BY BRIAN LIBBY
A few nights ago, I happened to attend a talk with architect Thomas Hacker (founder of THA Architecture), in which he talked about how unlike Eugene, where he had taught at the University of Oregon, Portland, where he eventually made his name as an architect, has “an amazing civic sensibility, and a sensibility about making places and a city that is alive and vibrant and public.”
Hacker also talked that evening about having studied under and worked for the legendary midcentury-modernist architect Louis Kahn, which also connected him to a sort of lineage of teachers and mentors going back to French architects of the Beaux-Arts tradition like Paul Cret and Pierre-François-Henri Labrouste.
“Labrouste was the first architect who really understood the importance of civic architecture, and Paul Cret was the first to understand that needed to be reimagined in relationship to the programmatic needs of the people that you were working with,” Hacker explained. “Cret was able to erase some of the froufrou of Beaux-Art classicism and give it more functional purpose. And that went on down to Kahn. That fascinates me, you know? I like being a part of that.”
For Hacker’s first big project in Portland, the BICC (Biomedical Information Communications Center) library at Oregon Health & Science University in the 1980s (the first digital library in the nation), one of his first major hires was his former student, Brad Cloepfil.
As I walked Thursday through the new home of the Pacific Northwest College of Art's Schnitzer Center for Art & Design, the early 20th century Italian Renaissance-style former federal building which Cloepfil’s firm (Allied Works) designed the renovation of, I thought of these ideas from Hacker’s talk (with Randy Gragg) about civic architecture and the lineage that connects Cloepfil to both modernist and traditional masters of design. And I thought about how this project, as a Beaux-Arts building, brings the whole thing full circle.
The $34 million building PNCA will now call home had been shuttered and under-utilized for decades. In some kind of generational lapse of reason, during the midcentury all the huge skylights and most of the windows had been blocked off, and the tall ceilings dropped to a height suitable for Gary Coleman or Warwick Davis. Department of Immigration and later Homeland Security offices completed the sense that beyond the grand exterior and the ground floor's gilded gold ceiling laid an oppressive Kafka-esque interior.
Now, though, pretty much the first thing anyone notices walking into and through the 145,000-square-foot, six-story building, as several of us did on Thursday’s media tour, is how it’s teeming with light. It comes in through tall arched windows. It comes in through massive sawtooth skylights. Granted the sun was shining brightly that morning, but the whole building just sort of glowed. While Cloepfil achieved much acclaim over a decade ago, and deservedly so, for carving into the warehouse that became the Wieden + Kennedy building an atrium full of light, most of what he did to let in the illumination at PNCA was simply to uncover the glass that was already there, covered up.
Yet Cloepfil and his Allied Works team did more than that. One is inevitably drawn into three multistory spaces they carved into the interior: a big one in the middle and one on each side of the building to the east and west. The smaller ones are devoted to a library and a multifunctional lab space, respectively, but the big atrium in the middle, beneath a huge glass roof, is suddenly one of the most dramatic interior spaces in a public building in Portland.
The main atrium feels like it’s not just a commons for students and faculty, but a place for people from all over the city to come together at times, whether it’s for a PNCA event or otherwise. Like the Wieden + Kennedy building or Memorial Coliseum (particularly with the arena’s curtain open), you feel a sense of volume but also a nearly overwhelming wash of natural light. In an often-gray climate like ours, natural light in buildings matters immensely. And I think light is all the more important as well in civic and public buildings like this: our universities and city halls, our arenas and marketplaces. Done right, being there makes you feel part of something larger than yourself, but still connected to the world outside.
A few weeks ago I visited this building as construction was nearly completed but students and faculty were yet to move in. I liked the architecture then too, and marveled similarly at the bounty of light and the carving into the interior of the building to create the atriums. But seeing it a second time, now with devoted library and gallery and studio spaces, and the small details completed, the building really sings.
Some of the details and aesthetics have become more refined, with the pristine white walls of the gallery spaces and the lavish look of the gold ceiling on the ground floor contrasted by the industrial feel of the exposed concrete and the thick steel cables holding up the mezzanine. Upstairs I swooned at the marble walls—marble walls!—but also at the patina that seems to remain everywhere. I think there will be more opportunities to really customize this building: to add color and whimsy. But to the design and construction team's credit, the renovation didn't make everything bright and shiny.
One can view the new PNCA buildings in a lot of different ways: a comparison between the school's old converted-warehouse headquarters versus this re-imagined historic building; a comparison between Cloepfil and Allied Works' W+K building to this one, each a transformative renovation; as a consideration of a changing North Park Blocks and Old Town; as an under-utilized and diminished old Beaux-Arts building becoming a work of modern architecture; or as an addition to Portland's already substantial array of civic spaces, both buildings and park.
It is all these things at once, and yet it is also a space that makes you want to stop contemplating and just stay in the moment, as the light pours in and the occupants pursue creativity as means of artistry or expression or cultural currency. There's lots to talk about with the new PNCA, but the best compliment may be that standing inside makes me want to stop and marvel wordlessly.
It will be interesting to see in the years ahead what this building does for the Pacific Northwest College of Art. How might this re-imagined century-old building shape the artists and creators who come of age inside its walls, and beneath the bathing light of its atrium?