BY BRIAN LIBBY
Since its founding in 1999, Skylab Architecture has produced a host of memorable designs both in Portland and beyond, be it restaurants and watering holes like Portland's Doug Fir or Departure Lounge, houses like the local Hoke Residence (made popular by its appearance in one of the Twilight movies), company headquarters like Brooklyn's Flavor Paper, and public buildings like the Columbia Wastewater Treatment Plant in Portland.
But until recently, the firm had never seen completed a major tower that could be seen from afar as part of the city's skyline. (Its signature Weave Building in downtown went unbuilt thanks to the recession.) That will change with Yard, the 21-story mixed-use residential and commercial building under construction at the east end of the Burnside Bridge and due to open next year. Although not downtown, upon completion it will occupy a prominent position on the skyline, helping to extend the downtown core across the river. And like all of Skylab's work, Yard has a blend of clean-lined design, space-age cool, and a sense of kinetic energy. The building has an angular, almost origami-like triangular geometry, particularly at its base.
Recently I talked with Skylab Architecture founder Jeff Kovel about the project: how it was conceived, how it will transform its immediate area, and what it means to the firm. Kovel will also be part of a public talk with Randy Gragg and the leaders of Works Partnership Architecture about the Burnside Bridgehead on October 12.
Portland Architecture: How does it feel to have a building that, while not downtown, will really be part of Portland’s skyline?
Jeff Kovel: The bridgehead transplants the scale of downtown across the river. It wouldn’t be a notably tall building downtown but it will be on the east side. It’s one of the first buildings you see when you come down I-5 from the north, and when you come around the bend on I-84. There’s something fascinating about contributing to the visual fabric of the city in this way…. being able to see the project interact with the city from so many vantage points. Architecture and design for me is about contributing in a meaningful way to the discussion and to our built environment. There isn’t a more lasting way to do that then with a building with such presence, permanence, and scale.
And Burnside itself is a gateway too. It’s the only street that touches Southwest, Northwest, Southeast and Northeast.
The gateway aspect of this project was cemented in place by the verticality of the building at 21 stories and the adjacency to the bridge. We studied the form from both directions of the Burnside/Couch couplet and sought the rotated tower as it mimicked a gate valve in plan. We thought the way this softened the approach to the form heightened the gateway moment of the vertical edge. More importantly we hope this building serves to connect the east and west rather than demarking their borders.
Could you talk about the challenge of working at this greater scale? Or is it really the same as doing a smaller building?
It’s been really fun… getting to play with bigger toys. This is our first building with a tower crane and concrete formwork trays. Utilizing these elements impacted the process of designing the building. We were able to switch the structural grid around and make a design that had the insight of the construction system integrated into it. This helped cross the pricing hurdle and get the project into development. On the one hand it’s nice to tackle new challenges, but to be able to transform those learnings into insights that help realize a more dramatic scheme or just realize the project at all is exciting.
How did you win the commission?
It’s been a really interesting process. We were working on a concept for the Templeton building. We had a grant from the city to look at it as a music venue. While that was in process, PDC sent out the RFP for the Burnside Bridgehead. We didn’t have enough parking for our site, so we thought we could take a swing at some of the land under the bridge. The idea was to connect the two sides under the bridge. We were fortunate PDC selected us as a participant. We had indicated interest for about 8,000-10,000 square feet of land. In the end, we were asked to look at the whole 36,000-square foot block. This was a big moment between us and Key Development. We hadn’t built anything together yet. We were getting to know each other through looking at the Templeton. We set down this path when it was the recession. It didn’t seem like a full city block project would make sense on the east side at that time. We studied half and quarter blocks. But the preferred solution emerged as a one full-block scheme. And by the time we’d come to that conclusion the market was there in a strong way. This project is a convergence of people and career paths. For Jeff and Key, it’s their first project in Portland. For Skylab, it’s our largest constructed to date. There’s a lot of passion from both sides to make it the best building we can make it.
Could you talk about curating businesses for the building the mix of skills beyond architecture that a project like this needs to be successful?
Skylab has always tried to be a little bit unconventional in terms of how we approach our projects and where the boundaries might be. We’re often ideating and expanding the program and bringing relationships to the table so it might be different than without us. That’s important here with a neighborhood of tenants. We’re designing some amenities in-house and helping create the brands. We are also involved in the tenant discussions. It’s a very collaborative process, maybe not in the typical architectural way. It’s a more holistic approach to design and development.
How did the design evolve over time? And how much did your unbuilt tower downtown on Burnside, the Weave Building, influence this one?
It’s a really complex site. It’s in an industrial area, traditionally. That’s evolving now. But when we were designing it, Eastside Exchange hadn’t started. With the skate park, the site being 30 feet below the bridge, and the Pacific Coast Fruit trucks across 2nd Ave, it was a tall ask to bring people to live on this site.
You were asking about the Weave. I think that had a very innovative rooftop garden solution. It was small but innovative in the sense that the city agreed we could use it to store, and filter the water. That led to the Columbia building, a much more deep exploration of green roofs and stormwater management. It’s a really significant building for us. Out of that, this scheme evolved. We thought what if conceptually we took the whole parking lot and made it a park? The goal was to retain as much of that greenscape as possible as the project progressed. By lifting the park up to the bridge level and tilting it, it acted as a stormwater management device. We saw it as a metaphor to the riverbank before we populated the city and turned it into industrial land: the wild bank that was there, a native vegetative restoration piece. We infilled below the sloping landscape with the parking garage and surrounded its perimeter with pedestrian commercial space, to conceal the above-ground parking. I think everybody knows the challenges with above-ground parking and how that can kill an urban corridor if not done really well.
