BY BRIAN LIBBY
For more than 20 years, Randy Gragg has been one of Portland's foremost voices for design and the visual arts. As a longtime art and then architecture critic for The Oregonian, he helped shape the debate about countless projects, people and processes. The former Loeb Fellow at Harvard's Graduate School of Design has also founded publications like Reflex and Portland Spaces, while most recently acting as editor in chief of Portland Monthly - giving the magazine intellectual weight without losing its breezy sense of fun. Besides his journalistic talents, Gragg has also distinguished himself as a curator and preservationist.
It's the latter role that is now defining a bigger part of Gragg's career. Earlier this week the University of Oregon announced that Gragg would assume leadership of the John Yeon Center, connecting the legendary Portland modernist's built legacy with one of its leading advocates.
Recently I conversed with Gragg over a series of emails to talk about the Yeon Center and his other continuing pursuits.
Portland Architecture: You've long been active in supporting John Yeon's legacy. How did assuming leadership of the Yeon Center appeal as an opportunity and challenge to you, and how did you see it fitting into the broader context of your career with Portland Monthly, the O before that, etc.?
Randy Gragg: I suspect a lot people probably don’t know what the John Yeon Center is, so let’s start there: it’s comprised of the 1937 Watzek House, a modernist masterpiece, and the only National Historic Landmark house in Portland; the Cottrell House, a more modest but very strong design; and The Shire, a 70-acre landscape in the Columbia River Gorge sculpted as a series of walks and vistas overlooking Multnomah Falls.
I’ll be overseeing the management and programming of these properties. But, really, my task is to build a broad constituency for them. John and his partner Richard Brown gave them to UO over a decade ago. They’ve been used primarily as study tools with occasional public events, a worthy beginning. My charge is to shape the next phase, making them into a kind of “front door but also for the wider community of cultural leaders, researchers, policy makers, and electeds. Or maybe a better way to put it is to turn the Watzek House into the “living room” and The Shire into the “garden” for those who, like John Yeon, aspire to shape the future and beauty of the region.
Multnomah Falls from The Shire (photo by Brian Libby)
Now to actually answer your question! I’ve really had two paths in my career. Most of my time has been spent as a journalist. (Though I quit in 2007, people still seem to identify me for the arts and architecture criticism I wrote at the Big O). But I’ve always had side projects: curating exhibitions like Core Sample back in 2003; developing architect-in-residence projects for Bullseye Glass; co-developing a huge 2009 dance/music project and, ultimately, a conservation effort for the quartet of Portland fountain plazas designed by Lawrence Halprin and Associates.
In a way, promoting John Yeon’s legacy has been an ongoing side project, too, for nearly 20 years. His work and his thinking has been so inspirational to me. So I’m thrilled that UO is giving me the opportunity to really focus on developing the Yeon Center and the properties into inspirational experiences for the wider community.
You recently had completed a new home, designed by Rick Potestio. What was it like getting to participate in the design and construction process after having been a critic for many years? What are some of your favorite things about Rick's design and how the place turned out?
Well, I now know what developers do! And I have a lot more respect for just how hard it is to build anything—much less something that’s outside the usual. We made a triplex in the form of a pretty simple box, roughly 40-by-40-by-40 feet: two floors cinder block, one floor wood frame. Rick—once described by a mutual friend as a “professional Italian”—basically made it a palazzo. I get to live on the “piano nobile.” The process left me a pound or two of flesh lighter, and “retirement” is a few years further out. But my tenants love being here (one keeps asking me to sell him the unit).
The first few mornings I woke up here and watched the light move through the space, I felt like I was in an early James Turrell installation. Don’t get me wrong: this is a simple, fairly cheap building, but Rick really understands light. I own quite a bit of art, but I’ve not hung a single thing because it’s been so lovely to just enjoy the space and light. Moreover, Rick and I and the contractor, Greg Capen—all pretty combustible personalities—are still friends. Rick was one of the first people I met in Portland. He and some others came to the Oregonian within weeks of my arrival in 1990 and pitched me on the need for architecture writing in Portland. So the building feels like another level of a 24-year dialog.
What might be some aspirations or goals for the Yeon Center going forward? Could the Watzek House or the Shire perhaps be accessed by the public a little more often, for example?
Give me a little time, but it’s a promise: much more accessible. The new head of the architecture department of UO’s School of Architecture and Allied Arts, Judith Sheine, cofounded the Friends of the Schindler House in West Hollywood. The Watzek House was no less inspirational to NW regional modernists, and we’re co-conspiring to make the Watzek House similarly central to the architectural soul of the region.
I once took [Pritzker Prize winning Australian architect] Glen Murcutt to the Watzek House and, after an hour of watching him parse every detail, he shook his head and said, “You know, everything I’ve ever tried to do is here.” The Shire is where the Friends of the Columbia River Gorge was born. John Yeon wrote—in the 1930s, mind you—what was, effectively, the first environmental impact statement for the Gorge—and probably the first ever done in the NW—as the Bonneville Dam’s electricity was about to transform the region. He saved two of the most prominent vistas on the Oregon Coast. John understood change. He didn’t fight it. Instead, he believed great design and planning could shape new, sustainable kinds of beauty within the change. People need to know about this legacy because, as the weather grows hotter elsewhere and more people move here, we need to similarly step up and figure out how the region can be resilient. I can’t think of any better places to ponder the potential than the Watzek House and The Shire.
In addition to your work with the Yeon Center, it sounds like like you've found a new role at Portland Monthly that might let you actually write more. Is that right? Do you ever miss being at a daily paper, or do you just feel relief that you got off the sinking ship when you did?
My proudest boast right now is that I now work for my one-time intern! I’m continuing as editor at large for Portland Monthly. Zach Dundas and Rachel Ritchie (the latter said former intern who I’ve worked with since the start of Portland Spaces, for those who remember our very good, but badly timed, design magazine) now have the reigns. I will be writing and editing, working on things like the Robert Adams profile I did a couple months ago.
As for the daily paper, I miss being published most every day, moreover the sense of being READ every day. When I started at the O, I wrote 4-5 times a week. Then, gradually, I started writing more and more emails and fewer and fewer articles. Had I stayed, it would have been more and more posts. I’m somebody who likes to think about things, then write. I wish I could think fast enough for today’s journalism. But I also wish that more journalists today wrote and investigated like yesterday’s. I have tremendous respect for my former colleagues still working the paper (and web) and for the younger journalists who’ve joined them. The ship isn’t so much sinking as it is just breaking apart. The transition is painful, but some parts will still float. However, I got out precisely—and luckily—at the right moment for me.
I feel like I’ve been given the best of both worlds: I still get to write, mulling over each word, for a local audience who I will often run into and get talk to on the streets AND I get to work on a longer-term project—the Yeon Center--that, if I do well, will build a stronger constituency for the thing I’ve spent a lot of my career advocating for: great city and regional planning and great design.