BY LUKE AREHART
Our series on local architects' careers and inspirations continues with Eugene Sandoval, a partner at one of Portland's most prominent firms: ZGF Architects. Over the past decade-plus, Sandoval has played a key role in many of the firm's most acclaimed projects, including the John E. Jaqua Academic Center and the Hatfield-Dowlin Complex at the University of Oregon in Eugene, as well as the Eliot Tower, the Twelve | West building in downtown Portland among many others.
Portland Architecture: When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
Sandoval: I was seven or eight years old. It was one of those moments I can still recall. I came from a Chinese and Filipino family of 12 siblings who, one way or another, had business on the water. Boats and ships were natural for us; we started building and repairing them. My father was managing a ship-yard for my family, and I would often go with him and observe the process of building, the forms and technology behind it. That captivated me. I was also in love with art for as long as I can remember. The two (building and art) naturally came together for me in architecture.
Where did you study architecture and how would you rate the experience?
I went to two institutions to study architecture. One was the University of Santo Thomas in the Philippines, where I studied for two years towards an undergraduate degree in architecture. Then I moved to Oregon to further my education at the University of Oregon in 1985. Two very different schools. The University of Santo Thomas was more Beaux-Arts. I learned how to draw like mad and understood the architectural orders.
At U of O, it was a very different experience. It had a good liberal arts education and it was a school that taught you how to think and how to live life in society. In terms of the program, it was good because it wasn’t tied to a master, like Columbia at that time, where Bernard Tschumi was a driving force and most all of the work was focused on deconstruction. U of O in this respect taught me to be independent, as well as the fundamentals of thinking and space-making rather than a specific movement, fundamentals of sustainable architecture. Getting a liberal arts education, I was also exposed to art and architecture history beyond just Western art and architecture. It was a bit more of a global education rather than just regional. I had a thirst for this. Coming from the Philippines I thought there were no resources in this regard. When I came to the States, especially at U of O, there were professors that were very knowledgeable of Eastern architecture and art. It was like reverse osmosis to some degree!
What is your favorite building project that you’ve worked on?
All of them have different highlights and challenges. The Jaqua Academic Center in Eugene at the University of Oregon was a threshold for me where I felt that I grew up. The project was for a very aspirational client (Phil Knight and Howard Slusher). They wanted a structure on par with the best buildings in the world. I’ve had people say when they walk through the building, they felt they could be in Zurich or Japan. I try to inspire students and clients to look beyond and think in a larger/global framework. We have to be respectful of the regional forces yet we have to think globally. I would add that detailing and craftsmanship of the building is well done, considering it was designed in 10 months and built in 12 months.
Who has been an important mentor among your colleagues?
Greg Baldwin, who passed away in 2011, was my partner and my mentor and collaborator for a very long time. We had this simpatico in the way we think, the way our skillsets tied together, and complemented each other. Greg helped me understand the bigger goal and responsibility of architecture and architects. The notion of being a social servant, a steward of the built environment. This is a stark contrast to my background where it’s much more of a feudal system; it’s about your family and guarding your own interests. Greg helped me learn to be a social steward.
What part of the job do you like best, and as an architect what do you think you most excel at?
What part of my job do I like best? I come to work every morning knowing there is always something new hitting the desk. People come to the profession of architecture thinking that it’s about building, that it’s brick and mortar. Architecture and architects are really service providers for thinking and for elevating the human condition. All our projects are dynamic. There are new sets of challenges that need resolution. It’s the dynamism of the profession that keeps me on my toes.
What do I most excel at? I’m not sure if I’m a good judge of that. I’d rather have other people decide what I excel at. I don’t know, maybe I am relentless. Maybe I inspire my clients to aspire for the very best and delivering a structure that makes a city/place work better. Do ask them. That would be interesting!
What are some Portland buildings (either new or historic) that you most admire?
Great question. I don’t want to be predictable but Belluschi’s Equitable Building is a favorite. It’s a building challenged the convention of building technology. It was designed in the 1940s and it’s still as valid as it was 70 years ago. It’s beyond just a built work too: it’s the attitude that came with it.
I really love the Esco Building that ZGF and Bob Frasca did in the 1960s. There is such purity and modesty to it that we can all learn from.