The main tower is placed diagonally against the street grid. What was the thinking there?
We had proposed a certain composition, almost like a donut with commercial, parking, and rooftop garden. Then we went down a long exercise of trying to place the tower. Conventional wisdom says it needs to orient orthogonally with the grid of the parking. We were having a hard time with that on this site. Because of the small units, studios and one-bedrooms and a few two-bedrooms, the floor plates aren’t very wide. Typically you’d see an L-shaped building or two bars. We didn’t find that very interesting. The bar either had north-facing units that didn’t get natural daylight or an east-west façade, which would be bad from an energy impact point of view. By going diagonally, we could make the bar longer and fit more units per floor, and allowed the north views to get morning light. They’re north and northeastern. They get morning light from the east. The west is actually facing southwest. That means all of the units face the peak of the city to the river. It’s really powerful what that does. So that was sort of the big epiphany: the diagonal move. And we lifted up the tower so the garden could flower underneath and create amenity space. That’s what we took to design review.
How about the challenge of creating foot traffic and energy at a spot where traditionally there hasn’t been much?
There was some interesting dialogue in Design Review, primarily around the nature of the rooftop amenity space. By putting it at level five instead of level 21 and putting it on display, would it feel right that this was a private space? We all agreed we’d like it to be a piece of the public fabric. But how do you manage that in a private dwelling? By placing businesses there, they’d be responsible for managing the clientele. It’s open to the public, but there are people actively running it. So we moved a restaurant space up there, a bar, a meeting space, and what we call the hot springs; it’s like an Oregon version of a Turkish bathhouse. That piece came out of dialog with Design Review, the idea of activating the podium roof publicly.
The other piece of Design Review we wound up negotiating: they wanted us to address the Second Avenue corner more than we had planned at that time. So we wound up proposing a canopy and an elevated sidewalk. That’s now going to be a restaurant space.
We started thinking: This site was disconnected by the couplet. How could we connect to it and the Burnside Bridge? We identified this sliver, Block 76 west, the portion cut off by the couplet. We started rendering a building there. The idea was the landscaped roof [of the tower podium] would touch down there. That would become the gateway to our site. We had a lot of positive feedback from the Design Review committee. Everybody got excited about the ideas. The development team negotiated an agreement to purchase that site. We went to a full city block plus an 8,000-square foot adjacent site.
Why the adjacent site too?
I think our proposal is progressive from a development point of view. We have 20,000 square feet of commercial space in an arguably disconnected spot from foot traffic. To me there’s this idea of critical mass. If you are doing that much, maybe more is the right solution, so you’re not asking these businesses to survive as islands. The building across the street is 20,000 square feet of additional commercial space, for a total of 40,000. Which has a scale that with the other buildings there, it’s a real neighborhood. Even more significant than putting something on the skyline may be putting together a new neighborhood. I think that’s very much our intention, to make this feel native to this place. And the topography of this on multiple blocks, it’s an unusual opportunity to do this, especially with a private developer. And if you go back and read the Bridgehead Framework plan, that was part of our consciousness. The Couch Street couplet evolved out of that, and that’s part of this folded landscape down to Second Avenue. But there was a lot of discussion of developing multiple levels and connecting across with skywalks and creating a progressive approach to the urban landscape. This was part of the drop to the riverbank, with these unusual vertical alignments with the bridge. I feel like a lot of that made it into this: we’ve essentially created a new landscape that’s going to be an amenity for the city.
Didn’t the Big Pipe project also affect the building? Could you talk about the physical challenges of the site?
The design of this building is very site specific. The Big Pipe runs diagonally under this site. Ironically it ends at our Columbia project. Here it became quite challenging structurally. We had to rotate the tower pretty deep into the process once more to get the deep foundations off the pipe. Our solution, it’s extremely well aligned with the site factors, and they make for this sort of eventful architecture, that in a conventional approach would have really struggled. You couldn’t have built an L-shaped tower or an east-west bar because of that. So there was a nice alignment there. In this case the unusual aspect of the site created an interesting building. The most difficult aspect of the project we turned into its’ biggest advantage.
There’s quite a cool foundation under here where the pilings of the building are diagonally driven back, because the soils drop off into the river underground in a way that’s unsupportive. We had essentially a cantilevered foundation just for one part of the building. The foundation of this project is really an incredible feat. You have a square site that in one direction the soils are falling off and then the pipe is slicing through that diagonally. It made for an incredibly inventive solution that was necessary to solve that problem. KPFF did that.
Will the building be welcoming when you approach it below like it is when you enter from MLK Boulevard?
The epiphany is when you come out from under the fabricated hill and emerge onto the city-facing roof deck. We’ve created this covered walkway that is focused on The US Bank Tower and the Portland Oregon sign. As you get to the western edge, we flare the building wall to the south and the cityscape emerges. It’s this incredibly powerful experience. I’m really excited for this to be available to the community, and to craft it out of thin air.