BY BRIAN LIBBY
Since he first gained notoriety in 2009 with the Z-Haus, a Northeast Portland rowhouse in which the central stairway became an ingenious organizing point for several half-level rooms, architect Ben Waechter has shown uncommon vision and creativity designing houses. The architect, who began his career working under legendary Italian architect Renzo Piano and later for celebrated local architect Brad Cloepfil, has a way of creating houses that are rooted in strong visual ideas and exquisitely rendered detail.
So I trusted Waechter when he took an even more unique approach: a house based on a medieval tower.
When designing homes to will sell quickly on the open real estate market, as Waechter did with the Z-Haus and his new Tower House (his wife is a realtor), few architects would look to this kind of historic architecture as inspiration. After all, we associate such medieval towers with military fortification: tall, mostly cylindrical and largely windowless stone edifices from which troops could protectively shoot their arrows against invaders. What could this possibly have to do with a little plot off Cornell Road?
But for Waechter, the challenge of a small, steeply sloping parcel with only a small shelf of flat land from which to build made this historical form a valid inspiration. So the three-story Tower House rises from down its back slope, connecting to the street via a pedestrian bridge on its third floor. One enters the house through the kitchen and dining room at this middle level; a living room is on the fourth floor and bedrooms are stashed below, on bottom two floors.
But it isn’t just that Waechter designed a four-story house shaped cylindrically like a tower. It also feels fortified as if the house, like its medieval antecedent, were made of thick walls. The architect placed the home’s stairway (as well as bathrooms and closets) along the perimeter, circumscribing each floor's one main living space, making the façade almost like a thick sleeve. Contrasting these white and grey interstitial spaces, the main interior rooms are clad with white oak floors and cabinetry, giving off an added sense of warmth.
Yet through the tower’s thick façade there are generous framed openings and connections to the outside, flooding the interior with light. On each level, for example, Waechter created small outdoor spaces. Yet instead of hanging the space off the exterior facade, they are carved out from the interior, utilizing the same interstitial space as the stairway – thereby maintaining the simple visual integrity of the tower form.
To complete the sense of the exterior as one continuous sleeve, the architect used black vertical corrugated steel with rounded corners that eliminated the need for corner trim. Corrugated metal often can look cheap as an exterior cladding, but Waechter believes this often comes not from the metal surface itself but its often-clunky trim. On the tower house, this corrugation feels like a much more elegant material, perhaps even like fabric.
But Waechter doesn’t need a bold spec house to exercise these design principles. A recent visit to another of his recently completed houses revealed many of these same approaches, only applied to a more modest existing-home transformation for a private client.
The Oakley House’s client sought a larger house than the small cottage on its site, but with little room to expand on its compact lot, Waechter’s new house stuck to the original 28-by-28-foot foundation. Added space was created by cantilevering the top floor in both front and back.
Similarly to the Tower House’s loggias, the front and back porches here feel not like an add-on but instead carved out from the larger form. Waechter again used corrugated metal that’s wrapped around the corners, creating a gentle curve that humanizes what could have otherwise been a monolithic feel.
Perhaps most boldly of all, the top floor in front is completely windowless. But inside, be it upstairs (via many side windows) or downstairs (with floor-to-ceiling glass in front and back), spaces are teeming with natural light. Like the Tower House, here the main living-dining area is festooned all around with wood, with matching wall paneling, flooring and windows. Waechter even raised the entrance to the side stairway by a step, so as to further complete this aesthetic sense of being enveloped by wood with only a few designated openings.
Whether it’s a bolder spec home like the Tower House or as applied to a modest scale like the Oakley House, there is never, at least for me, any doubt about a Ben Waechter design when I see it. His architecture never stands out for its own sake, yet the degree to which his designs remain rooted in a strong, clear idea is always special, as is the distinction he creates through materiality between primary and secondary architectural spaces.
Waechter’s work can feel like a reinvention of traditional architectural forms even as he works from within those confines. This is architecture that’s pristine as sculpture, yet the architect never wavers from designing residences from the inside out - function rooted in form.
I can’t help but wonder what this exceptionally talented architect would do with a larger commission, especially a public building like a museum, courthouse or library. Yet staying true to houses and small retail projects may also suit Waechter equally well: like a jeweler in a world of rock pickers.