Also, the US National Bank Building on Broadway (not the US Bancorp tower) by A.E. Doyle. I think it is spatially one of the most amazing spaces in Portland that very few people know. It’s a half block development that connects Broadway and Sixth Avenue. It’s just a masterfully done environment inside: a well detailed and executed classical building.
What is your favorite building outside of Portland and besides any you’ve worked on?
I don’t know if I just have one. I could mention a few that I think are influential. My favorites change along with my interests, frankly.
That said, Tadao Ando’s Church on the Water that was built in the late 1980s is a very influential building to me: a building that captured the spirituality that architecture can bring to the human experience.
The work that Kengo Kuma has been doing in Japan is also a favorite: no particular building, just the work in general. There is a material delicacy to it I find enriching. These are not buildings driven by ego; the subtlety is humbling.
I’ve long been a fan of Frank Lloyd Wright, and I had a chance to visit Taliesin West. He understood simple human needs for comfort all while overlaying art, spatial order, materiality, and sustainability in different environments. Taliesin West blew my mind; it started as a series of architecture projects for students to build upon. What they accomplished is inventive, primal and simple. It fits the landscape and is experientially amazing.
Is there a local architect or firm you think is unheralded or deserves more credit?
Bill Tripp. I had the opportunity to get to know Bill when he was working with ZGF many years ago. I truly enjoyed Bill because of his commitment to the vocation, his craft of architecture, his mind, the way he thinks and cares about how one experiences architecture, and how architecture influences the human inhabitants. If you look at his work he is doing a lot of great houses and churches, which speaks to that.
Generally, Portland as a design culture is coming of age. Portland designers are doing some incredible and very rich work. The work isn’t a series of one-liners but instead is layered with delicacy and subtle moves. This speaks well for the creative culture here.
What would you like to see change about Portland’s built environment in the long term?
When I was younger I would say, “Yeah, architects can change Portland and the city.” I’ve learned that you need partners, that the only way you can change architecture is to bring together institutions, citizens, and industry that are focused on creativity, research and intellectual curiosity. If we have these interests and this framework in Portland, we are going to do better architecture. But architects in general, by themselves, without those partnerships, can only do so much. You need capital, government support, social leaders and cultural leaders to be with you to fuel growth, innovation and exploration. That’s no secret: the best architecture comes from places where there is high culture or economic booms, or places with a lot of academic and cultural institutions; it’s where great architecture is born.
How would you rate the performance of local government like the Portland Development Commission, or the development and planning bureaus?
They’ve historically been great. Look around: you have to give them credit for where we are at. It’s really a challenge because the leaders that made Portland what it is right now, getting on the map in terms or urban design and the built environment, are retiring. The next question/statement is, who is willing to take over and be a part of the new generation? That new generation, me included, you included, can pave the way. It’s about us having a common voice. We have a great framework and architects here. I think it has to come from all of us.
Who is a famous architect you’d like to see design a building in Portland?
I mentioned Kengo Kuma, and he is designing a small project at the Portland Japanese Garden. I’d like to see him build a cultural institution in downtown Portland as well.
I would balance this out with a European architect. I’ve been a big fan of Peter Zumthor for a long time. His architecture fits Portland’s modesty.
There is also a guy from Australia, Kerry Hill. We don’t know him in this part of the world. But his sense of modernism is wonderful. I wish he would build something around this part of the world.
Name something besides architecture (sneakers, furniture, umbrellas) you love the design of.
My bike. I have so much interest in cycling and wish I had more time. I’m also very fond of clothing and car design as well as the science of ships. And I have a love for Chinese porcelain.
What are three of your all-time favorite movies?
“Cinema Paradiso” is one of my favorites. Movies are interesting, because they are a medium where you can build an ideal/sensual environment for people. You take them to a place where they haven’t been before. I think this is similar to architecture.
I watched “Star Wars” when I was 10 years old with my uncle and it forever changed my life. I came out thinking there was actually a world that was built in that manner. Looking back, it was the first moment in my life when I realized the power of design.
And I love “Blade Runner.” They are all kind of the same, movies that evolve around well-conceived sets of scene that support the storylines.