago I read a book about Richard Feynman called Perfectly Reasonable Deviations that has stuck with me as such an incredible portrait of a human being involved with the creation of the first atomic bomb yet he constantly reflects on his family. Another good book is called I Am a Pencil by Sam Swope about children learning to write. Great book.